Why cities should be fully recognized stakeholders within the UN system

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Andràs Szörényi, Senior Policy Advisor , Geneva Cities Hub, Pauline Leroy, Communications Officer, Geneva Cities Hub


  • Urbanization is the defining trend of our century, yet cities have no opportunity to shape national and international agreements.
  • The Geneva Cities Hub, established in 2020, seeks to change this dynamic by connecting cities to the international community.
  • Local and regional governments need to be fully recognized as stakeholders within the UN system and beyond to affect change.

Cities and their networks have risen on the international scene in the past decades as urban populations have increased dramatically. Cities have become more vocal on issues such as climate change, migration, and international conflict, as these challenges are increasingly impacting urban areas.

What’s more, innovative solutions to these problems are being invented in cities. And yet, despite their outsized contribution to the global economy and social development, cities have very few opportunities to engage in global decision-making and governance. They are not recognized stakeholders at the United Nations, and mayors are rarely afforded an international stage.

For these reasons, the Geneva Cities Hub recently attended the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos to advocate for more substantial and institutional involvement of local and regional governments in global policy-making.

Cities play a key role in successful policy-making

The Geneva Cities Hub – established in 2020 by the City and Canton of Geneva, with the support of the Swiss Confederation – enables cities and local governments to connect with Geneva-based international actors and amplify their voices.

Acknowledging cities as international actors is not just a good thing to do; it’s critical to developing policies that stand a chance of implementation.

When goals are announced and solutions are devised without the input of those in charge of implementation, unanticipated challenges inevitably arise. In short, including cities is critical to ensuring that decisions are practicable.

The Geneva Cities Hub has thus been empowered to facilitate the participation of cities in relevant multilateral processes in the Swiss city and beyond. We follow several of those and identify where the contribution of cities is relevant.

We then work with states and international organizations to open these processes up and liaise with local governments to support their engagement.

Cities can help deliver on UN SDGs

Why should cities have standing on the international stage? Many local initiatives help central governments fulfil their international obligations. That is expressed by the concept of ‘localizing the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs).

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put forward “Our Common Agenda” to share the vision of inclusive and effective multilateralism.

That requires the inputs of all levels of government and a multistakeholder approach, where civil society, the private sector, nations, and cities are involved.

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That also means that local and regional governments should be more than implementers – they should be given the opportunity to contribute to decision-making too.

Cities offer solutions closest to their people. Their best practices could be codified at the global level – be it on climate change adaptation, plastic pollution reduction, or a zero-carbon future.

Some multilateral entities already successfully involve cities: more than 200 cities were present at COP27 in Egypt; the UN Economic Commission for Europe’s Forum of Mayors allowed more than 50 mayors to share best practices in front of UN Member States in Geneva; the World Economic Forum has a truly multistakeholder approach involving mayors in several high-impact projects.

Cities not yet fully recognized as stakeholders

However, the UN does not yet fully recognize cities as stakeholders. They should be given a more consistent consultative role on all issues with local relevance. Their involvement in policy-making processes would make the whole-of-society approach a reality.

They could participate directly or indirectly in reporting mechanisms on the achievement of the SDGs, on the protection of human rights or on climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. Decision-making in the UN would be more inclusive, and decisions would be better implemented if cities were given a seat at the table.

For example, human rights are mainly implemented at the local level. Therefore, it is relevant for cities and other local and regional governments to contribute to the Human Rights Council and the Universal Periodic Review process.

Other examples include the World Health Organization and its work on urban health and on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Or the United Nations Environment Programme and the process on a new international agreement on plastic pollution, where cities have a big role to play.

Smart city – or rather global village – development has only just begun to show real impact.

Cities should be more involved in UN processes

The Geneva Cities Hub engages with stakeholders on all the topics mentioned above: sustainable development, human rights, urban health, plastic pollution and smart cities.

Being very familiar with the UN system while standing on its margins enables us to increase participation of local and regional governments while putting more emphasis on key urban issues and actors in UN processes.

Discover

How is the World Economic Forum improving the future of cities?

The World Economic Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Urban Transformation advances public-private collaboration in cities, enabling more resilient and future-ready communities and local economies.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

At the UN, the Geneva Cities Hub believes that local and regional governments should be granted specific status so that they may participate in multilateral meetings in their own capacity.

We will continue to work in that direction and be the key interlocuter in Geneva for cities to discuss and solve global challenges. Our 10-year vision is for local and regional governments to be fully recognized as stakeholders within the UN and beyond, to be able to contribute to and safeguard our global commons.

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