“I was one of the speakers at the Summit and, as I was representing India, I was wearing a sari; when they called me on stage, they asked if the ‘lady in a sari’ could go up and give her opinion. I went and I said ‘Local governments are the strongest body as they are the level closest to the citizens. However, I am not an elected person: can I get my mayor?’ and went off to get Mr. Ranjit Chavan, at the time Mayor of Baroda, who represented me and took the floor to reinforce my message”. This is how Hansa Patel’s ICLEI’s adventure started, 24 years ago, at the UN Headquarters in New York where she attended the World Congress of Local Governments for a Sustainable Future, New York, 5-9 September 1990, when ICLEI was founded.
The World Congress of Local Governments for a Sustainable Future was the founding congress of ICLEI (then called ‘International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives’), when more than 200 local governments from 43 countries came together, adopted the ICLEI Charter, appointed an interim Executive Committee and elected Jeb Brugmann as ICLEI’s first Secretary General. The idea was to create an agency that could coordinate local government responses to global environmental problems.
“I still remember how the Mayor of Toronto stood up and said ‘I will host you! Come to Toronto, you can have your office there!’. There was a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm, the feeling that cities around the world could really make a difference, if we all worked together. This is how ICLEI started – and I was part of that. I will always remember that moment!”. Mrs. Hansa Patel, who had been doing extensive work in India on the issues of women, children and youth empowerment, had been invited by Jeb Brugmann (ICLEI’s co-founder) to present a paper on the role of women and the environment at the Summit.
One year later, in September 1991, the World Secretariat was opened in Toronto, Canada, and the European Secretariat in Freiburg, Germany. Mrs. Hansa Patel kept following ICLEI’s growth very closely “from a hobby it became a passion”; passion that took her all over the globe and allowed her to be part of ICLEI’s main milestones throughout the years:
- Launch of Local Agenda 21, at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992
- First ICLEI Word Congress, held in Saitama, Japan, in 1995
- Broadening of ICLEI’s mandate to address sustainability issues and change of name to ‘ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability’, at ICLEI World Congress, held in Athens, Greece, in 2003
- Creation of the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, at the 4th Municipal Leaders’ Summit on Climate Change, held in Montreal, Canada, in 2005
- Inauguration of the Local Action for Biodiversity programme, at ICLEI World Congress, held in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2006
- Launch of the Bonn Center for Local Climate Action and Reporting , at UNFCCC COP 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009,
among many others.
“Shortly after ICLEI was created, we saw the need to decentralize our actions, and get things done on the ground in the different regions. This is how the idea of the different regional offices came up. First we established an office in Japan in 1993, then came the one in Australia/New Zealand in 1999 and slowly all the others followed too.” When asked what her fondest ICLEI’s memory is, she has no doubts: “The founding of ICLEI South Asia in 2005! Cities in the region needed support locally, they were battling mostly with the issues of water and sanitation. So we started with an office in Delhi, and now have many more throughout India”.
Stories and anecdotes do not lack in Mrs. Patel’s recollections of her long years of association with ICLEI, such as when she and other two mayors had to prepare three papers for a conference in Japan and at the last minute one of the mayors had to cancel his trip “so I found myself having to prepare his paper too, on industrial safety – I had no idea! I then started calling all industries in the area asking for information and in a couple of days I had my paper ready”.
According to Mrs. Patel, mayors in South Asia have faith in ICLEI, they have seen the results and the value coming from such collaboration and this gives them the motivation needed to keep pursuing the goal of a more sustainable future for their constituencies. “I have always had close relations with many cities in India, and convinced many of them to become members”, Mrs. Patel adds. Peer-to-peer learning and sharing of good practices are, in her opinion, some of the most concrete benefits that member cities in India gain from their partnership with ICLEI. “We send them to conferences all over the world, and when they come back, I can see the change in their eyes. They keep talking about what they learnt, how cities somewhere else are facing the same challenges and what they are doing to overcome them, and they are eager to go back to their office and try to do the same”. Participating in international events, partnering with other cities and being exposed to the global scenario are not the only advantages cities see, in being an ICLEI member. “See, many elected people are working very hard towards sustainable development, but they often lack technical or financial resources, and are not adequately recognized and empowered. ICLEI gives them that: we build capacity within their administration, we channel funds that can help them improve the living conditions in their city, and we give them the acknowledgement and visibility that they deserve”.
Training and awareness-raising are, in her opinion, crucial components of sustainable development. “Train the children! Raise awareness among them on environmental and sustainability issues, encourage them to set up eco-clubs in their own school. Children will go home, talk to their parents and their friends, and grow up to be environmental-conscious adults”.
As a last thought, she shared her wish for the future of ICLEI South Asia “We need to reach out to Pakistan. As the other countries in our region, they are very vulnerable to the current and upcoming changes in climate and there is a lot we can do to support them in becoming more resilient. I hope we will soon have our first Pakistani member!”
Mrs. Hansa Patel, currently Executive Director at All India Institute of Local Self Government (AIILSG), has served as an ICLEI Executive Committee member from 2003 until 2009. She has been the ICLEI South Asia Chairperson since its foundation in 2005. ICLEI would like to thank her for the enthusiasm, commitment and accomplishments she has contributed to ICLEI’s mission in the past 24 years. We are looking forward to many more milestones achieved together in South Asia and beyond.