Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires 

The internationalisation of local governments: prospects and opportunities to develop cities and metropolitan spaces

“The internationalisation of metropolitan spaces should not be seen as the sum of specific actions at different levels of government, but as the result of a coordination process.”


Paola Andrea Arjona Caycedo is a political scientist specialising in international relations, international cooperation and project management for development. With extensive experience in cooperation programmes in Latin America and Europe, she has devoted a significant part of her professional career to issues related to decentralisation and subnational governments.

In this interview with Metropolis, the partner at PHARE-Global Territories and former technical director of the AL-LAs Alliance shares her thoughts. We hear her perspective on how local governments need to open up to the outside world, and how properly managed internationalisation is the key to strengthening a city’s ability to respond and adapt to emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic, complementing service provision and preparing cities for recovery.


Can the concept of internationalisation be difficult to understand? How would you define the internationalisation of local governments?

The internationalisation, or international action, of local governments can be understood as the series of actions and initiatives that local authorities intentionally put in place to: increase awareness of a territory abroad; advertise its appeal in terms of capital, science, innovation, culture, the environment, etc.; attract and retain opportunities for socio-economic development, such as investment, corporate headquarters, talent, scientific and technological projects, trade fairs, and professional, cultural and sporting events, and tourism, etc.; and exchange experiences and knowledge that allow the city to achieve its territorial development objectives and therefore, provide its inhabitants with better living conditions and greater opportunities. All of this can be achieved through allies aligned to the city or metropolitan space project.

Internationalisation also involves participation on platforms for regional and international governance. Local governments represent themselves, their interests and their citizens’ interests, to establish their influence and shared responsibility in addressing the urban facet of global challenges such as climate change, mass migration, growing inequality, global health, risk management and food security, among other matters. 


Many local governments do not invest in international action because they consider it a ‘luxury’. What do you think? What added value does international action bring to local governments?

If you see international action as an end in itself, then it becomes a ‘luxury good’. But if you see it as a tool to enhance and boost development in a territory and strengthen local management, then it becomes an ‘investment’. The added value of international action for local governments is to strengthen more efficient and innovative public policies. This can be achieved by mobilising technical, financial and political resources, sharing knowledge acquired by other cities, and strengthening the technical and political abilities of civil servants through courses and experience with external actors.

International action cannot be exclusive to large cities and metropolitan spaces, but must be on the agenda of all local governments if they want to properly manage their situation. In a world where local and international processes are increasingly intertwined, a local government cannot fully exercise its competences, provide public services, promote its productive capacity or develop the territory model it wants to, without entering into relations with foreign actors.


Sometimes public perception is that internationalisation policies involve unnecessary expenditure. How can local governments legitimise this kind of public policy?

International action is seen as an unnecessary expense, or can be misinterpreted as such, because it is sometimes associated with participation in events or summits that have no further purpose, or as a series of sporadic and reactive actions, rather than a public policy in line with a comprehensive strategy that covers all the opportunities that international action provides to the territory. 

To legitimise international action, it is important for it to be seen as a matter of public agenda, and as an exercise in democratic governance that involves the following: i) the highest political authority publicly expressing its commitment to providing the territory with an international dimension, and the benefits of doing so; ii) it is integrated as one of the fundamental pillars of territorial vision and the government agenda; iii) it is seen as public policy driven by actors or agents in the territory, rather than by the government, or in other words, it is the product of active participation by local agents and actors in terms of its appropriation and execution; v) and it is the subject of extensive communication, with accountability measures in place.


Metropolitan areas are home to coexisting interests from different levels of government (local, metropolitan, provincial, regional, national, etc.) How do you think governments in metropolitan areas should coordinate with other levels of government on the strategic process of internationalisation?

The internationalisation of metropolitan spaces should not be seen as the result of specific actions at different levels of government, but as the result of a coordination process, in which cooperation prevails over competition, and participation and interaction between different levels of government and non-governmental actors are encouraged. The process also involves organising networks between the public and the private sectors to define, implement and evaluate the services and public policies related to international action.

An example of coordination in relation to international strategy is the process followed by the Barcelona Metropolitan Area (AMB) to draft the Internationalisation Plan 2021-2025. Although the plan is designed for the institution as a whole, a number of metropolitan municipalities and other Spanish administrations, economic and social actors, research centres, city networks, AMB employees and other metropolitan areas from around the world all took part in drafting the plan. The objective of the process was to capture the perspectives, priorities and reflections of local actors, in order to achieve common goals in the metropolitan space and “boost sustainability, competitiveness, the innovative dimension, the quality and effectiveness of the AMB policies, and to highlight assets”.


What tools can we provide local governments so they can strengthen their capacity for international action?

In order to consolidate the internationalisation of local governments, we need to move towards professionalisation. This means providing the process with the necessary legal and institutional frameworks, as well as the required technical, financial and human tools within the legal and administrative possibilities of each local government.

The tools for strengthening and developing the capacities of technical and political bodies of local governments in terms of international action require: i) putting forward training processes to plan and manage international action; ii) providing local authorities with better technical arguments and enhancing their political-strategic discourse on international action and, iii) moving towards knowledge management, capitalising on learning and developing spaces for exchange based on good practice, lessons learned and key experiences in the management of international action.


What is the role of global agendas in creating ties between international actors?

A significant number of the issues on the international agenda have a large impact at a local level and are linked to many competencies managed by local governments. The involvement of local governments in defining and implementing these agendas is important because it contributes to improving the quality of global strategies and legitimising the decisions taken. It also allows them to adjust strategies to the experience and commitment of local governments, so that they respond better to the needs of local actors.

The role of these agendas in the relationship between international actors can be reflected in three ways: i) the impact on global agendas by working in organised networks of local governments; ii) support for decentralised cooperation processes to exchange experiences, knowledge and technical resources to promote joint actions that result in public policies with shared benefits; and iii) education for development and public awareness.


For two years, we have barely been able to travel or participate in international events, or go to places where we used to network and exchange experiences and knowledge. In your opinion, what impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on international action?

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how important it is for local governments to open up to the outside world, and how proper management of internationalisation is key to strengthening the capacity to respond and adapt during crises, complementing service provision and preparing cities for recovery.

Although the pandemic meant it was not possible to travel in order to network, local governments managed the crisis by reactivating the relationships they had built with counterparts around the world through bilateral cooperation, which allowed them access to health supplies and project management resources. By networking, local governments not only discussed and shared good practices to address local pandemic management (providing basic services, caring for vulnerable population groups, etc.), but also proposed policies to design a recovery agenda. The impact of the crisis also led some local governments to rethink the way in which cities connect to the world and how they position themselves, as well as leveraging recovery from international strategy. One such example is the international projection strategy of the city of Buenos Aires.

The role played by international action during the pandemic provides us with an opportunity to encourage reflection, rethink the international action of local governments in a strategic, participatory and long-term way, discover innovative ways of working together, and find ways in which international action can be key to handling other global emergencies.