Last September, mayors, experts and City Makers – including municipal officials, researchers, students, social innovators and representatives from social organisations – of seventy-five countries from all over the world came together at the World Forum in The Hague, the city of Peace and Justice. They gathered to launch the first Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) which was founded by Dr. Benjamin Barber with support of a number of active intellectuals and represents a trusted voice of the global public. GPM is an innovative, global governance body by, for and of cities. It is meant to empowering mayors to become more influential players in the globally interconnected world, as well as enabling them to proactively engage in the governance realm.
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban settlements. Cities are a hotbed for knowledge and innovation, growth, art, and culture. Cities with hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of inhabitants are incredible generators of economic growth – they produce over 80% of the global gross domestic product – and wellbeing. It’s where local government is located, and not ideology or sound pledges, but education and health, transportation, safety, and other common needs are served – as well as local problems solved. Hence, cities and its inhabitants have tremendous potential in writing their respective urban narratives, rather than permitting organisations of nation states to do that for them.
NATIONS ARE NO LONGER DRIVING GLOBALISATION – CITIES ARE
Benjamin Barber – an American political scientist – first expressed the idea of a mayors’ parliament in his book If Mayors Ruled the World, where he emphasised that the parliament of mayors is the parliament of citizens without borders. He introduced GPM as a platform that is meant to address global challenges from a local point of view, having mayors share their practices, learn from one another and especially leverage collective political power of cities to craft real strategic solutions in borderless world with borderless leadership.
One of the core ideas, that Barber expressed during the inaugural convening, was that the GPM represents not anonymous millions [of people] held together only by abstract bonds of a frenzied [sense of] patriotism that can all too quickly become xenophobia, but rather committed residents of communities, where local government still works and the social contract still holds. ‘We come here not to speak top-down from the towering heights, but to speak bottom-up from the rich natural soil where the social contract was first engendered and the idea of citizenship was planted’, Barber stressed. ‘We know that democratic power springs up from local communities of people [who] intent on self-government, it does not flow down from arrogant national oligarchs claiming to represent people without ever engaging them.’
This is why – in regards to the complex global governance realm which appears to be disconnected from the people – what is actually needed is the change of the subject. In other words, more attention should be paid to political institutions where civilisation and culture were born – that is, cities rather than nation states. ‘Cities are closer to democracy, more trusted, much more involved with the citizenry’, states Barber, when – in opposition – ‘states defined by borders and sovereignty, compete and confront each other – having very little progress in terms of actual issues that cities’ inhabitants experience on the ground.’
CITIES AND THEIR MAYORS SHOULD TO WORK TOGETHER ACROSS BORDERS
And for that reason too, ‘a parliament of cities helps not just solve problems, but helps restore the faith in democracy. Cities and their mayors are pragmatists, they are problem solvers, and deal with reality as it is. That makes them very different from prime ministers and presidents, and that’s why we believe they have a chance – when they work together across borders – to really govern the world,’ says Barber. After the first successful convening of the GPM, it is highly promising that the parliament, encompassing practical proficiencies of small towns and large cities, can indeed make a significant contribution to the global strengthening of democracy and pragmatic decision-making in regards to problems that cities and their inhabitants around the world face.
The timing couldn’t have been better for mayors, experts, and City Makers to come together on the brink of present day challenges to confront anarchy, governmental gridlock, terrorism, climate change and the endless flow of economic and war refugees. As a pure matter of fact, a significant percentage of all these global issues comes from and is felt nowhere else but in cities and by its inhabitants. Among many issues, cities are also inequality traps. Home to billionaires and beggars, a number of cities show a higher level of inequality than the national average. With a rapidly growing urban population, it is crucial that cities don’t become the drivers of inequality. ‘The global community currently stands on a dizzying brink with hope tempered by cynicism’, Barber states. ‘With Brexit being a reality and neo-populist nationalists in revolt, the European community is in trouble. In Africa and Latin America, people struggle to secure their democracies. And even the admired American political process seems to have come unhinged. The United Nations has become the ‘Disunited Nations’ and democracy itself is in peril, seeming to have failed those most in need. Planet Earth’s very sustainability is at risk.’
CONSIDERING TODAY’S CHALLENGES, IT IS TIME TO TAKE ACTION
So whether or not states come into agreement with one another, cities and their inhabitants are in a strong position to contribute to mastering the challenges of these transnational and essentially interdependent problems. In reality, many cities are already working together, in order to collaboratively deal with climate change and migration, terrorism and trafficking. For example Barcelona established a City Protocol, together with tech company Cisco, thirty other cities, allied organisations and universities. The protocol ‘aims to define a global, cooperative framework among cities, industries and institutions with the goal to address urban challenges in a systematic way in areas, such as sustainability, self-sufficiency, quality of life, competitiveness and citizen participation’, their website states. Also, there is Mayors for Peace, which is an 5,664 cities organisation that brings the voice of mayors to the table, and puts the municipalities most likely to suffer from global war on the frontline of the peace effort. These and many other city organisations prove the claim that cities are ready to make a difference and progress in inclusive and sustainable urban development. This was undoubtedly acknowledged by Mayors from cities including Paris, Mexico City, Warsaw, Palermo, Seoul, Cape Town, Amman, Rio de Janeiro, Dakar, Mannheim, Rotterdam, Quito, New Delhi and Amsterdam – together home to millions of people. It has been unanimously agreed that the GPM confronts the central problem of democracy that is embedded in the asymmetry between on one hand 21st century brutally interconnected global issues, and on the other hand archaic and increasingly dysfunctional political institutions like nation states.
What makes the GPM different from other city organisations, is the fact that it is not just a cities’ network, but a parliament. It has an underlying objective to systematically develop strategic and adequate guidelines for action, and then take that action. At the inaugural convening last September, mayors, cities’ representatives and experts already addressed issues in plenary and strategy sessions on Migration, Environment & Climate Change, as well as Governance. This was not just another meeting of high-ranking officials talking about their concerns, but this occasion had an overall goal to express the voice of people and join local forces to craft strategic solutions to interdependent problems. The GPM is the closest it gets for citizens to address issues and exchange local knowledge and know-how to deal with them globally.
Currently, the GPM is moving forward in forming its Executive Committee with a president and a secretariat in order to become an autonomous body. Cities will then be capable to fund, plan upcoming parliaments, and come up with tangible actions to confront ‘glocal’ issues. What is needed now for the parliament to succeed, is a wider acknowledgement that would include cities from more than seventy-five countries and have these cities not only addressing problems, but offering solutions in terms of most urgent issues, such as common actions over climate change and refugees. Having more cities proactively engaged in the GPM, enables citizens themselves worldwide to contribute to the strengthening of democracy.
This article was originally published at New Europe Cities in Transition.