Realigning the Governance Architecture After COVID-19: City Diplomacy and Multilateral Institutions

This argument appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

By Eugenie Birch and William Burke-White


The COVID-19 pandemic has led governments at all levels into intense fiscal stress and reports of significant drops in their respective economies. International organizations including the G20, IMF, UN, and World Bank, have responded with aggressive moves to support national economies. Within two weeks of WHO’s March 11, 2020 declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, national governments and international organizations devised massive recovery programs. For example, that year, the G20 rallied an extraordinary leaders’ meeting on March 24 to issue an Action Plan that in broad strokes pledged to pour more than $5 trillion into the global economy. G20 leaders tasked the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors to detail a plan within a month. And in October, the finance ministers, working with health ministers, updated the plan with new commitments in response to the growing magnitude of the crisis. By the time the leaders met in November, they had received two progress reports on the plan and the additional initiatives to soften the pandemic’s health, economic, and social effects.[1] So too, the multilateral development banks, led by the World Bank, offered $200 million in loans. The IMF both postponed interest payments on outstanding loans and provided some debt forgiveness to the poorest countries. While far from perfect, the institutions tasked with global economic governance responded quickly and boldly to the challenge. The following year, as the pandemic continued, vaccine policy, recovery, and pandemic preparedness dominated the G20 communiqué.[2]

In its first year, one critical piece of the responses to the pandemic were, however, missing: the key institutions of global economic governance paid scant—if any—attention to the economic plight facing cities. Neither the G20’s 2020 Action Plan nor Declaration mentioned local impacts, economies, or recovery efforts. And, by February 2021, only 14 percent of the funding provided by the G20 plus ten other major economies had focused directly on cities.[3] This occurred despite the fact that cities were especially hard hit by COVID-19 and are widely understood to be critical to global economic recovery and future growth. Indeed, 90 percent of global COVID-19 cases have been reported in urban areas. As producers of 80 percent of world GDP, cities were devastated by the 3.5 percent decline in global GDP in 2020.[4] Many cities are still facing a “scissor effect”: averaging a 15–25 percent loss in tax revenues while being forced to spend significantly more on health and social services.[5] Government lockdowns put millions of urban workers, especially youth, women, and those in the informal economies into the ranks of the unemployed. Local economies based on services, tourism, and export-based manufacturing have slumped. As time went on, the pandemic also affected rural areas where health institutions were poorly equipped to deal with the patient load. But key elements of urban economies, including hospitality and in-person services, continued to face deep losses that would affect national economies more heavily than the 2008 financial crisis.[6]

The institutional architecture of global economic governance proved impervious to powerful urban advocacy, largely neglected cities as the most severely impacted governance entities, and overlooked the potential cities offer for economic recovery. The question, and the focus of this essay, is why global institutional responses failed to recognize the importance of cities in both crisis and recovery.

The cynical answer, of course, is that organizations led by national leaders were reluctant to give political space or economic resources to local leaders who might present a political threat—and who may or may not belong to the same political party—and therefore left it to respective national governments to allocate resources domestically. The response to COVID-19, however, offers a more nuanced explanation that rests in the state-based structure of these organizations that largely blinds them to subnational challenges or solutions. Multilateral institutions are accustomed to respond to global crises related to conflict or financial failure with multilateral solutions that coordinate the policies of nation-states. They are neither designed nor equipped to directly engage subnational governments, even where, as is the case with COVID-19, city and provincial governments are essential to both the challenge and its solution. Even as cities are becoming more central actors in responding to transnational challenges from climate change to human migration, international law and institutions are struggling to adapt and, as a result, missing significant opportunities to improve coordinated global responses.

In this essay, we offer an understanding of why the global economic governance response to COVID-19 has overlooked cities as relevant governance units for pandemic response and economic recovery. By exploring the history of subnational stakeholder engagement with key global economic governance institutions such as the G20 and the responses of these institutions to the COVID-19 crisis, we show that this failure has two root causes. First, the legacy structures of international institutions and international law are so focused on nation-state cooperation that they fail to see the roles and potentials of subnational governance in crisis response. Second, the expanding networks of city governments focused on global issues (such as the C40 and U20) are sufficiently insular and inward looking that they fail to effectively engage, align with, and influence traditional international institutions. Ultimately, the misalignment between the work of traditional international institutions and emergent subnational diplomacy has resulted in a less effective response to the crisis and missed opportunities for economic recovery. We conclude with potential remedies to better align these two critical layers of global governance in responding to transnational challenges.

