Emilia Sáiz: «During the pandemic, local governments have engaged not just in collaboration, but in collective learning»

By  | 2021

As we all have witnessed, Covid-19 has somehow altered all facets of life in cities in all corners of the world. And from the perspective of local and regional governments, addressing the urgency of the pandemic has also meant the need to localize additional resources to be able to respond to the challenges and transformations unleashed by the crisis. Emilia Sáiz is the Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the network that represents the interests of a quarter of a million cities of all sizes on the world stage. After celebrating its Annual Retreat recently, we have interviewed her to explore how one year of Covid-19 has impacted cooperation between cities — and the learnings that the organization she leads can draw from it.

—After one year of pandemic, how is the current state of the global cooperation between cities? From your point of view, how has the pandemic changed the way local governments cooperate?

I think that one of the critical aspects is that local and regional governments have engaged not just in collaboration, but in collective learning from each other. This has been the different element, the collective learning that cities have developed.

I believe that the behavior and the collaboration of local and regional governments during the pandemic has shown us that solidarity and cooperation are integral to develop security. The pandemic has indeed transformed some of the ideas we had. We still believe that cooperation is a key principle that is just as important for the Global North as for the South, but we need to understand that priorities and instruments of cooperation have changed.

We need to continue to engage in partnerships not just between cities, but bringing all stakeholders to the table to ensure that local and regional governments are able to deliver. A structural dialogue between local and regional governments and all spheres of government as well as the donor community and our partners from the civil society is critical to improve not just cooperation but also the lives of our communities.



—How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted UCLG?

Before the pandemic occupied all of the headlines, our world organization, at the Durban Congress and during our Retreat in Tangier, had already addressed one of the critical issues of our time: the rise of inequalities. During the Covid-19 outbreak has exacerbated the systemic malfunctioning that we were already aware of. Once the lockdown situations took hold of the world, as a World Organization we didn’t know how it would affect us, but we discovered the strength of the global community.

Our synchronization efforts in Tangier allowed us to develop our strategy together, to strategize as one, and to carry out the joint learning exercises that would set the guidelines for our joint policymaking. We learned together, we researched together, and we advocated together, we rediscovered the power of “we” Our commitment to renewing local democracy, to curb inequalities, and to open spaces of dialogue with other stakeholders to achieve the SDGs, our framework for transformations, was stronger than ever.

It is this joint work that led to the UCLG Presidency developing our Decalogue for the COVID era, 10 recommendations led by local leaders for the aftermath, to ensure that the recovery is led by communities. Our commitment to the power of “we” is one of the key aspects of our strategy towards developing a Pact for the Future: a social contract to transform how we relate to each other, to nature, and to our institutions. A pact for people, for the planet, and for governance.


—UCLG recently promoted the Pact for the Future. Where does it come from? What is it about? What are UCLG’s expectations around it?

During the pandemic, our membership understood that the world that we live in will never be the same. We understood that we need to move from a world of social distance to a world driven by our communities. Foundational moment: this has been the driving force of our strategy to Pact for the Future, looking forward towards a world that is more equal, more sustainable, and that takes decisions in a more inclusive manner. We envision a new social contract that transforms how we relate to each other, that restores trust between institutions and communities, and that allows us to reassess our relationship with our world. 

This threefold focus is the guiding line behind the three axes of the pact: for the future, for the planet, for government. We aim to bring all stakeholders to the decision-making table, because we understand that the world that comes after Covid-19 needs our collective knowledge to respond to the expectations that we have.


—After all, have local governments learnt something positive with the Covid-19 pandemic? In your opinion, what are the three main unexpected lessons that this pandemic year leaves for cities?

To me it is very clear that there are three key issues that were not very much addressed before the outbreak and are now critical to local and regional governments all over the world:

· Addressing inequalities is linked with basic service provision: This critical in times of peace, but it is even more essential to curb the worst effects in times of crisis, and needs to be protected and strengthened.

· Health coverage for all is imperative. We are only as strong as the weakest among us, and our inability as a society to protect the most vulnerable has played a part in how long we have taken to recover, and needs to be addressed as we enter vaccination stages. Health also goes beyond health coverage, and going forward we will need to address what it means to develop healthy cities and societies.

· It is essential to transform our production and consumption patterns, to ensure that they are not only guided by the market, but that respond to the needs of communities. This will also be critical when we rethink our food systems so that they respond to what our citizens need.


—Could you mention some cities or initiatives powered by local governments that have been especially successful to mitigate the impact of the pandemic?

This pandemic has made local and regional governments all over the world aware of key issues that were already hurting our communities. Local and regional governments around the world, in particular in Africa and Asia, have addressed informalities and how people living and working in informality could be involved in the recovery. The city of Freetown (Liberia) has engaged vulnerable populations in the preparation aspect, for instance, when the pandemic hadn’t started to hit Africa, through communication strategies that addressed the importance of involving informal communities.

Cities in Asia such as Subang Jaya (Malaysia) have also led the efforts to ensure that informal workers in the food industry could be transformed into home-based businesses to ensure stay-at-home moratoriums. This city also offered rent moratoriums to ensure workers in informality could stay at home and worked to ensure that the economic stimulus developed at the national level could reach those communities that need it the most


—If we look 5 years forward, what are the major transformations that you would like to see within the international movement of local and regional governments?

The critical goal for the municipal movement is, always, to be fit for purpose to respond to the needs of communities. We do not hold the solutions to the problems of the world, but we are a critical actor to transform it. This is why, in five years’ time, I feel like the municipal movement needs to be a platform of platforms, that provides spaces for structural dialogue and that strengthens our collaboration with the civil society. Our membership has envisioned a future in which we are involved in a structural dialogue with all spheres of government, and why we responded to the call of the UN Secretary General in 2020; a movement that is engaged in joint advocacy in favor of our communities; and a movement that creates spaces of dialogue for all stakeholders.

🤝 Cities have cooperated for centuries, but #Covid19 has been an accelerator of the need for them to share learnings & good practices. Take a look at our interview with @UCLG_Saiz, @uclg_org Secretary General | via @anteverti & #CitiesToBe Clic para tuitear


Interview and edition by Sergio García i Rodríguez, Communications Manager at Anteverti and CitiesToBe Executive Editor | Header image provided by ©UCLG 


About the authors

Secretary General at United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) | + posts

Emilia Saiz is the Secretary General of UCLG having previously served as Deputy General Secretary of UCLG for the last few years.

She has worked with the international movement of local and regional governments in different fields since 1998. Some key areas of her work during her career years have been the strengthening of capacities of the Local Government Associations, the promotion of the participation of women in local decision-making and the strengthening of the role of local governments before the United Nations.

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