Second Sphere: Ensuring urbanisation is sustainable

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 20 - 26, 2016.


At certain intervals, the international community will come up with a brilliant policy, which if properly executed, can really make the world a better place. Our federal government has said that Malaysia has, and will continue, to play an active role in this regard.

There was a time when we actually took an active role, in fact a key role, in several international initiatives. But today, the international community sees us doing less. Our role should not be limited to the involvement of ministers or senior officials at inter-ministerial and governmental meetings.

In an international community that has become more complex, the role of other stakeholders — the business sector and civil society — is becoming more important than ever. But sometimes, the government does not full-heartedly welcome them, especially civil society. This must change.

I make this observation based on my international roles in the past, and the current United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDG), adopted in September 2015. The SDG replaces the Millennium Development Goals 2015 (MDG). The SDG calls on countries to begin efforts to achieve 17 goals, which, according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, “are our shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world leaders and the people. They are a to-do list for the people and planet, and a blueprint for success”.

The experience in implementing the MDG shows that achieving many goals depends on the positive collaboration of all stakeholders, with the actors at the level nearest to the people — the cities and local governments — playing an important role.

According to the World Cities Report 2016 published by UN Habitat, 54% of the world’s population (70% by 2050) live in cities, which generate 80% of global GDP. But the growth of the world’s cities is dependent on a culture of short-term economic benefit and often unbridled consumption and production practices that compromise the sustainability of development. Today, 75% of the world’s cities have higher levels of income inequality than two decades ago.

That is why the SDG has a dedicated list of goals on cities (Goal 11) that aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

Cities and local governments create wealth, generate employment and drive human progress. They are also hubs of innovation and can generate novel solutions for the achievement of the SDG through local action, leadership and the ability to develop effective local partnerships. Thus, it is of utmost importance that the role of cities and local governments be discussed and shared with regard to the selected targets under Goal 11 and other goals (of the SDG) relevant to urban issues.

One platform that discussed these matters was the “International Forum on Urban Policy for the SDG”, co-organised by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, CityNet and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, held in Seoul from June 8 to 10.

The aim was to analyse the role of cities and local governments in sustainable urban development vis-à-vis Goal 11 (and other related SDG goals). The discussion covered various themes, including SDG and local governments, sustainable urban infrastructure and management (including housing, transport, innovation, e-government, social economy and environment), the implementation of the SDG and monitoring and evaluation systems.

The forum concluded with the adoption of the “Seoul Communique on Urban Policy for the SDG”, which stated five principles in implementing policies for the sustainable development of cities:

•    The role of local government leadership and integrated planning.

•    Citizen participation is at the heart of sustainable urban development.

•    Smart planning for sustainable and inclusive urban development.

•    Multilevel partnerships promote implementation.

•    Knowledge sharing among cities.

 The Seoul communique will be presented at the Third Session of the Preparatory Committee for the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) to be convened in Quito, Ecuador, in October.

Habitat III is expected to come up with a “New Urban Agenda” with an urban paradigm shift. It will, among other things, highlight equitable access to physical and social infrastructure; recognise and leverage culture, diversity and safety in cities; enable and strengthen people participation; inclusive and sustainable urban economies; enabling business environment, jobs and livelihoods; and resilience to disasters and climate change.

On the local scene, the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), as the lead government agency, is expected to hold meetings on the SDG. As for Pakatan Harapan, we will play a role at every level in strengthening the people’s participation in the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the SDG in Malaysia.

We may form an MP Caucus on SDG. In the states where we are govern — Penang and Selangor — we will definitely play a leading role at the state and local government levels. In Penang, for example, the state government has sponsored a gender-responsive and participatory budgeting programme. In Selangor, the state government is motivating local councils to move towards smart cities. Besides that, think tank Institut Darul Ehsan (IDE) has prepared a paper on local government reform to be presented to the state government.

“No one shall be left behind, no city shall be left behind” — that is what the Seoul communique is all about.

Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah is chief secretary of Pakatan Harapan and former deputy minister of Higher Education. He is active on twitter: @saifuddinabd.