M4EG: Reflections on a Journey Toward Sustainable Urban Development

by Tina S. Stoum, Project Manager at UNDP, and Thibault Charlet, EU Programme Manager

For Mayors involved in the initiative, the purpose is to provide a sense of expanded options in the face of complexity, rather than resorting to “magic bullets.” Initial M4EG launch piece: “Integrating complexity in development handbooks, with mayors on the front page”.

It’s been three years of EU and UNDP partnership in orchestrating the Mayors for Economic Growth (M4EG) initiative in the Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Republic of Moldova and Ukraine). Below we take stock of how our three main work streams have supported local authorities in the following areas: 1) creating spaces to learn from each other, 2) adapting to new realities and improving crisis response, and 3) delving deep into finding a municipality’s best local fit for sustainable economic development.

1. Reinvigorating municipal ties: A network of peer learning and inspiration

One of our core objectives has been to transform the network of municipalities into a vibrant space for exchanging knowledge and shared experiences. With an eye on the myriad of challenges and opportunities municipalities face, we recognized that the collective strength lay in their ability to learn from one another. 

To respond to the evolving needs, we designed an Urban Learning Center (ULC) with partners Arup, Climate KIC, and TalTech. The ULC is an online platform with open access to courses and resources. As a result in 2023, we launched our Foundation for Future Readiness course, soon to be followed by courses on the green and just transition, smart cities, and a new generation of local economic development plans (Pathways for Economic Growth – P4EG), all available in the six languages of the EaP. The courses are complemented by in-country learning sprints and workshops, tailored to the demand and interest of M4EG network members. More than 400 municipality staff have so far been trained under the ULC.

In September, some 40 municipality staff in Moldova participated in the ULC Foundation Course Workshop. Here in active discussion on how Local Public Authorities can use technology and digitalization to become “smarter”.  

The network is further strengthened by regional as well as national level events, including starting the tradition of “Show & Tell” gatherings where members share learning and effects with peers. A key principle of the M4EG network is to leverage and scale initiatives that are already taking place and embed a stronger local economic transformation lens. For example, in 2023, the M4EG helped design and co-host the Tbilisi Economic Forum and the Lviv Urban Forum that brought together development leaders and policymakers to reimagine urban transformation.

What have we seen so far? 

Over the past few years, the network has closed to doubled, and with a notably strong demand from Mayors and their teams for more tailored opportunities to connect with their peers. We received a substantial number of applications for all of our learning and grant opportunities. There is a keen interest in moving beyond traditional methods, especially if it allows city governments to play a broader role in  connecting partners and expanding opportunities. The M4EG’s focus on ‘future-readiness’ and exploring new trajectories of growth has awakened interest. Over the past three years, more than 8,000 individuals have actively participated in workshops and events, and our communication initiatives have reached over 2 million people.

While maintaining our emphasis on sustainable economic growth, M4EG’s ‘urban makeover’concept, which focuses on the vibrancy of places and innovation, has landed well with mayors and municipalities. There is a growing consensus that achieving prosperity and nurturing ‘thriving communities’ requires a strong interplay of economic as well as social and environmental dimensions.

Drawing inspiration from the EU and beyond, the network has fostered a culture in which municipalities are not just beneficiaries but active contributors, sharing their innovations and lessons learned.

A group of people standing together

Description automatically generated
Sensemaking workshop in Brussels in April 2023 with 9 municipalities from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, during which they shared lessons and designed new interventions.

2. Pivoting in times of crisis: Resilience amidst adversity in Ukraine and Moldova

The unpredictability of the global landscape was never more evident than with the onset of the war in Ukraine and its significant repercussions in Moldova. Faced with these new realities, the M4EG swiftly adapted to the changing dynamics, providing urgent and resilience support to over 100 municipalities in the most trying times of 2022-2023. More than 25,000 refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) were supported through a number of initiatives. 

A new offer called the Response & Renewal Grant Programme was designed, with a EUR 1.8m top-up from the EU. Close to 200 applications were received from members, and the selected 18 members went through the Learning & Design Sprint, a co-design process to develop the best-fit intervention to rejuvenate their foundations for economic recovery, facilitate future sustainable growth, and modernize their cities and communities. Currently, all grants are under implementation and results are expected at the end 2023. 

The Learning Sprint led to several concrete improvements of our proposal including: systematization of the project’s educational component, detailed planning of specialized training for IDPs, and establishment of a consultative body for addressing IDP issues.

Municipality staff in Slavuta, Ukraine
A person hugging a person

Description automatically generated
More than 30 UN Community volunteers supported local authorities’ crisis response in 2022,  here a UNV is hugging a health worker in Lviv, Ukraine
What have we seen so far? 

