International exchange drives success in the face of challenges


The IUC programme in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) pushed forward sustainable urban development via city-to-city pairings, the Global Covenant of Mayors, and region-to-region pairings. The programme has proven highly successful, demonstrating the potential of international cooperation to drive change. The team at IUC-LAC recently reflected on the programme’s past four years; what follows is based on their reflection.

For many cities and subnational regions in LAC, the IUC programme marked their first exposure to international peer-to-peer exchange. They were keen to learn from cities facing common challenges, who approach these from different perspectives. Furthermore, many LAC participants saw the IUC as an opportunity to put their city or region “on the map” internationally.

These primary goals led a large number of LAC cities and regions to apply to join the IUC programme, and led those cities and regions who were selected to be dedicated and engaged.

International peer-to-peer exchange posed unique challenges. However, closer examination of examples from LAC show time and time again how, through the IUC programme, cities turned challenges into success stories.

LAC participants and their European counterparts often faced vastly different urban and economic realities; furthermore, cities and regions in LAC faced the additional challenge of having their local IUC teams change each time there were elections, making it challenging to maintain contact and engagement with their European counterparts. This challenge was explored in an IUC Case Study, in which Ostrobothnia (Finland) discussed how they maintained engagement with Tierra del Fuego (Argentina) when governments changed.

“Since their cooperation began, the government in Tierra del Fuego changed, and thus the staff working on the IUC programme shifted as well. Ostrobothnia has communicated with successors to express their commitment to continue cooperating. In addition, a variety of actors were engaged in the cooperation from the beginning – including academic and industry actors who have not changed since the election – which has assisted in ensuring continuity of the project. The meaningful inclusion of these actors also opens potential sources of funding to support cooperation continuing after this phase of the IUC programme has come to a close.”

As this quote demonstrates, and in a testament to the success of the IUC-LAC programme, foreseen and unforeseen challenges often resulted in more innovative and impactful cooperation.

Two Colombian pairings – Barranquilla-Velletri & Rome (Italy) and Cartagena-Málaga (Spain) – provide further examples of success in the face of challenges. Both Barranquilla and Cartagena had new local governments that were just beginning to be active in the IUC programme in January 2020. Shortly thereafter, once the cities had prepared for their first study visits with their European peers, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe, leading all study visits to be cancelled. Despite not being able to meet their European partners in-person, both pairings began cooperating diligently through online webinars and meetings.

Pilot actions as part of the pairings’ Urban Cooperation Action Plans (UCAPs) are now moving forward. Barranquilla is implementing urban gardens as a tool to drive social integration, guided by Velletri and Rome, who lead an URBACT European transfer network on this topic. For their part, Málaga and Cartagena are using participatory processes and nature-based solutions to transform public spaces in touristic areas to avoid gentrification in vulnerable neighbourhoods.

Both of these cases have been successful thanks to commitment, involvement, and proven dedication from all participating cities, and have included stakeholders in the co-design and co-implementation of pilots. Furthermore, in Barranquilla’s case, synergies were forged between EU programmes (the IUC and URBACT). It is thus no surprise that the cities are hoping to continue working together in the new IURC programme, and to visit each other in-person.

The pandemic also highlighted cities’ adaptability, and the positive knock-on effects of having established peer-to-peer relationships. Málaga and Cartagena, for example, were initially working on curbing gentrification as a result of tourism. When the pandemic struck, they began also sharing knowledge on how to recover their critically important tourism industries, including exploring how the concept of a “destination” could be adapted, potential new target groups, and more.

The coronavirus pandemic hit Europe before it reached LAC, prompting the IUC-LAC team to organise an Open Dialogues series. This series sought to seize the enormous challenge of facing the pandemic as an opportunity for exchange. This enabled LAC cities to be more prepared once the COVID crisis reached their shores.

Although IUC pairings demonstrated resilience when travel was unexpectedly halted, study visits are nonetheless a preferred tool for city-to-city cooperation. Meeting in person helps create friendships that guarantee long-lasting cooperation. Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Madrid (Spain), for example, continue to take advantage of opportunities to cooperate, even as their facilitated IUC cooperation has concluded. Similarly, Río Grande (Argentina) and Albacete (Spain) are continue to share updates, while the mayors of São Leopoldo (Brazil) and Viana do Castelo (Portugal) forged a good relationship, which has created a political atmosphere supportive of further trans-national projects and business opportunities.

Overall, IUC-LAC cities noted lasting impacts of the programme, particularly to facilitate exchange of experiences, increase innovation in urban actions, place localities on national and internal stages, and open opportunities for key local players in business, academia and civil society.

It is thus unsurprising that the IUC-LAC team and participating cities and regions are thrilled that the programme will be continued in its second phase: the IURC. In this phase, cities and regions will also work in thematic clusters, expanding their ability to network.

Cities and subnational regions are undergoing profound transformation, which will only be exacerbated as urban areas work to rebuild after the COVID-19 crisis. International urban cooperation proved its added value in a period of global crisis, demonstrating that knowledge exchange is critical to help manage new challenges of the future.

Learn more about LAC's city-to-city pairings by clicking here.


Header image by IUC-LAC, from the IUC-LAC Regional Event in Cartagena (Colombia) in 2019.