3 Feb 2015

This is a guest post by Dr. Ulrich Graute. He is an International Cooperation and Development Expert (UN, EU, national) and Senior Adviser, as well as a board member of the Regional Studies Association. Ulrich talks about the engagement of the RSA in the global dialogue regarding sustainable development and how the organization became well established as a dialogue partner for the United Nations.

Would you agree that academics and politicians are often found in a love-hate relationship?

Politicians don’t like abstract discussions in the ‘ivory tower’ of academia, while they have to face ‘real problems in real life’. At the same time, they know that they need input from academia to better understand the world and identify solutions for impending problems. 

In contrast, academics often consider the pragmatism in politics as incompatible with the necessary rigidity of scientific approaches and methods. Thus, they often prefer staying among their peers and epistemic communities. Of course, what scholars like most next to their research is that somebody takes note and listens to their findings, applies research results and keeps funding academic work. Well, and because politicians are important gatekeepers to make that happen, many scholars and academic institutions (including RSA) build networks not only within academia but also with the world of decision-makers in politics and administration.

RSA is going beyond the academic world

The RSA obviously understands the primary interest of its members in academic exchange and, not surprisingly, the increasing number of academic events and research journals became a hallmark of the association and its success. At the same time RSA was, is and hopefully will always remain open for practitioners and will contribute to bridge any gap between regional science, urban and regional planning and politics. 

Where this is especially fruitful this are the academic and policy debates organized by EU Commission and RSA together with Latvian partners in form of the already second joint EU Cohesion Policy Conference in Riga, 4 - 6 February 2015.  

There is nothing similar, which could be said about the relation between RSA and the UN. The canyon between regional science and global politics and programmes is so deep that they not even share the same understanding on what is understood by a region. Whereas regional researchers usually refer to sub-national entities and occasional to cross-border areas, the global experts e.g. at the UN refer almost exclusively to world regions like Africa or Europe when they talk or write about regions. 

This division is nuts because neither practical politics nor academic work can ignore interrelations between policy levels and economic, social and environmental trends which go beyond single regions and countries. For RSA with its increasingly global membership and conference schedule between China, Brazil and Europe it was only a matter of time, until it realised that it was time to knock at the door of the UN.

Knocking at the door of the UN and getting engaged in the global dialogue on sustainable development

Following the implementation of Millennium Development Goals (MDG) between 2000 and 2015, the member states of the United Nations are about to launch in September 2015 an even more ambitious agenda called Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Eradication of poverty and resilient cities worldwide are just two of the challenging goals. 

RSA is in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council ECOSOC of the UN since 1984 but for most of the time was not active at the UN level. This changed last year when RSA Board Members got involved in UN events. I attended the first Integrated Segment of ECOSOC on Sustainable Urbanization and Gordon Dabinett participated at the UN expert group proposing International Guidelines to shape the Sustainable Development of Cities.

Now in 2015 and just months before the launch of the SDG the intergovernmental negotiations are entering their final stage. In this situation, the UN Secretariat held a preparatory forum for major groups, including academia and other civil society stakeholders. Again RSA took part in the event but by now RSA is listed on the Roster of ECOSOC, meaning that thanks to its contribution RSA is now well known at the UN and shortlisted for future cooperation.