From 24 to 26 November, the XIV Meeting of Autonomous Communities and Cooperation for Development was held in the Extremaduran cities of Mérida and Cáceres. The meeting’s focused was the importance of the decentralized cooperation carried out by Spain’s regional and local administrations.
Ecoper participated in the event by making the opening presentation at the National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida. Below is the text from the address:
President, Mayor, Secretary of State, political leaders and international cooperation technicians of Extremadura and the rest of the autonomous communities
Thank you for the invitation. It is very gratifying for those of us who study and evaluate public policies to share spaces for reflection with those who design and execute public policies.
In addition, it is a great honor to intervene at the opening of such an important meeting. Yes, although development cooperation is not the area that generates the most political and media attention in our autonomous communities, from an international perspective, it is a very important meeting and I would precisely like to dedicate my speech to underline this importance.
The importance of the local in the 2030 Agenda
- Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), cooperation between cities and regions has generated a growing interest in international organizations such as the OECD and the UN.
- The 2030 Agenda is above all a local agenda: the OECD estimates that “60% of its 169 goals can only be achieved with the active involvement of subnational governments: they are SDGs for health, education, emergency preparedness, water, energy, housing, etc “. No less than 101 targets distributed by the 17 SDGs depend on local policies. In other words, as has already been repeated in different forums since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda: All the SDGs are local.
- Along with this idea of the “localization of the SDGs”, international development aid authorities have come to realize that “decentralized cooperation is a historically untapped source of funding and knowledge”.
- Furthermore, the OECD, the UN and their different agencies, together with the various actors that participate in their international conferences and high-level forums, are generating very high expectations about governments such as Extremadura or Mérida and their potential to transfer the knowledge gained from their own development and public management experience towards their counterparts in the South.
- In this sense, it is noteworthy that since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in 2015, decentralized aid (ODA items from regional and local budgets) has been increasing in absolute and relative terms. In 2019, a record high of USD 2.5 billion was reached.
The importance of Spanish decentralized cooperation in Spain and the world
- Although no one (in development cooperation forums) doubts the importance of decentralized cooperation in general, the importance of Spanish decentralized cooperation is still not well-known or appreciated enough.
- With 2019 data we know that 32% of Spain’s bilateral ODA is aid from regional and municipal budgets. 32%, a third … decentralized cooperation is very important within Spanish cooperation.
- In addition, this ratio is the highest in the world: Spain is the most decentralized donor in the world, with the particularity that the second place in the ranking is disputed by Germany and Canada, with 7% and the OECD average at 2 %.
- In absolute terms, Spain, with 357 million euros, is the second largest provider of decentralized aid worldwide, behind only Germany.
- Now, if we take into account the aid that the OECD calls cross-border and therefore exclude from the analysis the accounting imputations related to foreign students and refugees, Germany becomes the 5th decentralized donor with 38 million, and Spain remains the first of the ranking with 310 million.
- Consequently, Spain, its Autonomous Communities and Spanish city councils are very important references for global decentralized cooperation: the most important. Ignoring this reality supposes a loss of opportunities for the Spanish autonomies and cities, but also for the whole of international cooperation, since clear leadership is necessary to fulfill the expectations generated, which is not so easy.
Difficulties of decentralized cooperation
I would point out at least four difficulties in meeting the expectations generated. These are difficulties of decentralized cooperation in general and of the Spanish in particular.
The theory on the benefits of decentralized cooperation based on development experience itself does not have as much practical application. Undoubtedly, there are very positive experiences of technical cooperation and knowledge transfer from local governments in the North to their counterparts in the South, but this is not the dominant decentralized cooperation modality. In Spain, the majority of decentralized aid (60%) is channeled through NGOs; In other countries, the expenses incurred in the territory itself dominate, such as programmes for welcoming foreign students, assistance to refugees or education for development itself.
Second, local calls for grants to NGOs (the dominant practice of decentralized cooperation in Italy, France, Belgium or Switzerland) do not have a sufficient theoretical development. None of the international documents that have valued decentralized cooperation makes reference to this type of aid. Some of us think that, in addition to their own experience of territorial development, communities and municipalities have another comparative advantage in cooperation – closeness to the citizen – and are therefore suitable institutions to (also) support citizen organizations in their transnational work. However, this discourse is the construction of this discourse at the national and international level, as well as the exploration of synergies between the international cooperation of our civil society and the direct cooperation of our municipalities and autonomous communities, beyond some specific experiences.
The third difficulty has to do with the insecurity of the decentralized cooperation institutions themselves. They are insecurities and doubts about the level of citizen support that this public policy has at the regional and local level, sometimes they even lead us to not communicate what we do. On the one hand, there is a very significant number of citizens organized in the NGOs that participate actively in this policy. On the other hand, outside the sector, everything indicates that this is not a well-known and valued policy. The CIS (CIS, 2016) in a 2016 survey in which it detected strong support of the Spanish citizens for development cooperation and even for the idea of 0.7%, in relation to the decentralization of cooperation. It was found that:
- 60% of its respondents do not know if their autonomous community dedicates any part of its resources to cooperation with developing countries,
- a percentage that amounts to 64.5% in the case of municipalities,
- When asked if the autonomous communities and municipalities should dedicate part of their resources to cooperation with developing countries, the main answer is that they have other priorities (49% of the answers).
As a fourth and final difficulty, it should be noted that decentralized cooperation, by its very nature, generally lacks centralizing bodies for certain functions such as strategic analysis by sectors and countries or regions; the identification of projects and counterparts; representation before international organizations; face-to-face and active participation in large multilateral meetings, etc. Obviously, these functions could be supported by central governments, but so far this support has not been provided in Spain or outside of it, at least in a strategic and systematic way.
In conclusion, decentralized cooperation has enormous potential to contribute to the 2030 Agenda. No one denies it and this has been recognized by the highest international authorities in the field of development cooperation. However, this potential has yet to be realized. Leaders are needed to overcome the difficulties mentioned and put into practice the international discourse on city-to-city / region-to-region cooperation or even qualify and improve the discourse thanks to their practical experience. The Spanish autonomous communities, with the help of the MAEUEC and its network of embassies and technical cooperation offices, would be the best positioned to exercise this leadership on an international scale and, without a doubt, the exercise of this leadership goes through meetings like this one.
En conclusión, la cooperación descentralizada tiene un enorme potencial para contribuir a la Agenda 2030. Nadie lo niega y así ha reconocido por las mayores autoridades internacionales en materia de cooperación para el desarrollo. No obstante, este potencial todavía no se ha desplegado.