Q&A: In conversation with Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic

Sonal Marwah

Ploughshares Program Officer Sonal Marwah recently met with Mayor Vrbanovic to discuss his involvement in the new Sustainable Development Goals. He is Treasurer of United Cities & Local Governments and is President Emeritus (2011-12) of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 3 Autumn 2016

Sonal Marwah: What is the role of local governments in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

Berry Vrbanovic: The United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) based in Barcelona has been the voice of local governments in various forms for a long time. They have been doing a lot of the ground work in carving out and developing the role of local governments.

When we reflect on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), one of the things that most people will acknowledge is that one of their downfalls is that they were written at the national level and didn’t really contemplate their implementation at a community or grassroots level. Part of that is because national governments have not been engaging local governments in those discussions. Over the last few years, this in particular has been changing quite significantly and through the work of the UCLG, we were able to get sub-national governments and specifically municipalities recognized as key players in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Often when we talk about local governments, reference is made to Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. But there is a connection between local governments and many of the SDGs, whether we are talking about poverty, good health and well-being, gender equality, or climate action. National governments are coming to appreciate that local governments can help them build support among local communities for the work that needs to be done.

For example, if you look at the climate change file, the reality was that it was our citizens and cities that were ahead of national governments. I remember being at the Copenhagen Accord (2009), where nothing significant was achieved. In the years since, local governments have helped national governments get the support that they need from the broad population to move forward on an agreement. If you talk to people involved at the national level, many will tell you that at the UN summit of 1,000 mayors on climate change held in Paris (2015), our presence helped sway some countries that were not keen on signing on for various reasons.

SM: Given the integrated nature of the SDG agenda, these goals will require a multi-stakeholder response and the involvement of different levels of government. What is the role of municipalities?

BV: Municipalities have a role to play in the whole SDG framework. We need to work at an advocacy and implementation level. Also, depending on which goal we’re talking about, the role will change. For example, municipalities cannot tackle climate action because they lack financial resources. But research has shown that municipalities are directly and indirectly responsible for a large share of greenhouse gas emissions. So municipalities will have to be involved in policies and active in the solutions. Something like ending hunger in Canada is not a municipal responsibility directly; it is more of a federal one.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) are part of UCLG. They are implementing the Goals but do not necessarily link their work back to the SDGs. But it is necessary to connect the dots between the different institutions.

It is also important to build awareness of the SDGs among local governments for two reasons. First, Canadian citizens must understand that the SDGs are not just about Canada and what’s important for Canada, but they are relevant because of commitments that Canada has made as part of the global family. Second, the federal government is taking a more engaged stance on these kinds of initiative and laying out the role that Canada should play through global organizations such as the United Nations. So there is a place for local governments to support our federal government and an opportunity to educate our citizens on why this is important, partially in terms of our own Canadian context and what this means in terms of global peace and stability.

SM: What is the type of coordination between the different levels of governments in implementing the SDGs in Canada?

BV: Coordination is still very much a work in progress. There is quite some anticipation that Habitat III1 will lay the groundwork of that relationship between national and local governments in implementation of the SDGs. Because the current Canadian government was elected last November, they have not had ample prep time for the Habitat III process and there have not been the same opportunities for engagement that other countries, such as the United States, have taken with their local governments.

The different goal indicators will be established by the federal governments. As well, there has been increasing dialogue between the federal government and the FCM on a number of files, including the SDG framework.

SM: What does “go local”—the localization of the SDGs—mean in practice?

BV: Really it is looking at each of the goals and having an appreciation of how they relate to each of our communities, how we implement them, and where we want to be in 2030. There is now talk about how the strategic planning for our cities should be broadened to include the 17 SDGs. As we update our strategic plans, I can foresee some SDG language and national priorities working into our local ones.

Certainly each community will have its own set of priorities. For example, inland cities would focus less on concerns related to life under water. But concerns such as education, well-being, and elimination of poverty should be shared by all.

SM: What role do you see for policy research organizations such as Project Ploughshares in the SDG framework?

BV: Nongovernmental organizations, civil society organizations (CSOs), and research organizations are all key because they represent the grassroots. Their active engagement is the only way we can build support to make the SDGs happen—by raising awareness, having conversations, engaging people in healthy debate about development issues.

There is also need for clear metrics to map and measure progress. This is currently being worked on and that’s another one of the objectives of the Habitat III process.

Monitoring needs to involve all stakeholders to ensure accountability at all levels. It has to go both down and up. CSOs need to ensure that their municipal, provincial, and national governments are keeping their word. How is the government doing on commitments to international development aid? Is Canada delivering on its targets? How is Canada faring compared to other countries in the world?
Governments need to ensure that CSOs are doing what they have committed to in that process. Everyone needs to work together to see that the 2030 goals are achieved.


1. The third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development of towns, cities, and other human settlements, both rural and urban, to be held in Quito, Ecuador on 17-20 October 2016.

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