If the VLR movement wants to speed up the transition to sustainable development pathways, it is worth asking: how can VLRs amplify local sustainability?
VLRs provide a bird’s eye view on the working of local governments, helping to find synergies between existing strategies, identify policy gaps, and create partnerships with multiple stakeholders.
VLRs hold the power to amplify local sustainability by encouraging cross-sectoral collaboration within local administrations.
By Fernando Ortiz-Moya, Yatsuka Kataoka, and Junichi Fujino, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES)
The 2021 High-level Political Forum (HLPF) consolidated the prime role of VLRs (Voluntary Local Reviews) in localizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A record number of local governments – 17 cites –presented a 2021 VLR by July 2021 according to UN-Habitat. By comparison, 26 VLRs were published in 2020. VLRs have also gained broader recognition: they were mentioned in the Voluntary National Reviews of countries such as Japan and Germany, and were referred to for the first time in the Ministerial Declaration that was adopted at the conclusion of the 2021 HLPF.
Even amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic, local governments have continued their commitment to the VLR movement. If the VLR movement wants to speed up the transition to sustainable development pathways, it is worth asking: how can VLRs amplify local sustainability?
From Reporting to Action
The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) has published a new report examining the group of VLRs published in 2020 (as identify by the authors). Titled ‘From Reporting to Action: State of the Voluntary Local Reviews 2021,’ the report is the second volume of an annual series putting into perspective the progress of the VLR movement. The report analyzes the VLR reports across three themes. First, the influence of the VLR process on governance structures. Second, the integration between the VLR and the Voluntary National Review (VNR). Finally, the measures implemented by cities, and listed in their VLRs, in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. We also held discussions with representatives from 12 cities about the benefits of conducting a VLR, which gave us first-hand information on the internal dynamics of different VLR processes and offered insights into the benefits of VLRs. Thus, the review of the VLR reports published in 2020 alongside the conversations with cities, indicates possible paths forward relevant for local governments preparing to launch a VLR by the HLPF in 2022.
Throughout our conversations with cities, it came to light that a VLR helps local authorities to make sense of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While the SDGs direct efforts towards a more inclusive development model for leaving no one behind, localization of the goals can sometimes seem an unsurmountable task, especially for local governments with limited resources and staff. To deliver the SDGs, it is important to maximize the impact of local actions with policies that simultaneously effect social, economic and ecological change.
This is where the VLR becomes most useful. VLRs provide a bird’s eye view on the working of local governments, helping to find synergies between existing strategies, identify policy gaps, and create partnerships with multiple stakeholders. For example, La Paz remarked that the VLR turns the SDGs into a compass to guide municipal planning toward 2030. São Paulo stressed that the VLR integrates existing policies and pushes them to go further to amplify their impact.
Another recurrent topic was that through a VLR, local governments commit to long-term strategic policymaking. Many VLRs underscore the need for a more periodical review of their work, and as such, this departs from the previously dominant view of the VLR as a one-time report. Los Angeles emphasized that “the real benefit of the VLR comes from the process rather than the product itself.” Buenos Aires, which published its third consecutive VLR at HLPF 2021, noted how the VLR process intertwines the vision for the city with policymaking in a way that marks the path to follow.
But even as cities are exploring ways to use the VLR to improve their SDG governance structure, the reports of the 2020 group of VLRs expose a weak integration between national and local reviews. With notable exceptions, such as in Finland and Japan, VLRs did not play any substantial role in national reviews. This seems to be improving, as witnessed in the growing recognition of VLRs during HLPF 2021. Japan’s VNR, for instance, reflected the four VLRs presented by Japanese cities before 2020.
VLRs to Amplify Local Sustainability
There are as many forms of VLRs as local governments conducting them. VLRs are no longer simply a means for local governments to report on SDG progress. VLRs are a tool to shape local action for global impact. As Espoo noted, a VLR is an attitude to sustainable development encouraging learning, both about your own city and from others, and thus clarifying internal sustainable development needs and helping to elucidate solutions.
VLRs hold the power to amplify local sustainability by encouraging cross-sectoral collaboration within local administrations. The holistic lens provided by the SDGs, as operationalized through a VLR, maximizes internal coordination while finding overlapping policies working towards a similar objective. This exercise makes more efficient the work of cities while realigning budgets to better cover actions towards the 17 SDGs. Barcelona observed that in advancing cooperation between departments, the VLR also fostered a sense of purpose for staff working in different departments, as it illuminates a greater goal underneath individual efforts.
More importantly, VLRs are creating new sustainable visions and narratives. There is a widely recognized need to reach out to as many people as possible to solidify sustainable development. A VLR talks and engages with the local and global community, making cities more accountable to their citizens. Bristol highlighted how its VLR provided a platform to speak to traditionally underrepresented social groups. Ghent hinted at how the VLR tells stories touching the minds and the hearts of people.
However, the recent upsurge on VLRs needs to be considered with caution. Despite the growing number of cities joining the VLR movement, there are important barriers hampering its widespread adoption. Talking to cities, we learnt that access to data, strong political support from the mayor, and a dedicated team of people are all elements that influence the development of the VLR process. When first pondering whether to conduct a VLR, it might be more important to focus on the benefits rather than on the obstacles.
The fact that cities have reaffirmed their commitment to the SDGs even during an unprecedented event such as the COVID-19 pandemic is encouraging. The VLRs’ cross-cutting nature helps to channel recovery efforts into effective actions to better alleviate the socioeconomic aftermath of the pandemic in a sustainable and just manner.
In setting up an ideal vision for 2030 and delineating a concrete pathway towards that vision, a VLR can be instrumental in envisioning post-COVID-19 recovery plans or more transformative climate actions. Such a forward-looking approach, we believe, will be key to amplify local sustainability.