Advocates for Urban Issues: The Emergence of City Stakeholders in International Organizations

International organizations, such as the UN, the IMF, World Bank, and OECD, are fundamentally the product of nation states and are designed as fora to facilitate cooperation among nation-states. They operate under international legal agreements dating from the post-World War II period that define their membership, structures, and purposes around nation states as the fundamental units of international governance.[7] As Philip Jessup explained in 1948: “The world today is organized on the co-existence of States, and that fundamental changes will take place only through state action, whether affirmative or negative.”[8] This mindset has fundamentally informed the structure of international law and multilateral governance. In 1927, at the height of international legal positivism, the Permanent Court of International Justice observed in the SS Lotus case: “Since the Law of Nations is based on the common consent of individual states, and not of individual human beings, States solely and exclusively are the subjects of International Law.”[9]

Even more recent additions to the international institutional architecture such as the G20 are likewise centered around nation states. The G20, when formed in 1999, was designed to serve as “a new mechanism for informal dialogue in the framework of the Bretton Woods institutional system...”[10] For its first few years, the G20 focused on bringing finance ministers together. However, in the face of the 2008 financial crisis, its operations were elevated to the head-of-state level, becoming “the premier forum for international economic cooperation.”[11] Annual national leaders’ meetings are preceded by a year of negotiation by sherpas, key government ministers, and engagement groups. While the G20 and other key institutions of global governance have remained nation-state focused, the involvement of engagement groups and other stakeholders from beyond national governments themselves has opened the door to the inclusion of urban issues and city voices. Simultaneously, issues of urban concern have made their way onto the global stage, being recognized as relevant to a host of global challenges from economic development to climate change.

Cities and Urbanization in Global Affairs

Cities as a subject of global affairs came on the international scene in the 1970s with the first UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I, 1976), followed by two others held at twenty-year intervals (Habitat II, 1996; and Habitat III, 2016). While these meetings of nation-state leaders drew attention to urban growth, they also reflected a changing attitude towards it. In 1976, most UN member states considered urbanization a negative force to be arrested. By 2016, however, they asserted that well-planned and managed cities were critical engines of sustainable development. Structurally, the UN created the UN Centre for Human Settlements in 1978, subsequently elevating it to a full-fledged program in 2000. Paralleling these discussions, urban interests began to creep into UN policies related to sustainable development (Sustainable Development Goal 11), climate change (reference to cities’ contributions), disaster risk reduction (focus on urban planning), food security, drug-related crime, and others. While the UN has remained an organization of sovereign states, more active city engagement both within and beyond the UN Habitat programs has facilitated some integration of urban affairs into the deliberations within and outputs from the organization.

At the World Bank, attention to cities grew over the past two decades via the inclusion of urban development in the Bank’s array of global practices, first as part of the Social, Urban, Rural Global Practice, and after a World Bank reorganization in 2014, as part of the Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice. Among the unit’s activities are the City Creditworthiness Initiative, started in 2014, which trains city officials to improve their fiscal performance in order to tap regional and domestic markets without sovereign guarantees; the City Resilience Program, started in 2017, which provides funding for resilience projects; and its urbanization reviews, which undertakes regional, country and city–focused research to support investment decisions.[12] The World Bank’s global practice has a budget of $30 billion distributed among its four priorities: enhancing planning systems and local capacity; strengthening fiscal and financial systems, promoting territorial and spatial development and building climate-smart and urban resilience.[13]

The IMF, too, has come to recognize the value of urban issues in its work, largely through the application of the principle of decentralization in its economic analysis. The Fund maintains a Fiscal Decentralization Database with information from 75 countries about the revenues, expenditures, deficits and other indicators for subnational governments including states and cities. The development of and reliance on this database has both forced the IMF to maintain a focus on the subnational and facilitated the incorporation of subnational fiscal developments into its analytic framework.

While subnational issues largely entered into global affairs and international institutions from the perspective of economic development, more recently urban policy has begun to be recognized as relevant to a far wider range of transnational challenges that are the focus of international institutional policymaking. A new category of 21st century global challenges— including pandemic disease, climate change, and cybersecurity—however, are not constrained by traditional nation-state borders.[14] They localize transnational threats, putting subnational governments at the frontline of defense and response. So too, actions within the jurisdictional authorities of subnational governments are indispensable to the implementation of solutions to such challenges. COVID-19 presents one such transnational challenge, the response to which must include coordinated action of local governments.[15]

Stakeholder Participation in the Institutions of Multilateral Governance

With the growing recognition that urban issues as well as other nongovernmental voices have a role to play in at least informing multilateral governance, many traditional international institutions have developed mechanisms for broader stakeholder engagement. Several international organizations, including the G20, have facilitated such engagement by preceding their annual meeting of national leaders with a consultation process involving non-state stakeholders, such as NGOs, academics, and even business. This approach ensures that stakeholders are present, but largely relegates them to the status of observers, perhaps providing occasional input, but always in the background of the nation-state deliberations. This is a process of accommodation, whereby subnational governments request, demand, or even cajole their way toward participation in formal international legal processes, albeit with highly circumscribed roles and limited access.

