Leaving no one behind” is the underlining principle of the United Nations Agenda 2030. The concept recognizes the importance of addressing inequalities and bring everyone on board to ensure sustainable development. It wants to eradicate poverty, end discrimination and exclusion, and increase opportunities for all.

Discussing about how cities can reduce inequalities and level up opportunities, on 14 May 2024, UNDP and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) invited two mayors for the first “City/Local Talks” – a joint initiative that wants to bring different points of view about the political choices needed to implement the Agenda 2030 at local level and for all.

The occasion brought two Europeans politicians together: Gema Igual, Mayor of Santander (Spain), and Ombelyne Dagicour, Acting Mayor of Poitiers (France), who are leading intermediate cities, coming from different sides of the political spectrum, but both committed to make their cities more equitable, to provide more opportunities for all their citizens and places where no one is left behind.

The event was moderated by Emilia Saiz, Secretary General of UCLG. Here is a short summary of what we learnt from this interesting debate.

What is your personal story?

The first question was about personal motivation to enter politics. Mayors are dedicated to serving the public, and their citizens, what brought them to public service?

For the Mayor of Santander, entering active politics was a personal request from the former Mayor, who brought her to his team and later one left her the post when moving on. She has been dedicated to her role ever-since, and motivated by the possibility of making things happen in her own city, embracing the challenges and joys that the Mayor job brings along.

For the Acting Mayor of Poitiers, her motivation to enter politics was inspired by civic movements. She is not aligned with any political party, and her work commitment is driven by a reaction to dysfunctionalities in democracy and the rise of the extreme right in France over the last years. The second reason was the climate emergency and the conviction that only collective action can find solutions to fight it.

“Being in politics makes me a better person.”

Gema Igual

“I present myself as an ‘elected citizen’.”

Ombelyne Dagicour

“Loving their city is a global characteristic of Mayors, everywhere.”

Emilia Saiz

What inequalities?

The second question focused on the specific context of both cities. What are the challenges and the inequalities that societies have not yet been able to address?

In Poitiers, inequalities have always existed, and they are still political, social and discriminatory, but the last years have been particularly difficult after the health crisis (Covid-19), and the war in Europe (Ukraine) with high energy and living costs. As usual, the most vulnerable are suffering the most, and cities need to be the first to act in a situation where central governments are disengaging and poverty increases. One of the main problems in Poitiers is food poverty, with young students, the elderly and low income workers being unable to cope.

In Santander, the crisis has increased informality, an area where the Municipality has sometimes problems to reaching out and where the role of NGOs and civic associations is key. Some other inequalities are linked to the place where people live within the city. To reach them, the city counts with social units that work with the communities to identify people in situations of poverty and be able to act upon.

What actions?

What are the cities doing to reduce inequalities and bring everybody along? What public services are being made available by the cities to assist those who need it the most?

Santander has a budget of 200 million euros, of which 15M are dedicated to social services, with an extra 1 million available for emergency situations, such as access to housing, caring services for women to enter the job market, services to accompany people in situation of need with the provision of a place to stay, access to training and jobs but also helping them to run their own domestic budget and get financial stability. Finally, the city has a special program for 20 homeless people to provide them with food, shelter and care.

Poitiers is prioritizing job creation, with the city actively looking for the unemployed in specific parts of the city where the need is higher. This has resulted in 200 new jobs being created. Another initiative promotes access to leisure for those who cannot afford it, with more than 12,500 beneficiaries. This equal access to “free time” is considered a leveling factor to fight discrimination.

How to identify the needs?

“How do you choose the target groups of your local action in order to fight inequalities? How do you monitor impact?”, Saiz asked.

In Santander, the database is at the regional level (Cantabria), with a focus on employment generation, and targeting the vulnerable and elderly women who have more difficulty to find a job. The city works closely with the private sector and through corporate responsibility. NGOs are part of the identification of needs, as part of the community, and are able to submit special cases through the municipality’s systems. The local church also plays a fundamental role in addressing food needs.

In Poitiers, the identification of the target is an effort of collectivity. The city takes the need to actively “look for” the people in need very seriously. One of the tools used to bring people along is the “lucky draw” (tirage au sort) that selects some people randomly to participate in the city processes, expanding the voices that are heard and bringing new people who have never been in decision-making positions previously.

What is your final wish?

“What is your next project? What is the wish, the dream that you have for your city?”, Saiz asked.

For Gema Igual, her wish is to have the best city for its people – the best place to live, to work, to invest, to pass the first and the last days of their lives. But the work in a city never ends as some dreams are too big to achieve. “We need a vision for the future, but we also need to start somewhere and take things one at a time. We also need to communicate with the citizens to bring them along, explaining public action in a way that engages people whatever their personal situation may be. We are talking today about the vulnerable groups, but as a Mayor, I need to be able to put myself in the situation of everyone, to know their needs and address them”, she highlighted.

For Ombelyne Dagicour, her dream is to achieve social happiness and well-being, have a city where everyone has a place, and where people can count on institutions when they find themselves in difficulty. France has experimented urban violence in the past, linked to a sense of anger and abandonment. The cities have the responsibility to open spaces for everyone to speak and find that their voices count.