Exchanges, peer learning & solidarity between municipalities and regions worldwide are key to the fight against COVID-19

Towns and regions worldwide are at the forefront in tackling the COVID-19 crisis. Sharing experiences between them is essential and as such the EU should include them in its global response to the pandemic. This was the message shared by more than 70 participants from Europe and Africa who joined the webinar “COVID-19: EU global response & local government international action” organised on Friday 17 April by PLATFORMA.

This webinar gathered representatives of international and European institutions (United Nations, European Commission, Parliament, EU country diplomats from Member States representations to the EU), local and regional elected officials and representatives of towns and regions’ national associations.

Aida Liha Matejicek, from the European Commission’s DG for International Cooperation and Development, gave an overview of the EU’s global response to COVID-19 adopted last week. She insisted on the “#TeamEurope” coordination spirit between financial donors.

The EU officialmade clear that the most vulnerable people and fragile health systems were central in the EU response, which is “as comprehensive as possible”, with the principle of “leaving no one behind”. The response seeks to“ensure the respect of human rights and democracy, with a strong focus on the most vulnerable, including women and girls and the domestic violence they may face”.

Matejicek agreed that local and regional governments were the first confronted to the crisis. “Peer to peer learning in this sense is extremely valuable and important,” she said. “A community driven response as well as a collective approach is the most critical to help to address the needs of those who are hit the hardest”.

“Reinventing ourselves”

The Mayor of Strasbourg and President of Cités Unies FranceRoland Ries, was the first to share his experience from a municipal perspective. “COVID-19 and the disaster it has produced, are changing everything and showing us just how fragile the international system is, how fragile our institutions are and how fragile humankind is,” he said.

He welcomed the Team Europe spirit adopted by the European institutions and stressed the need for solidarity within and outside Europe. “It is a moment when we also have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to align ourselves better to the 17 SDGs adopted by the United Nations in 2015, to capitalise and reinforce our friendships and partnerships across the world,” he said.

Cités Unies France will closely work with local and regional governments and their representative associations in Africa (in the Sahel in particular) and in Haiti.

A global cooperation framework

Pilar Díaz, Mayor of Esplugues de Llobregat in Spain, emphasised the Province of Barcelona’s long experience of city-to-city and region-to-region development cooperation. “This is a crucial moment to highlight the added value of decentralised cooperation”, she said. “We need to think of a global cooperation framework, since the virus will not be contained if it isn’t contained equally in all the regions of the world.”

Ms Díaz was also concerned by increasing social and economic inequalities. She welcomed the more than €900 billion of emergency measures for Latin America but stressed : “we still do not know how significant development cooperation, and in particular allocations for local and regional governments, will be in the next long-term EU budget.”

Hans Janssen, the Mayor of Oisterwijk in the Netherlands and a representative of VNG International, stressed that local governments and their representative associations are used to acting in crisis situations. “We should use the already acquired experience to help each other, and build on tools already developed: scenario planning, risk assessments, recovery plans” he said. VNG, is working in Lebanon, Iraq and Uganda on dealing with the consequences of the refugee crises and was also active in Haiti, after it was struck by a terrible earthquake.

He called on the EU for concrete support, to be “more flexible in the existing programmes to better allow local and regional governments to adapt to the situation” and “to become more pragmatic and responsive”.

Mr Janssen also highlighted the essential role of national associations of local and regional governments in partner countries as “a key point of liaison for municipalities to reach out to the national government.”

The guardians of international solidarity

Jean-Pierre Elong Mbassi, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) Africa, said that so far, Africa was “among the regions which have been the least hit by COVID-19, contrary to what was expected by the international community and the World Health Organisation”.

He also made clear that only cities and regions were able to take measures to react to the spread of COVID-19 in Africa: “Local governments are the guardians of international solidarity. They are the best place to defend multilateralism and international cooperation, even when national governments are lagging behind.”

Mbassi stressed that the lockdown is “a disaster for the informal sector”, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where very little support can be given from national governments. Only the solidarity from people and local governments are actually addressing the issue.

He was also deeply concerned by the direct financial impacts of the crisis on citizens. He asked the EU to channel funds to municipalities and regions as soon as possible. “Decentralised cooperation is key to help share experiences and practices to solve not only the immediate crisis but also the aftermath of the outbreak, which will require lot of efforts on both social, institutional and economic levels”, Mbassi added.

“Local governments are very reactive”

Kelmend Zajazi, Executive Director of NALAS, emphasised that the exchange of experience between local and regional governments is essential. He has weekly talks with towns and regions in southeast Europe on preventing the spread of COVID-19, but also to find solutions for daily needs of citizens: offering access to online public services, culture or education for example.

“Local governments are being very reactive, much faster than national governments. For example, a lot of cities have already decided to cut unnecessary financing to unblock funds for more urgent issues,” Zajazi said.

He also underlined the huge economic concern in southeast Europe on “the price to pay for the recovery period” when there could be dramatic consequences on citizens and decentralisation processes.

CEMR Secretary General Frédéric Vallier stressed that “this crisis should not annihilate the already achieved progress on the state of decentralisation in partner countries and in Europe”. He concluded: “We need to strengthen our links and capacities together across the globe and enhance together the role of local and regional elected officials”.

Decentralised cooperation first

MEP Mónica Silvana González, member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Development (DEVE), concluded the webinar by stating that she will make sure that local and regional governments have a central role in the EU’s next long-term budget (MFF) and the new financial instrument for development (NDICI). She explained that the COVID-19 outbreak could be seen as “an opportunity” to include elements in the MFF negotiation that previously would not have been possible.

She announced that, at the next DEVE Committee meeting on Tuesday 21 April, she will directly ask European Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen how she intends maintain a central role for local governments and decentralised cooperation in the “Team Europe” initiative. She finally stressed that Latin America should not be forgotten in the EU’s response, including countries that no longer qualify for Official Development Aid (ODA).

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