The UN, for example, has had provisions for non-governmental stakeholder participation since its founding in 1945, noting that the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) could consult non-governmental experts on key matters. It took this process a step further in 1992, specifying nine consultative groups, including local authorities. In 1996, the UN outlined the process for the formal recognition of stakeholders, but strictly circumscribed their roles as providing expertise and representing public opinion on specific issues.[16] Within the UN, associated units have developed their own stakeholder constituencies and many embrace subnational governments among them. For example, the UN’s Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC)’s “Civil Society Observers,” lists Local Government and Municipal Authorities among them.[17] UN Habitat, which serves as the UN’s focal point for cities and local authorities, has several relationships with subnational governments through its UN Advisory Committee of Local Authorities (UNACLA, established in 1999), World Urban Campaign, and separate agreements with independent city networks.[18]

Beyond the UN, since 2014, the IMF and the World Bank have sponsored a bi-annual Civil Society Policy Forum prior to their fall and spring meetings. They define civil society to include “non-governmental organizations, community groups, labor unions, indigenous peoples’ movements, faith-based organizations, professional associations, foundations, think tanks, charitable organizations, and other not-for-profit organizations.”[19] Local governments are able to participate in these fora as guests. These gatherings are designed to promote engagement with non-state actors and inform the work of the organization with alternative perspectives.

G20 Engagement Groups

Perhaps, because it is not burdened with long institutional legacies, the G20 has taken a progressive approach to the engagement of non-state actors in its processes. Over time, the G20 has recognized eight distinct engagement groups: Business (2010), Labor (2010), Youth (2011), Think (2012), Civil (2013), Women (2015), Science (2017), and Urban (2018). The Urban engagement group, launched in 2018, and termed the U20, consists of elected officials (mayors) from G20 member states. As the G20, unlike many more formal international institutions, does not have a permanent secretariat, the host country rotates each year and provides the secretariat support for the official meetings. In parallel arrangements, the engagement groups have local chairs that provide facilitation, support, and assistance. Hence, the U20 is hosted annually by a city in the host country of that year’s G20.

The G20 engagement groups have varying resources and influence. For example, for the 2020 Saudi Arabia G20, the business engagement group (B20) claimed to represent more than six million businesses, had a secretariat that supported six task forces (trade, energy, education, digital transformation, infrastructure, and integrity), each with a hundred members and a mandate to produce a policy paper, associated action councils and an international advocacy caucus to disseminate the policy recommendations, a raft of knowledge partners drawn largely from consulting firms, like PwC; and business networks such as the World Economic Forum; numerous events interacting with other G20 policy-influencing groups; and a summit convened a month before the G20 meetings. In contrast, the urban engagement group (U20), whose membership is under 100 city mayors, received significant support from the Saudi government that worked with urban specialists at PwC to coordinate the work of the three task forces and a special working group on the pandemic co-chaired by cities partnering with knowledge partners drawn NGOs and academia. In a remarkably short time, these task forces produced 15 policy papers and the special working group produced one on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U20 hosted a virtual summit a month before the G20 meeting.

In 2020 and 2021, both the B20 and the U20 issued communiqués at the conclusion of their respective summits, with the goal of influencing national leaders and informing their post-summit declaration. Given the vast disparity in resources, it is perhaps unsurprising that the B20 has been able to wield significantly greater influence in the overall G20 process than has the U20. That disparate influence continued for the Italy G20 in 2021 as the B20 operated much as it did the prior year, while the U20 was scaled down, due to the municipal elections held in the host cities (Milan and Rome) in October, resulting in the defeat of Rome’s sitting mayor. Two prominent city networks that have served as U20 convenors since its inception provided support for the summit originally scheduled for June but ultimately convened in September 2021. Due to host city constraints, the 2021 U20 was not able to convene the task forces that informed its previous communiqués. It did, however, have success with its ministerial lobbying, as the 2021 Leaders’ Communique dedicated a long paragraph to the circular economy, the subject of one of the previous year’s task force reports. Notably, the “Leaders’ Communiqué” mentioned several other urban focused concerns in the paragraph, including a reference to the “New Urban Agenda” (the Habitat III outcome document) and an endorsement of the G20 Platform on SDG Localization and Intermediary Cities that was actually sponsored by OECD and UN Habitat, not the U20.[20] A recent assessment of the entire engagement process sees many areas for improvement including providing more interaction among the engagement groups and members of G20 beyond the host and compiling a synthesized list of engagement group recommendations based on their timeliness and co-benefits to as many engagement groups as possible.[21] Such efforts could help further elevate urban voices in the G20 process.

City Networks and City Diplomacy

While the story thus far of city engagement in global affairs has largely focused on the incorporation of the urban in traditional nation-state international institutions, cities have simultaneously built their own cross-border networks to facilitate city-to-city diplomacy. This effort has put cities in the proverbial driver’s seat, allowing them to move beyond the limited recognition of local constituencies and their urban-focused substantive work within the UN and other international organizations. The rise of city networks along with the increase of city diplomacy by individual cities has contributed significantly to the emergence of cities seeking to be more influential players in the global arena.

