Global governance of cities

Civic Action,Inclusive Politics09 Dec 2013Evert-jan Quak

The eyes of the world are on emerging powers. Generally, we consider these to be countries, but other powers are emerging: the world’s megacities.

Countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa have been hitting the headlines for many years now. Their economies are booming, thanks to export-oriented policies, while their domestic markets generate huge opportunities for international corporations. However, we should not only refer to countries when we talk about emerging powers, as the world’s megacities have been gaining more power than national states in recent years.

This is the message of Benjamin Barber’s book As Mayors Rule the World. Barber is a political theorist at City University in New York and author of the bestseller Jihad vs. McWorld (1995). During his lecture at the Society for International Development (SID) in Amsterdam he explained why the world should embrace the opportunities presented by emerging megacities.

Failing national governments

In today’s global world of interdependencies, national states are failing. With the rationale of the international economy increasingly global, national boundaries are fading away. It is cities that are taking the greatest advantage of this situation as, unlike countries, they are ‘unburdened with the issues of borders and sovereignty which hobble the capacity of nation-states to work with one another’.

As the world faces global challenges on climate change, food security, inequality, and international crime and terrorism, Barber argues that struggling nation states will not provide us with solutions. The challenges are too big for them, as international agreements directly influence their national sovereignty. Cities have the future in a globalized world and are more suited to solving our global challenges.

For the future of democracy it is essential to give cities more power, also at international level, says Barber. Half of the world’s population live in cities and all indicators show that this will increase significantly in the years to come. They should therefore have a greater voice in democratic decision-making. Furthermore, city governments are fundamentally pragmatic and not ideologically minded in their efforts to solve the day-to-day problems. They do of course have different opinions on how best to run their cities, but they feel much more the urge to solve the problems facing their citizens. National politicians are more ideologically divided and decision-making can be stalled for a long time, while local authorities do not have that ‘privilege’ as the consequences of their actions will be direct and visible (dirty streets, no refuse collection, no police on the streets, etc.).

According to Barber, the level of trust in national politicians is declining all over the world. For local authorities this is much more stable and at a higher level. Furthermore, there is less corruption in cities because the governance structure is much more transparent. In Barber’s view, since declining trust in national politicians could put democracy in danger, cities have an essential role to play in rescuing democracy in a globalizing world.

Cities to work together on international level

In his provocative message, Barber is very positive that city mayors would not make the same errors as national politicians if they had to deal with global issues. His optimism is based on the pressure they feel to continue solving local problems by using the global agenda rather than starting an ideological debate. Barber beliefs that city mayors will be understood by the citizens of the city as they understand that the world’s problems have no boundaries and that we have to learn from each other. The best way to do that is for cities to work together at global level. This will directly feed into needs and problems at local level and will not necessarily distract the attention of municipal governments from local issues.

The world needs rebel cities that dare to go further when their national politicians are not listening. Barber gives an example. Cities are the source of 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases. The C-40 is a network of global cities that are addressing this problem. Where national leaders cannot agree on curbing the increase in greenhouse gases, it is the cities that are taking the lead. According to Barber they are on track to reduce CO2 emissions by 248 million tons by 2020 – the equivalent of the current CO2 emissions of Portugal and Argentina combined.

Barber acknowledges that lots of answers still have to be found on important questions like how cities have to deal with competition, their internal democratic structures, and how to distinguish the power of megacities with smaller cities and suburban areas. However, the main message is interesting and deserves attention. Can the world really deal better with globalization and the problems it generates if cities become more powerful and take the lead? Are horizontalism and pragmatic interdependence the answer to today’s problems? And can cities deliver on that?