Urban Journalism Institute
© Chuko Kribb


“Those who love peace must learn to organise as effectively as those who love war.” 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his sermon “Loving Your Enemies” were delivered on November 17, 1957, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

The 2024 Emergency Watchlist underscores “an overwhelming global humanitarian crisis,” revealing a more than fourfold increase in the number of people in need between 2014 and 2023. These numbers, though staggering, are challenging to grasp for most of the population, as figures seem to have lost their capacity for emotional impact and understanding. Nearly 300 million people are in humanitarian need, 110 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, 237.8 million people experience a crisis or worse levels of food insecurity, and 659 million people live in extreme poverty. 

Due to their size and density, urban areas are most susceptible to the impacts of global crises and disruptions, as witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, cities are not designed to withstand conflict but to be places of peace

A city’s strength lies in daily understanding and reciprocity among its inhabitants. Its public infrastructure and the common goods are based on the concept of interconnection, from water and energy supplies to hospitals and transport, providing services to individuals while relying on a community approach.

When conflict and violence hit cities, those infrastructures and services become a common target, and the urban system collapses with severe humanitarian consequences, including mass displacement. What was once a strength in peace is converted into fragility and vulnerability, with citizens suffering the full range of losses.

The devastating harm that warfare caused in urban areas was particularly dramatic during the Second World War, with weaponry perfecting the art of destroying cities. Thousands of civilians were killed in European cities, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in between 110,000 and 210,000 casualties, making it impossible to calculate more specific data. In 2025, it will mark 80 years since the bombings.

The dramatic situation in Gaza, the bombing of Ukrainian cities by Russia, and the destruction of the last years in Aleppo, Baghdad, Damascus, Mosul, Sana’a, Marawi, Mogadishu, and Khartoum are only a few examples of how cities are at the forefront of conflicts. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has initiated a photographic 3D project on Broken Cities, focusing on the damage in Aleppo, Mosul and Gaza, as part of a call for all states to agree to curb the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.  

If cities are places of peace, local governments are the architects. They are agents of peace and community building, servicing the well-being of their citizens and promoting dialogue, partnerships, city-to-city cooperation, and local and regional government networks. Their work is essential to prevent, care and build peaceful coexistence, as well as combatting violence in all its expression, including violence against women and structural violence in the form of inequalities. 

As the 2023 World Forum of Cities and Territories of Peace declaration expresses, “Peace is not only the absence of war but also the absence of all kinds of violence.” 

The New Agenda for Peace is more urgent than ever, with effective solutions to promote peace and prevent conflict emanating from territories. The 2024 United Nations High-Level Political Forum 2024 will review five SDGs, including Goal 16, promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. Local governments are crucial to this effort towards stronger institutions and good governance, bridging the important connection between building peace and trust. 

Gallup’s annual update on trust in government institutions and actors in the United States reveals that Americans have the most faith in local government (67%) and the least in the federal government’s or Congress’s legislative branch (32%). The most relevant data in the poll is the comparison with the historical average since Gallup started this annual study in the early 1970s. The trust in local governments has only been reduced by three points from 67 per cent in 2023 to the historical average of 70 per cent. However, trust in the federal government, the legislative, and the judicial branches has dropped by 15, 16, and 17 points, respectively.

The 2024 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum convened in Davos under the theme “Rebuilding Trust.” Many discussions were about trusting technology, especially AI, trusting companies, and their commitment to climate change action, transparency, and accountability, but not much about citizens regaining trust in their institutions. 

The Global Risks Report 2024, published by the World Economic Forum, identifies ‘societal polarisation’ as one of the top three risks over current and two-year time horizons. Extreme weather ranks first, and AI-generated misinformation and disinformation rank second. The latter is mainly connected to the implications of the ‘super election year,’ with nearly half of the world’s population going to vote, and the impact of ‘manipulative campaigns’ threatening democratic processes.

The lack of trust in governments is also reflected in the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer, conducted between 3 to 22 November 2023. Governments are perceived as less competent and ethical than businesses, NGOs, or media, with government leaders being the least trusted individuals. Countries like Argentina, Colombia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom show trust percentages beyond 35 per cent. 

Trust in government, traditionally associated with countries with a consolidated history of democracy, is in crisis. Hannah Bunting from the Local Democracy Research Centre in the United Kingdom, a country at the bottom of the less trusted governments in the Edelman Barometer, defines trust as ‘believing a government will perform a function that results in something you want, even when no one is watching.’ Local governments are more responsive to citizens’ concerns, closer to their needs, and more capable of offering the services they require.

Low levels of trust have also been traditionally associated with high levels of inequality, to which we should add the most recent element of the vulnerability of territories against the challenges of climate change.

The connection between peace and democracy and the equality and environmental agenda is more relevant than ever. The overlap between conflict-affected and climate-vulnerable countries is growing, with the percentage of conflicts occurring in climate-vulnerable countries increasing from 44 to 67 per cent in the past three decades.

Trust in governments and the human capacity to find common approaches are in crisis. Organising those who love peace is a priority, and local and regional governments are the ones to start working with.

Cofounded by the European Union This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of UCLG and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.