City diplomacy has roots in the postwar period through sister city programs but has also grown to include mayoral offices of international affairs in several cities. In the United States, the sister cities program emerged from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1956 White House Conference on Citizen Diplomacy as an effort the promote local cultural exchanges. Originally hosted by the National League of Cities, it is now an independent organization. Similar organizations exist around the world. These sister city programs were, however, largely mechanisms for social connection and people-to-people engagement, rather than substantive policy coordination.[22]

The move toward substantive city diplomacy began with the emergence in the mid-20th century with the emergence of several small networks of cities in Europe focused on issues of shared urban concern. These networks proliferated in the 1990s. Each has its individual history, but, in general, the most influential city networks today, such as the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) have consolidated more disparate older networks, such as the International Union of Local Authorities, United Towns Organization and Metropolis. Other, newly crafted organizations, such as the C40, began as a club of a handful of megacities focused on climate change and has subsequently expanded its membership and substantive remit. Still other organizations bring together a wider group of urban stakeholders beyond just city government officials, such as the Coalition for Urban Transitions, which likewise focuses its efforts on climate change (see Figure 1).

These networks, often well-resourced, have elevated cities and subnational governments in global deliberations through the amplified voice they offer cities, the power of collective engagement, issuance of research and policy documents, and the use of effective communications strategies that take advantage of social media and the internet. UCLG, for example, has 240,000 members in 140 nations representing 5 billion people, about 70 percent of the global population. The C40 network brings together 97 of the world’s large cities that tend to have charismatic, newsworthy mayors, collectively contribute a quarter of the global GDP, and command significant philanthropic support.[23] These groups participate in global settings including sponsoring special meetings and exhibits on the sidelines of official deliberations at the UN ECOSOC meetings, UNHabitat and UNEP Assemblies, and Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) meetings.

Recently, mayors of many large cities have begun to undertake more direct diplomacy through the establishment of offices of international affairs and even “embassies” overseas. These offices, largely focused on economic development, aim to attract trade and business, promote cultural exchange, and facilitate participation in city networks.[24] In fact, most cities participating in the U20 activities did so through such offices. Global cities have gone as far as opening “embassies” around the world. London boasts twelve such representative offices—from New York to Mumbai, Shenzhen to Bangalore.[25] Collectively, this growing international affairs capacity of cities has allowed them to engage the multilateral governance system more directly and to push for the inclusion of urban issues on global governance agendas.

Figure 1: City Networks 1913 to Present

Figure 1: City Networks 1913 to Present

Source: Authors

The Disconnect Between Multilateral Institutions and City Diplomacy: The G20/U20 Experience

We have shown a gradual evolution of urban engagement with multilateral institutional diplomacy. It is a story of traditional international institutions slowly expanding stakeholder engagement to include urban issues and subnational governments. So too, it is a story of cities finding their own voices in global affairs. Yet, despite this evolution, international institutions remain fora for nation-state diplomacy and, perhaps not surprisingly, are focused on issues predominantly of concern to national governments. A partial answer to the opening question of this paper, why have the multilateral responses to the pandemic failed to recognize the importance of cities in the recovery, lies in the disconnect that remains between traditional international institutions and city diplomacy. The organizational mandates, legal authorities, and functions of these two distinct layers of the global governance architecture are not aligned. As international institutions have remained focused on national governments, city-networks tend to turn inward, more concerned with cross-city coordination than with shaping global governance outcomes. The result is a continued disconnect that has hampered the global response to COVID-19, among other transnational challenges. The G20/U20 experience during the Saudi-hosted 2020 cycle offers a telling example.

Perhaps as a response to their continued exclusion in the actual processes and deliberations of traditional international institutions, city-diplomacy networks have largely focused inward, hosting summits of mayors, sharing best practices, and developing uniquely local solutions to common problems. As relatively young organizations, they must negotiate the needs, politics, and demands of multiple members, many of whom have quite dissimilar legal authorities. Such networks must serve cities that operate under one of two quite distinct governmental systems: unitary states in which most power lies with the central government and federal systems in which power is decentralized at provincial and local levels. While all these cities face similar challenges including migration, digitalization, unemployment, and recently dealing with a pandemic, their available responses will differ depending on the governmental system in which they operate. The convenings, research, and technical assistance work of these city-networks has therefore tended to focus on the lowest common denominator and concentrated on exchanging ideas on bettering local governance, strengthening approaches to climate change or reducing inequality often under the banner of the “Right to the City” movement.

Yet, city networks aspire to be involved in national or global decision-making. As they advocate for greater standing in national or global deliberations, they stake their legitimacy on numbers: their high populations, significant economic contribution to GDP, or their, unfortunately, high contributions to GHG emissions. Their global diplomatic efforts are largely limited to collective calls on national governments to address city-specific priorities in their own work. These networks, and the cities that comprise them, have not sought to align more closely with the priorities set by nations or the agendas set by international institutions.[26] Nor have they invested in building effective points of connection between their own networking and multilateral diplomacy among nation-states. The G20 experience exemplifies this disconnect.

