Urban Journalism Institute

Coping with the crisis context

Last year, 2022, was a complex one in many ways. While the COVID-19 pandemic, which dominated the global agenda for more than two years, seemed to wind down, new challenges have arisen. 

The pandemic has revealed many weaknesses in our systems; the most evident lesson learned was the need for change. Going back to business as usual is not possible anymore. For many, it was a wake-up call, signalling that the unsustainable development model should be revised. Additionally, a war dominating the European region has had a global impact, leading to a food crisis in the Global South and an energy crisis, adding to the existing challenges that climate change is posing. 

For cities, which are home to over 50 per cent of the global population, 2022 has not been different. Among the continuing challenges, cities must respond to demands, such as affordable housing, climate change adaptation, mobility accessibility and equity. 

The impact of climate change and the increasing number and frequency of disasters have been evident and alarming in many regions, including Southeast Asian countries, as these are located in one of the most disaster-prone areas of the world. However, in recent years, many regions that have not been as exposed to the impacts of climate change have also seen a rise in climate change-related events. In Europe and North America, unprecedented wildfires swept the region, forcing many residents to flee their homes. The heatwaves and drought that hit Europe have led to deaths and have prompted local governments to take more action and invest in urban resilience. 

To address the extreme heatwaves, the Adrienne Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center launched the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance (EHRA)and the City Champions for Heat Action (CCHA) with the aim of bringing together elected leaders of major cities and counties around the world to reduce heat risk for their citizens. Within this initiative, seven cities worldwide, with support from other partners, have established the Chief Heat Officer (CHO) role, with Miami being the first city to appoint a CHO in June 2021. The other six cities that have appointed CHOs are Athens (Greece), Monterrey (Mexico), Los Angeles (USA), Freetown (Sierra Leone), Santiago (Chile), and Melbourne (Australia). The Chief Heat Officers have started taking actions such as conducting vulnerability assessments, using nature-based solutions to battle the heat, installing cool pavements and roofs, etc. The group will likely expand and add a CHO in India. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered many complex challenges, including humanitarian, food, and energy crises. The 2022 energy crisis might become a turning point for the industry, leading to long-lasting changes and a faster transition to more sustainable and green energy systems. However, the energy crisis has further deepened existing inequalities, as the rising energy prices disproportionately affect low-income households living in less energy-efficient homes. To face this challenge, many local governments have developed strategies that allow for saving energy, including using fewer streetlights and street decorations or encouraging citizens to reduce the heating of their homes by one degree. In Vienna, the local government encouraged restaurants and shops to cap their temperatures at 18 degrees Celsius and cut the hours that Christmas markets spend illuminated by almost half. The city government also created the Vienna Energy Bonus’22 as a support scheme for households in need to counter the increase in the energy costs. 

While a trend towards cleaner and more sustainable energy is set, more robust policies and more investments in clean energy are needed, as well as a consensus between politicians to achieve the climate targets of the Paris Agreement. The local governments can also contribute to the change by improving short-term measures and developing a more sustainable energy plan for their cities. 

Another consequence of the invasion was the food crisis. While food prices were already rising in 2021, the prices continued to grow in 2022. The year-over-year prices were up 20 per cent in February 2022 and rose another 40 per cent in March, as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The number of people facing acute food insecurity has soared from 135 million to 345 million since 2019. While the war played a significant role in the crisis, climate-related crop failure added to the challenge. 

Countries in East Africa were experiencing agricultural system failure, and the drought and famine only exacerbated the impact. In many countries, price surges have led to unrest, for example, in Albania, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, etc. At the same time, the United States has experienced food supply shortages, including a severe shortage of infant formula. The food crisis has revealed a need for more food security and resilience. Cities must prepare for climate shocks and other crises affecting their food supplies. They can change how the food systems work by managing better procurement, transportation, and waste. Furthermore, cities can support local food production through the land budgeting process. These measures can contribute to reducing the carbon print and guarantee more equal access to food.

The COVID-19 pandemic also revealed the need for a better and more resilient healthcare system, as well as the impact of both the formal and informal care economy. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 16.4 billion hours a day are spent in unpaid care work. This is equivalent to US$11 trillion, or 9 per cent of the global GDP – twice as much as the GDP for the worldwide agricultural sector. The care economy includes all activities carried out at home, including chores, grocery shopping, or taking care of children and the elderly. This varies from country to country; for example, in places where formal care is more available, the high costs can limit access, but even then, in many areas, childcare and elderly care is often unavailable or carried out informally. Evidence shows that care work falls disproportionately on women and girls. It is also carried out by domestic workers who are often women migrants, who are limited in their rights and can be exploited. The care economy can be characterised by low wages or even unpaid, and the perception is that caring work is less productive and valuable.

This problem is especially acute in the Global South, where many grassroots women are at the core of society as both workers earning money and, at the same time, caretakers. The pandemic has exacerbated the struggles experienced by urban poor communities. 

Grassroots organizations such as the Huairou Commission and the Slum Dwellers International were at the forefront of the community response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A central role of grassroots organizations in gender-responsive recovery strategies and policies will be essential to accelerate equitable, sustainable development. Partnerships between grassroots women-led organizations, local governments, financial institutions, and other civil society actors can unlock flexible financial, technical, and political resources that are essential for scaling up and accelerating the local implementation of national policies. Through various forms of partnership, resources have been driven to the local level, and pathways to more inclusive access to public decision-making have been opened, particularly for poor women. 

The Global Alliance for Care (GAC), a collective commitment from the Generation Equality Forum, urged governments and all stakeholders to declare 2023 a momentous year for the care economy. The more inclusive approach to the complex post-COVID recovery scenario has given more relevance than ever to people-centric global debates such as universal health coverage or unpaid care work

Local and regional governments are also coping with the worsening economic situation, including inflation and risk of a global recession. UNDP warned that the magnitude of debt in 54 developing economies needs urgent debt relief as a result of cascading global crises. These countries account for 18 per cent of the global population, including 28 of the top 50 most climate-vulnerable nations in the world. The funding for international cooperation has also declined. 

The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, made a call for finance reform of the global financial architecture with the publication of the Bridgetown Agenda in September 2022. This Agenda lays out three main steps. The first one, to immediately provide liquidity to stop the debt crisis by pressing the International Monetary Fund to temporarily suspend its interest surcharges or to return access to its unconditional rapid credit and financing facilities to previous crisis levels. The second one, to expand multilateral lending to governments by US$1 trillion. And the third one, to activate private sector savings for climate mitigation and fund reconstruction after a climate disaster through new multilateral mechanisms. 

Citizens of Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Burkina Faso and Ukraine are the most vulnerable to poverty exacerbation, due to continuing conflicts in the countries or climate-related disasters. The 2023 Emergency Watchlist, released by the International Rescue Committee, put the focus on 20 countries, over half of which are in Africa, that are at greater risk of new or worsening humanitarian emergencies. The countries on the list represent 13 per cent of the global population, 90 per cent of people in humanitarian need, and 81 per cent of people forcibly displaced. Among those displaced, women, girls, and LGBTQI+ communities are often hit hardest.

Local and regional governments are the most active in implementing concrete solutions to address the impact of the polycrisis. From facing the increase in number of forcibly displaced people arriving in towns and cities, to managing the local public service provision daily, even in emergencies, local governments care for their citizens.   

A democratic, inclusive, and funded localization of sustainability, based on an effective, multiregional, multigenerational, and transformative collaboration among all levels of governments, public-private partnerships, and civil society is no longer simply a desire, it is an obligation for the future of humanity.

Indigenous woman (Maya, Chichicastenango), 
El Quiché Guatemala © Andres Greiffenstein