Local authorities are at the forefront of the crisis response, and the M4EG recognized these existing capabilities and system immunities by leveraging and topping up ongoing responses. The rapid learning sprint design helped to quickly improve the existing proposals. Community listening proved particularly valuable,  allowing municipal teams to vet their intended interventions with stakeholders, make necessary adjustments, and improve communication about their initiatives with residents. The collaboration of Bilbao’s Agirre Lehendakaria Center with Ukrainian cities underlined that ‘community listening is not a luxury, even in times of crisis’

M4EG’s strong principle of adaptability, ensuring relevance in changing circumstances, proved essential and underscored our commitment to development and the well-being of the municipalities. 

A group of women sitting around a table

Description automatically generated
Romanian language courses and career skills workshops for Ukrainians in Moldova to increase employment opportunities, piloted under the M4EG. 

3. Deep engagement: Innovating and leveraging beyond the norm

Transitioning from conventional economic approaches, our ‘deep’ engagement with nearly 50 municipalities marks a significant shift towards innovative economic and urban development. 

These municipalities embarked on a transformative learning journey, fortified with seed-funding – totaling approximately EUR 5 million – to introduce groundbreaking tools and methodologies. The Portfolio Journey, led with our partner Chora Design, introduced a mission-based economy approach to local challenges around economic stagnation and unemployment. The Urban Imaginaries, led with our partner Center for Public Impact, applied a human-centered design approach to reimagining city life and public services. The diverse range of focuses, spanning from creative economic industries and the blue economy to fostering a start-up ecosystem and the renewable energy transition, are inspiring and offer tangible results and lessons to be shared with the regional network and beyond.

Khirdalan, known as a ‘sleeper town’ of Baku in Azerbaijan, has set its sights on fueling creative entrepreneurship to supplement and, in the long run, possibly diversify the existing industrial factories. The municipality is actively engaged in facilitating connections to local and national private sector actors to generate new employment opportunities. The photo features the first job fair held in September 2023, which gathered more than 1,000 visitors and 26 companies presenting around 280 local job opportunities. 
In the city of Kapan, situated in the Syunik region of Armenia, the economy is mainly based on the industrial sector, encompassing mining, production of building materials, and food-processing. With the help of the M4EG, the municipality has a new economic vision that also encompasses ‘participatory community wellbeing’. Here, the Local Economic Development Officer presents the new strategy to residents,  local stakeholders and the international development community on EU Days in April 2023.
What have we seen so far?

The M4EG approach of going ‘hyperlocal’ and working alongside municipalities to jointly co-design and solve issues together is highly appreciated by its members. The impact on the ground is evident, and the close and tailored engagement has unlocked new partnership and funding opportunities. To highlight one example, the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv – the “city on the wave” – has already mobilized EUR 300,000 on top of the M4EG grant for its new blue economy portfolio, designed under the M4EG.

Mykolaiv’s economic portfolio includes green and smart interventions with start-ups and SMEs, revitalization of the shipyard, design of the Maritime industrial park and crowding in partnerships and new funding and financing opportunities for recovery and transformation.

However, official development assistance (ODA) is far from sufficient to sustainably manage the economic changes needed at the local level. The need to diversify revenue streams is clear, and M4EG is intensifying its focus on identifying existing as well as new funding and financing opportunities. Further leveraging funds from central government, improved tax collection, budget savings, such as through energy efficiency measures, municipal enterprises, crowdfunding, SME funding support, such as credit lines from the EU Economic and Investment Plan for the Eastern Partnership region, as well as the identification of possible ‘bankable’ projects for financing can all help turn the dial toward economic transformation, and where the local city governments can take an active facilitator role. 

A group of people standing on a sidewalk

Description automatically generated
Ceadir-Lunga’s (Moldova) first e-tree as part of their energy transition portfolio. The municipality has already saved considerable budget funds through the first interventions on smart street lighting and retrofitting kindergarten and public buildings. These energy savings are re-invested in supporting lower-income families. 
What is next? 

Going forward, the M4EG will maintain an active network with meaningful participation through learning opportunities under the ULC, with a particular focus on the Pathways for Economic Growth methodology and the green and smart transitions. Supporting implementation of grants and capturing and disseminating the results from those going ‘deep’ will also be another key deliverable over the next year. 

Simultaneously, the M4EG plans to increase its focus on further optimizing the grant funding, seeking new avenues to scale and mobilize more public and private financing. As we look ahead, our vision is to harness these resources to unlock new partnerships, funding, and financing opportunities, including under the EU’s Economic and Investment Plan for the Eastern Partnership region, to ensure that the M4EG municipalities are well-positioned to capitalize on emerging opportunities.

In conclusion, as we reflect upon our journey with the M4EG initiative, it has been a path marked by valuable learnings, adaptability, and profound engagements. Here is to continuing our collective endeavor towards a sustainable, resilient, and prosperous future, with Mayors and their teams in the driving seat.

A hand holding a group of stickers

Description automatically generated


The Mayors for Economic Growth, a joint EU and UNDP initiative, funded by the EU since 2017, supports cities and towns in the Eastern Partnership countries. By fostering robust partnerships and promoting local transformations, the initiative seeks to reshape traditional developmental thinking and encourage sustainable, resilient, inclusive, innovative economic growth within planetary boundaries.