The G20 includes 19 nations (plus the EU) which represent about 80 percent of the gross world domestic product, 75 percent of world trade, and 60 percent of the world population. They meet annually as a forum and issue a declaration representing their mutual agreement to the recommendations and policy directions embodied in the document.[27] Thus, the G20 declaration is a consensus, not a legal, document. It is the product of the leaders’ deliberations enhanced by contributions from key ministerial meetings held during the nine or ten months prior to the leaders’ summit. Engagement groups work out their recommendations, filter them through the ministerial meetings and submit them to the leaders’ summit.[28] In practice, much of the leaders’ declaration, decided prior to the summit, is drawn from the preceding meetings.

The 2020 Leaders Declaration and Summit

The Leaders Declaration from the Riyadh Summit, issued in November 2020, is faithful to the G20 mandate to promote global economic growth, international trade, and regulation of financial markets.[29] In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the declaration’s four-parts identified health as the primary threat. In fact, it dedicated 82 percent of the text to responses to the pandemic as articulated in the G20 Action Plan. The first part, “Rising to the Challenge Together,” called for controlling the pandemic in order to restore economic growth. It cited the first order of business as the mobilization of global resources to support the development and distribution of COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. In parallel, it pledged to use fiscal, monetary, and financial stability policies to sustain national economies worldwide. The second part, “Building a Resilient and Long-Lasting Recovery,” promised to advance global pandemic preparedness, noting their leaders’ commitment to addressing gaps in the world’s current health system. Through the declaration, the G20 addressed its traditional concerns (trade, international financial architecture, transportation and travel, infrastructure investment, financial sector issues, and digital economy) within the frame of pandemic responses. The third part, “Ensuring an Inclusive Recovery that Tackles Inequalities,” emphasized the necessity of addressing the sharp lines of inequality uncovered by the pandemic. It focused on how states could better promote access to opportunities, employment, women’s empowerment, education, and migration and forced displacement. Only after discussing recovery from the pandemic does the fourth part, “Environment, Energy, Climate,” call for taking up climate endorsing a collection of such climate-addressing policies as energy, the circular economy, food security, and water.

In short, the 2020 G20 declaration was a timely, thoughtful and urgently needed response to the most pressing global challenge of the era—COVID19. While it can be criticized for, perhaps, not being bold enough or pledging adequate resources to address the challenge of COVID-19, it is politically astute and responsive to the challenges facing member states.[30] Notably, however, the G20 declaration made no mention of the impact of the pandemic on urban areas nor to the centrality of cities to economic recovery after the pandemic. Little if, any influence from the urban engagement process made its way into the declaration and the blinders that block traditional multilateral institutions from seeing the subnational remain firmly in place.

The 2021 G20 Leaders’ Communiqué deepened the previous year’s responses to the pandemic and its outcomes. It outlined several areas for recovery and established new committees to address issues ranging from enhancing vaccination programs worldwide to dealing with pandemic preparedness based on lessons learned from COVID-19.[31] As in the previous year’s document, it did not afford special attention to urban areas in its health-focused declarations.

U20 Communiqué and Summit

The 2020 U20, hosted by Riyadh and convened by UCLG and C40, should, in theory, have informed G20 deliberations and the ultimate declaration with distinctly urban perspectives as that might have aided the G20 in seeing the importance of the subnational in responding to the pandemic. Yet, in part because of the G20s own inability to look below and within and, in part, because of the U20’s insularity that did not occur. Instead, the G20 and U20 operated separately albeit with frequent informal communications among the respective secretariats but with little formal connectivity and cross-influence with official meetings of the Finance and Sherpa tracks (ministerial and working group meetings) that might have resulted in better policy outcomes.[32]

The U20 developed its four-part communiqué for the Mayors’ Summit which convened virtually on October 2, 2020. The communiqué drew its structure and approach from a tripartite task force/white paper process that had been agreed on at the first U20 preparatory meeting convened in February 2020 just as the COVID-19 infections became pandemic. The three task forces—Circular Carbon-neutral Economy, Inclusive Prosperous Communities, and Nature-based Urban Solutions—ultimately produced 15 white papers on issues of importance to cities.[33] Those white papers, in turn, provided the basic substance of the U20 communiqué.

