The Decade of Action: Cities Humanizing SDGs

We are 10 years away from delivering the 2030 sustainable development Agenda. Yet, the pace of progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is slower than sought. In January 2020 and in an attempt to expedite progress, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres inaugurated the ‘Decade of Action’. The Decade is built on three levels of action: global action, local action, and people action.

Weeks after, the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the globe and magnified pressure on achieving all SDGs across borders. While human well-being lies at the heart of the sustainable development Agenda, the global extreme poverty rate is projected to be 8.4-8.8% in 2020, which is close to the level in 2017. This means that an estimated 40-60 million of people may be pushed back into extreme poverty, causing the first increase in global poverty in more than 20 years. This alone can shake most – if not all – of the SDGs targets across the globe.


Experts and reports are highlighting this marked poverty increase along with the following important consequences as priorities that we all need to understand and tackle: women and girls suffer the most economic shocks, around 90% of children are affected by school closures and associated stoppage of nutritional supplements and vaccines, inequalities of all types are amplified, hunger rate is increasing, and climate honeymoon might be shorter than expected. It is time to identify those left behind and ways to mobilize local actors to take the lead towards a global sustainable recovery.

Why Cities?

Cities are vital engines for economic growth and social welfare. Cities that plan, manage, and maintain hard and soft infrastructure services offer tremendous opportunities for poverty reduction and human prosperity. Within the sustainable development framework, Cities can drive the transformation needed to achieve the SDGs and more importantly stimulate local action for strong, healthy, and just societies.

Why SDGs Framework?

The evolving risks and challenges associated with hard and soft infrastructures, social cohesion and safety, climate change, and migration; create new complexity for local governments. SDGs can be the common language and comprehensive framework for understanding and tackling development challenges.

While the SDGs overarching principles and objectives are unified across the globe, they allow for a lot of innovation by Cities in response to their complex and localized needs. Innovation is triggered by endless synergies and interlinkages between the different SDGs to optimize solutions that address more than one priority. Moreover, fiscal constraints that most Cities face are triggers for innovation and deployment of technologies that would further contribute to economic recovery and social justice.

Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs)

A Voluntary Local Review (VLR) is a tool for local governments to report their progress on SDGs. In 2018, New York City launched the first Voluntary Local Review as a way to localize the reporting of SDG progress. They define VLR as a tangible product for engaging citizens, peer cities, and the global community around the SDGs.

However, the journey turned out to be as valuable as the destination. The VLR process stimulated collaboration between various line institutions on data collection and analysis, mapping local progress, and raising awareness among relevant staff members. Such momentum continued beyond the completion of the report demonstrating other significant outputs from VLRs.

The VLR is also a practical platform to publicize knowledge and information and promote transparency and accountability as core sustainability values.

Unlike the Voluntary National Review (VNR), the VLR – to date – has no official status at the UN. Therefore, there are no formal processes or standards in place for producing a VLR, leaving the door open for each City to create and customize a VLR to its own needs and priorities.

Cities Leading The Way

Cities like New York and Helsinki are pioneering the marsh towards SDGs implementation. Many Cities from all around the globe are joining the movement through various networks and platforms. Smaller Cities with limited resources and less visibility are taking small but solid steps on the same path. While VLRs are meant to report on progress, they also provide the right context for collective dialogue and agreement on priorities, targets, and Key Performance Indicators.


Some of the commitments reported by New York City in its VLR include: reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 by pursuing steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from buildings, and by sourcing 100% clean electricity, while creating green jobs and holding polluters responsible for climate-related costs; finding ways to beneficially reuse 100% of the City’s biosolids by 2030, so these investments would contribute to both renewable energy and zero landfill goals; and several other commitments related to environment, health and financial inclusiveness. The VLR defines 10 KPIs to track progress on SDGs targets.

The city of Helsinki, on the other hand, values sustainability as a driver for being renown as a global innovation hub. Its VLR puts quality education and decent work and economic growth on the top of the list, in addition to several other targets that would contribute to achieving the City’s vision.

A close-up on our part of the world, and specifically on Jordan, reflects a spectrum of initiatives by the city of Amman and a few other Cities. Amman joined several networks and platforms to strengthen and promote its clean energy, low Carbon, and resilience strategies. Other important players, such as the Cities and Villages Development Bank, are embarking into the sustainability field to enable stronger action by local municipalities. On a smaller scale, Sahab City is demonstrating real leadership in the transformation towards sustainability.

Sahab suffers a poverty rate of 54%. Its total area is 12 Km², where around 75 thousand Jordanian Citizens are living within this limited area in addition to another 40,000 Syrian refugees. The City is home to two of the largest industrial zones in the Kingdom and is combating several environmental challenges. Despite the limited resources available for Cities like Sahab, it is emerging as a role model in designing and kickstarting the implementation of clean energy (energy efficiency and renewable energy) strategy. Driven by its team’s passion and commitment, Sahab joined the Covenant of Mayors initiative that aims to support and engage Cities and Towns to reaching energy and climate targets.

Big or small, Cities are the collective DNA for SDGs. Through putting Cities and their interactions in the front seat, we humanize the SDGs framework and bring it closer to local issues and actors. It cannot be timelier to leverage the SDGs framework to create and foster partnerships and collaboration among people and institutions to co-create and implement common sustainable development plans.  

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About Ruba Al-Zu'bi

Ruba Al Zubi is a Sustainability Policy and Governance Advisor/Expert. She is a staunch advocate for policy-enabled action and has gained a unique experience in the areas of policy and planning, institutional development, sustainability mainstreaming into economic sectors, donor relations and research and innovation management. She recently served as Advisor to the President for Science Policy and Programme Development, Royal Scientific Society (RSS – Jordan). Prior to that, Ruba led the Scientific Research Department at Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, served as the first Policy Director at the Ministry of Environment, established and led several departments at the Development and Free Zones Commission, and served as the Chief Executive Officer of EDAMA Association for Energy, Water and Environment. In the nonprofit world, Al Zubi is a Plus Social Good Advisor with the United Nations Foundation and a Founding Member of Jordan Green Building Council. She is a global volunteer, mentor, speaker and blogger.

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