19 August 2016

How can cities challenge inequality and foster inclusive growth?

This post originally appeared on the Ford Foundation Equals Change blog in April 2016

Inequality is rising across the world, but it is perhaps most visible in cities, where the top one percent and those at bottom of the income spectrum live close together. Since rising inequality hurts economic growth, mayors and local officials are increasingly finding themselves at the centre of policy debates about inequality. And since local conditions and dynamics have a huge impact on social and economic mobility, these leaders and their policies play a key role in addressing inequality worldwide.

The Ford Foundation and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently brought together mayors from 21 cities around the world to discuss what local leaders can do to tackle rising inequality in cities and create an environment that fosters inclusive growth for all. Here are highlights from that conversation:

Inclusive growth is about everyone

Despite varying national and urban contexts, mayors of cities large, mid-sized, and small agreed that rising inequality is hurting all of us. The mayors also agreed that inequality is leading to exclusion and social stratification, increased acts of extreme violence, political instability, and poor economic growth. As such, cities and municipalities need to embrace an inclusive growth agenda that more equitably shares opportunities, resources, and benefits of economic growth with every section of society. As Fernando Medina, the mayor of Lisbon, emphasized, inclusive growth is a robust and sustainable approach to economic development that is not just about one group of people, but all people: rich, middle class and poor.

Cities can’t wait for national and federal governments to address inequality

With national and federal governments across the world constrained by political gridlock and declining budgets, city and local governments are recognizing that to tackle inequality, they themselves need to innovate. Mayors and local leaders are seeing and responding to urgent problems associated with inequality in their backyards: problems related to education, jobs, wages, housing, gentrification, and displacement. As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio explained, “Necessity is the mother of invention, [and] in the end, on so many issues of inequality, cities have to innovate solutions because no level of government above us has the political will or takes the responsibility for those issues, even though it should be their natural responsibility.”

Cities are critical to challenging global inequality and promoting inclusive growth

Traditionally, policy discussions about inequality and inclusive growth have been between national governments or at the federal level. But cities and municipalities are also critical to advancing the inclusive growth agenda. As Mayor de Blasio underscored, “[Cities] are where the will is: The political will for change, the ability to respond to the peoples’ needs; the willingness to take on the status quo and entrenched powers and assumptions; the possibility of innovation. All of that converges…on our cities. We, as leaders, are the most connected to the ground, to the grassroots.” Because cities often possess a democratic public square—both literally, in their physical built environments; and philosophically, in their participatory processes—there is an unparalleled opportunity for mayors to cultivate participatory democracy and responsive government. As Curridabat Mayor Edgar Mora Altamirano pointed out, local and municipal governments are in a position to empower citizens, providing them with opportunities to participate in the democratic process and shape public policy.

Inclusion is not just an issue of economics

Inequality isn’t just about economics, wealth, and income. The mayors and other participants highlighted inequality’s role in limiting access to quality education, housing, infrastructure, and public services. But one thing often left out of these discussions is unequal access to arts and cultural institutions, and organizations typically seen as reserved for elites. Indeed, inequality is perpetuated by dominant cultural narratives and by barriers that prevent some groups from gaining cultural capital. Javier Gonzales, mayor of Santa Fe, explained that he challenged his city’s arts and cultural institutions to play a greater role in enriching the lives of all Santa Fe residents, including the 20 percent of residents living in poverty. For the first time, Santa Fe’s major cultural institutions, including the opera, are bringing the community together instead of perpetuating existing divisions.

We learned during the event that there is more than enough political will and energy to get started. And now, with 45 mayors signed on to the Inclusive Growth in Cities campaign, the real work can begin. As OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said at the event, “Now it’s going to be about implementation, implementation, implementation—although not necessarily in that order.”

For more information about the Ford Foundation and the OECD’s “Inclusive Growth in Cities Campaign”, visit the event page and watch the full discussions here.


Ana Marie Argilagos

Senior Advisor, Equitable Development, Ford Foundation