Unlike the G20, the U20 was slow to respond to the moment and lacked the institutional dexterity to pivot its focus as the pandemic became the issue of the year, and potentially the decade. While task force members were researching and writing throughout the spring and early summer, the economic ramifications of the pandemic accelerated, hitting cities particularly hard. While G20 leaders quickly issued their Action Plan, the U20 remained largely on the course set before the realities of the pandemic had become clear. By June, the host city, realizing that the task force work, while important, was out of step with the crisis, proposed a supplementary Special Working Group on COVID-19 and Future Shocks. Rome and Buenos Aires joined Riyadh as co-chairs of this special working group. An additional ten cities (Amsterdam, Helsinki, Houston, Izmir, Los Angeles, Madrid, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Tswane) supported by seven knowledge partners (OECD, IFC, French Development Agency, Coalition for Urban Transitions, Université Gustave Eiffel and University of Pennsylvania) composed the group. The resulting report recommended means for multilateral entities and nations to be integrated into efforts to finance cities’ post-pandemic recovery.[34] While some of these ideas were reflected in the final U20 communiqué, they were by no means a focus of the document.

In general, the 2020 U20 communiqué differed dramatically in tone and concern from the G20 Leaders’ Declaration. It led with a call for leaders to commit to equitable, carbon-neutral, inclusive, and healthy societies, while positioning the pandemic as a mere magnifier of the urgency of the call. It dedicated under 30 percent of the text to COVID-19 response and pays scant reference to how to connect cities to the G20’s work on economic growth, trade, and financial stability. The first part of the U20 Communiqué, “Partner by investing in a green and just post-COVID-19 recovery,” included the Special Working Group’s call for inclusion in the international financing processes, but moved on quickly to its pre-pandemic climate change agenda only slightly adapted to accommodate pandemic stimulus programs. Its only reference to the G20 Pandemic Action Plan was indirect, encompassed in a call for the equitable distribution of vaccines. The second part of the U20 communiqué, “Safeguard our Planet through national-local collaboration,” detailed a range of nature-based climate change solutions, with no reference to how they fit either with the pandemic or the G20 mandate itself. The third part, “Shape New Frontiers for development by accelerating the transition to a circular, carbon-neutral economy,” prefaced its recommendations by noting the pandemic offers an opportunity for energy transition, but did not draw linkages to the issues of import to the G20, namely economic growth and innovative financing mechanisms. While the fourth part of the communiqué, “Empower People to deliver a more equitable and inclusive future,” was more synchronized with G20 issues, its relevance is easily lost in an overall document that is out of alignment with the moment and with the institutional structure in which it is embedded (see Figure 2).[35]

Figure 2: Comparing the G20 and U20 Communiqués

Figure 2: Comparing the G20 and U20 Communiqués

Source: Authors

At the October 2020 U20 Summit, attendees reviewed the task force and special working group results and reports before endorsing the communiqué which was, in turn, signed by 39 mayors.[36] The communiqué was presented it to the Saudi Finance Minister, with a promise that it would be given due consideration by the G20 leaders at their forthcoming Summit and that its ideas would inform the G20 communiqué. There is little to suggest that the G20 leaders paid any attention whatsoever to the outcomes of the U20 other than a reference to the circular economy nor that the U20 communiqué was a factor in the G20 leaders’ declaration. While the Mayor of Riyadh announced the launch of an innovative city-led financing mechanism, a Global Urban Resilience Fund, suggested by the Special Working Group, this city-to-city financing mechanism remained separate from the G20 outcomes.[37]

The 2021 Urban Summit, in its postponed session, featured 20 mayors responding to its communiqué, “Urban 20 Calls on G20 to Empower Cities to Ensure a Green and Just Recovery,” that had been issued in June 2021. The document began with references to COVID-19 and framed the needed recovery efforts within public service delivery and the integration of climate change remedies into all approaches.[38] In short, across the pandemic era, the U20 has been behind the curve, out of sync with the rapidly changing concerns of the moment and, hence, not speaking as effectively as it could to the issues on the G20 table. For the U20 to have voice, it must become more nimble, linking its very valid concerns and inputs to the G20 agenda in a way that shapes and informs—rather than contrasts with—the national level agenda.

Conclusion and Recommendations: A Unified Governance Approach to 21st Century Challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic put the multilateral institutional architecture through a critical stress test. Some aspects of that architecture passed, others failed. Critically, that test revealed gaps and inadequacies in the design of what is effectively a multilevel global governance structure. Traditional international institutions—from the UN to the G20, and the World Bank to the IMF—remained largely focused on nation-state coordination. Despite the decade-long effort by these institutions to develop effective stakeholder engagement processes, they were unable to see the roles, strengths, and significance of subnational governments in addressing COVID-19 and post-pandemic recovery. Newer city-based diplomacy networks lacked the agility to respond to fast-breaking events as COVID-19 unfolded. They remained inward-looking, insular, focused on their own pre-pandemic agendas, and unwilling to align themselves with national and international priorities. Perhaps most critically, the connective fabric that could have linked traditional international institutions with subnational governance capacity were shown to be lacking or unfit for purpose.

The result was, frankly, subpar global governance. Issues of urban concern, including the pandemic’s acute health and financial impact on cities, have been largely ignored in multilateral institutional responses. Similarly, traditional international institutions have not harnessed subnational governments in responding to COVID-19 or fostering economic recovery. The subnational has much to offer such efforts, from front-line medical care to vaccine distribution, from preventing societal dislocation to catalyzing economic recovery. To truly harness the potential of the subnational, however, these governance efforts must be coordinated with and integrated into national and multilateral efforts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they were not.

