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Emilia Saiz: We can only achieve the future that we dream of by bringing everyone on board

By  Esther Fuldauer

Emilia Saiz is the Secretary General of UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) and has worked with in different capacities in order to promote the participation of women in local decision-making and enhancing the role of local governments in the global stage.

What is the social contract? Does it need to change for the digital age?

The social contract is the answer to the question “how we govern ourselves,” and it is clear that the interconnected world we live in needs a different type of social contract than the one we currently have.

One of the most visionary and attractive global achievements for this urban and digital age is, in my opinion, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To many of us in the municipal movement, this is also the basis of a new social contract, a visionary and ambitious way of prioritizing and governing ourselves that, if successful, can show the best side of humanity, with shared values and universal agendas.

The rights of the people continue to be determined by borders answering to a logic which is far from the day to day realities of the new global citizens.

We need to be able to build based on the 2030 Agenda, which lays the ground for a true transformation of society based on an evolved citizenship. To do so, we need to put citizens at the core of the decision-making process, and we need a new model of global governance that puts the interests of the communities upfront.

The credibility of our system is in question, because in such a connected era, in which our destinies seem to be intertwined with everything else, the rights of the people continue to be determined by borders answering to a logic which is far from the day to day realities of the new global citizens. Our economies, our education, our culture, are all shaped globally, no matter where we are. We must be able to co-create solutions to ensure that the communities own our destiny. Only then will we be able to regain trust in the institutions.

In a context of rising poverty, inequality, and insecurity, can there be such a thing as “Right to the City”?

This context of uncertainty is precisely what needs to make us think of the Right to the City as an approach that can help us overcome these difficulties. Our future needs to be determined, informed, and shaped, by the visions from the people, from the neighborhoods, and not by undefined interests that we cannot hold accountable. It is also essential for communities to reclaim the Right to, as it were, put themselves at the core of the action when it comes to the use of land, public space, jobs, education but also air quality and the production and consumption patterns that lay the foundation in which future generations will live.

It is only through working on the Right to the City, and working to build a notion of broad citizenship, that local and regional governments will manage to turn around poverty, inequality, and insecurity, and create truly liveable societies. There is no inclusive society without inclusive territories.

It is this level of governance that we will need to ensure access to public space for men and women, to protect the Right to housing in the framework of building cities for all, to secure the rights of migrants to the City by seeing them as neighbors. The Right to the City and public services go hand in hand.

In short, we must embrace and claim the Right to the City through essential service provision. The protection of the commons and guaranteeing universal access to basic needs is the only way forward.

Our generation is smart enough to do this. New technologies need to be at the service of creative societies where work needs to be understood beyond productivity and economic growth but as a contribution to a nurturing society. This, too, is part of the notion of the Right to the City. It is not a question of whether or not it will exist but a matter of when we will get there.

What needs to happen to achieve the SDGs, the Paris Agreement, and the New Urban Agenda?

From the United Cities and Local Governments, we know all of the global agendas need to be seen and approached as one. If, and only if, we transform how we live according to the SDGs, we will achieve the Paris Agreement, and if we want to achieve the SDGs, we need the transformative potential and the logic of the New Urban Agenda.

We also believe that the localization of global agendas is indispensable. That is, their implementation from the ground-up is required, and not the mere management and parachuting of the global goals at the local level. Over 60% of the targets of the SDGs relay on the action at the local level, mainly local service provision and policies. From the Right to access water and sanitation to decent housing to mobility and public transport, all of this can only be accomplished at the local level, and only if we protect and defend these essential services and their provision, which can only be done at the local level.

Our membership, cities, regions, and associations around the world have understood this. We are acting, in many cases without adequate resources and competences, but we know this is a race we cannot afford to lose. The livelihoods of our communities are at stake.

Corporate responsibility needs to be brought to another level just as much as governance needs to be about governing in partnership and co-creation.

If we want to achieve the Global Goals, we need to involve all stakeholders in the process and enable local governments, especially in their access to the necessary resources, to be able to fulfill their role. And this can only happen if we stop seeing governance as a system of competing powers, and begin to address it as a system of cooperation between spheres of government and stakeholders.

At our next World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders we intend to provide a space for actors from all spheres of government – and civil society- to meet, debate and generate policy recommendations to carry out the global agendas. Part of the transformation that needs to happen is a change of relationship with the private sector. Corporate responsibility needs to be brought to another level just as much as governance needs to be about governing in partnership and co-creation.

Who is at the deciding table of global agendas, can we trust them? How can we, as a civil society, make them accountable?

The digital age offers us unprecedented opportunities to scrutinize decision-makers. It does not guarantee, however, an accurate picture of where the decision making actually happens. As citizens, we do not always know who is responsible for the decisions that end up shaping our lives. This is why it is very critical to work on transparency.

I think the questions is not if we can trust decision-makers but rather how much are we ready to do to ensure that we are part of the decision making. How much are we willing to participate and co-create. How can we define new models where solidarity is at the heart of our life and where work is a contribution to society as a whole and not only a mean to guarantee individual livelihoods.

Robotization and the necessary ecological transition will force us to think in these new terms. It is no longer about THEM (the decision-makers) versus US (the people).

I trust the new generations will be ready for the change of paradigm, for the replacement of the model. Our role is to provide the basis of this change, by fostering the values of rights, respect, justice, and inclusion that should guide future societies. No algorithm can do this work for us. It will take our creativity and our persistence as humanity to succeed.