current debate

Do international agencies, consultants, and other “orchestrators” truly help cities reduce climate-related risks?

11th OD debate

The moderator’s opening remarks

Cities play an increasingly active role in governing climate change action. Even in countries where national governments have done little to tackle global warming, municipalities are seen as key to reducing both carbon emissions and vulnerabilities. But cities do not always have the resources and capacity to implement ambitious measures to reduce atmospheric pollution (mitigation) or disaster risk. In response, non-governmental institutions, such as 100 Resilient Cities, ICLEI, C40, UN Habitat, and multiple city networks and international consultancy firms are working with cities—rich and poor—to better tackle climate-related challenges.
Defenders of this approach argue that hybrid governance, which merges private consultants with public institutions, is an opportunity for building local capacity by combining funding and expertise from the public and private sectors. They contend that climate change and other risks must be addressed at a global scale by constructing international coalitions guided by consensus towards common objectives. For them, international consultants and agencies are not only needed to fill gaps in municipal expertise, but also to broaden participation and contribute to a more inclusive co-governance approach to global issues. Hybrid governance facilitates public awareness, reinforces relationships between cities, contributes to city-to-city and government-to-industry knowledge transfer, and provides a platform for promoting successful policy experiments. Besides, defenders argue, transnational actors help in building a common language and identifying comparative indicators.
Not everyone is convinced, though. Many experts raise ethical questions about the legitimacy and transparency of a form of global governance that depends on private, non-elected, international organizations that are not directly accountable to voters or taxpayers. For them, the delegation of policy design to consultants and non-government agencies reinforces neoliberal practices. Critics argue that agencies and consultants may pursue their own agendas, without sufficiently adapting initiatives to the specific conditions of each context. They claim that philanthropists, think-tanks, and agencies are increasingly orchestrating* climate action in a way that protects private interests and fails to respond to the real needs and expectations of the most vulnerable. This orchestration often leads to “green-washing” and adaptation initiatives that may comply with international sustainability or investment standards, but which often result in overlooked secondary effects. Others question the effective impact of orchestration and the ethical consequences of implementing foreign concepts. They argue that consulting services are often limited in time (with their contracts typically ending with the delivery of reports, guidelines, pathways, roadmaps, and checklists) and rarely include disciplined, long-term implementation, monitoring, and follow-up, which fosters cities’ ongoing dependence on external expertise. Finally, others contend that even when changes are made within municipalities—often in the form of new climate or disaster-risk departments or units—these structures quickly become empty shells, deprived of expertise, resources, and administrative mechanisms to implement change in the long run.
For this debate, we have invited two internationally recognized experts on urban sustainability and development to defend each viewpoint. Our panelists will present their most persuasive arguments over the next seven days, but the outcome of the debate rests in your hands. Don’t hesitate to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Better yet, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision.
* Orchestration here refers to a mode of indirect governance whereby an institution attempts to influence a target population through intermediaries using non-coercive means (Abbott & al., 2015,2020; Gordon & Johnson, 2017).

Sara Hughes argues that international agencies, consultants, and other “orchestrators” truly help cities reduce climate-related risks.
Dr. Sara Hughes is Assistant Professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) at the University of Michigan where she directs The Water and Climate Policy LabHer most recent research focuses on the political and institutional dimensions of sustainable and equitable water and climate change policies, primarily in the urban context. Prior to joining SEAS, she served as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, and as a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Sara has published many articles in prominent journals and she is author of Repowering Cities: Governing Climate Change Mitigation in New York City, Los Angeles, and Toronto (Cornell University Press, 2019) and coeditor of Climate Change in Cities: Innovations in Multilevel Governance (Springer Press, 2018).
Craig Johnson argues that international agencies, consultants, and other “orchestrators” are not truly helping cities reduce climate-related risks.
Dr. Craig Johnson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Guelph where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in environmental politics, sustainable development, humanitarian policy, and global environmental regimes. His research lies in the field of global environmental governance, focusing primarily on the role of cities and transnational city-networks in reducing the worlds global carbon footprint. Craig is author of The Power of Cities in Global Climate Politics (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2018) and Arresting Development: The Power of Knowledge for Social Change (Routledge, 2009).
He is also a Senior Fellow with the Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto, and has taught at the London School of Economics, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University College London and the University of Oxford.