While it is beyond the scope of this essay to develop detailed solutions to these governance gaps and the fundamental misalignment between multilateral institutions and city diplomacy networks, we offer a few suggestions as to how to better integrate these critical layers of the global governance architecture.

First, the decades-long efforts by multilateral institutions to engage a broader array of stakeholders, including subnational governments, must move from engagement to meaningful participation. This is not to suggest that subnational governments should have a formal seat at the table at the UN or the G20, but limited engagement through pre-meetings, side-meetings, and stakeholder consultations has proven inadequate. Effective coordination of multilateral, national, and subnational governance requires that the three layers of governance all be part of the same conversation, at the same time, and in the same place.

Second, city-based diplomacy networks must come to see themselves as part of a collective governance effort along with—not in opposition to—national governments and traditional multilateral institutions. This will require a shift in both identity and process. In terms of identity, when mayors and other subnational government officials have engaged globally, they have defined themselves first and foremost as city officials, advocating for city interests. Instead, they must think of themselves as partners in a collective global governance effort to respond to pressing transnational challenges. Perhaps the U20 should develop a permanent unit or light secretariat to assist in continuous monitoring of the G20 concerns and agenda. In terms of process, it will require city officials to work better with – when politically appropriate—their own national governments in setting international agendas and implementing international commitments.

Third, traditional multilateral institutions must come to recognize that cities are not just another NGO advocating for their issue of choice. Rather, they are governance units with real legal authorities, jurisdictional control, and implementation capabilities. They are far more likely to have that realization when cities are part of the same conversation, same meetings, and same agendas. So too, they will be more likely to see the potential of cities when city governments approach multilateral institutions as partners, not as competitors. Finally, as multilateral institutions remain controlled by national governments, they are more likely to recognize the potential of cities to assist in a coordinated global response when their member states see cities in that light. Again, better coordination between city and national governments can go far to move in this direction.

Fourth, and finally, all the layers of governance needed to respond to a crisis like COVID-19 will be better aligned when the connective fabrics that link those governance bodies are strengthened. To return to the G20/U20 example, connections between the U20 and the G20 process depend on regular participation in the Finance or Sherpa track meetings and coordination with other engagement groups of which the U20 Riyadh did undertake in a limited fashion so that with the handoff of the communiqué to the Saudi Finance minister, who was tasked with conveying the U20 outcome document to the G20, the messages would have been circulated widely beforehand. While any such a handoff looks good in a photograph, it should come as no surprise that it is not an effective means of linking agendas and informing deliberations. Rather, new mechanisms of connectivity between city governance and multilateral institutions are needed.[39] In the U20/G20 case, this should include city participation in G20 Sherpa and Finance track meetings, national involvement in U20 task forces and pre-meetings, and common coordination of agendas, and outcome documents intentionally designed to speak to one another.

Collectively, we believe these steps could go far toward better aligning city’s efforts on the global stage and the work of multilateral institutions. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the weaknesses in the current governance architecture, but also presents an opportunity for reform, innovation, and improvement. The financial recovery in the years ahead and effective governance responses to the next crisis—be it another pandemic or climate change—may well depend on developing a unified governance approach to 21st century challenges.

1 “Second G20 Action Plan Progress Report,” G20 Riyadh Summit, November 22, 2020, https:// 22-nov-2020.pdf.

2 “G20 Rome Leaders’ Declaration,” G20 Information Centre, G20 Research Group, October 31, 2021,

3 Coalition for Urban Transitions, “Seizing the Urban Opportunity,” March 17, 2021, 17,

4 United Nations, “Policy Brief: COVID-19 in an Urban World,” July 2020, 2,

5 International Monetary Fund, “World Economic Outlook Update: Policy Support and Vaccines Expected to Lift Activity,” January 2021, 5, world-economic-outlook-update.

6 OECD, “1. The COVID Crisis in Urban and Rural Areas,” OECD Regional Outlook 2021: Addressing COVID-19 and Moving to Net Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2021), https://

7 U.N. Charter art. 3, 4.

8 Philip C. Jessup, A Modern Law of Nations (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 17.

9 S.S. Lotus (France v. Turkey), Judgment, 1927 P.C.I.J. (ser. A), No. 10, at 18 (Sept. 7).

10 Jakob Vestergaard, “The G20 and Beyond: Towards Effective Global Economic Governance,” Danish Institute for International Studies, 2011, rp2011-04-g20-and-beyond_web_0.pdf.

11 ”G20 Leaders Statement: The Pittsburgh Summit,” G20 Information Centre, G20 Research Group, September 25, 2009,

12 World Bank, Supporting Countries in Unprecedented Times: Annual Report 2020 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2020),

13 See, for reference, Sameh Wahba, Global Director, Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice,; and World Bank, “Urban Development, Strategy,”

14 Anne-Marie Slaughter and Gordon LaFarge, “Opening Up the Order,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2021, 154-162, These authors argue that the liberal international order created after World War II whose “regularizing decision-making processes, developing shared norms, and increasing the reputational costs of reneging on commitments,” was fit for purpose at the time. However, today, they assert, “the world cannot successfully address twenty-first century threats and challenges, such as climate change, pandemic disease, cyberconflict and inequality without mobilizing a new set of actors… Accordingly the current order needs to expand not by differentiating between different kinds of states but by making room for new categories of nonstate actors.” (155–156). Among the actors are the private sector, philanthropy, civil society organizations, and subnational governments—governors and mayors. They go on to suggest the creation of multistakeholder hubs having the financial and legitimacy to have an impact.

15 United Nations, “Policy Brief: COVID-19 in an Urban World.”

16 “Working with ECOSOC: A NGOs Guide to Consultative Status,” United Nations, 2018, http://

17 UNFCCC, “Non-governmental organization constituencies,” observers/ngo/application/pdf/constituencies_and_you.pdf.

18 UNACLA Secretariat, “Report of Activities, 2015-2018,” United Nations Advisory Committee of Local Authorities, report%202015-2018.pdf.

19 See for example, World Bank, “Civil Society Policy Forum Spring Meetings 2022,” April 15, 2022, 20 See paragraph

20, “Cities and Circular Economy,” in “G20 Rome Leaders’ Declaration,” http://www.

21 John Kirton and Brittaney Warren, “Engagement group recommendations realized in G20 Summits," Global Solutions Journal 6 (2021): 29–36, journal_6.pdf.

22 Darel E. Paul, “Re-Scaling IPE: Subnational States and the Regulation of the Global Political Economy,” Review of International Political Economy 9, no. 3 (2002): 465, 467.

23 United Cities and Local Governments, “Who Are We?” uclg_who_we_are_0.pdf.

24 Nina Hachigian, “Cities will Determine the Future of Diplomacy,” Foreign Policy, April 19, 2016,

25 Mayor of London, “Mayor bangs the drum for London as he increases international presence,” November 17, 2017,

26 See Anthony Pipa and Max Bouchet, “The Urban 20 (U20): Pathways to Maximizing Partnership within the G20,” Brookings Institution, January 28, 2021,

27 “About the G20,” G20,

28 Multiple meetings precede the Leaders’ Summit, organized in two broad tracks: the Finance and Sherpa. Thirteen working groups operate under their umbrellas. The working groups, each headed by a national minister, cover such areas as health, education, trade, agriculture etc. The majority meet under the Sherpa track. The finance track encompasses the meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors who discuss economic, financial, monetary and tax issues.

29 “Leaders’ Declaration, Riyadh Summit,” G20 Information Centre, G20 Research Group, November 21, 2020,

30 On the G20’s response more generally, see Stewart Patrick, “When the System Fails: COVID-19 and the Costs of Global Dysfunction,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020, articles/world/2020-06-09/when-system-fails.

31 “G20 Rome Leaders’ Declaration.”

32 During Riyadh’s chairmanship there were some formal interactions between the U20 and the G20 that went beyond continuous coordination dialogue and input provisions: the President of the RCRC (the equivalent of the mayor) spoke at a G20 Sherpa Meeting; and the Saudi G20 Sherpa and the G20 Finance track representative both spoke at the U20 Summit.

33 To access the papers, see the collection at

34 Eugenie L. Birch, Mauricio Rodas, Ian Klaus, and Gaurav Gupta, “Financing Cities’ Recovery from COVID-19 and Preparing for Future Shocks,” U20 Special Working Group on Covid-19 and Urban Shocks, U20 Riyadh 2020, September 2021, Cities_Recovery.pdf.

35 “Communiqué from the Urban 20 (U20),” U20 Riyadh 2020, October 2, 2020, https://www.

36 U20 Mayors’ Summit Report, Virtual Summit from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 30-October 2, 2020. Summit%20Report%20.pdf.

37 “G20 Announces Global Urban Resilience Fund,” Asharq Al-Awsat, October 31, 2020, https://english.

38 “Urban 20 calls on G20 to empower cities to ensure a green and just recovery: An official communiqué from Urban 20 (U20),” U20 Rome-Milan 2021, uploads/2021/06/U20-2021-Communique-Final.pdf.

39 See, for example, Nicholas J.A. Bouchoud et al., “Making the case for G20 action on urbanization,” Global Solutions Journal 5 (2020): 148–152, uploads/2020/05/GSJ_issue5_NEU.pdf; Nicolas J.A. Bouchoud, Hazem Galal, Katharina Lima de Miranda and Luca Trifone, “Cities and the future of growth,” Global Solutions Journal 6 (2021): 117–128,