Exploring the subnational take on climate resilience – a journey towards Paradiplomacy

By David-Pierre Giudicelli

A drawing of different people discussing with a city and nature in the background
Photo: Shutterstock

David-Pierre Giudicelli started his master in 2021 at NMBU and participated in TOWARDS activities while writing his master thesis on the contributions of paradiplomacy to climate resilient development. In this blog, David-Pierre tells us more about how his journey started, including his interest for subnational initiatives, and the surprises he found along the way.

When enrolling in NMBU’s Master’s in global development studies, I intended to take some distance from nine years of fieldwork in decentralized cooperation as the agent of a regional government abroad. Fresh air and new viewpoints were the projected outcomes, as well as a more critical outlook on past accomplishments in development project management. Little did I know that this journey would bring me back to decentralised forms of global involvements, with renewed interest and renewed convictions, all thanks to a peculiar word that I set out to investigate in my master thesis: paradiplomacy.

First, some context.

I have always been partial to local actions, that are rooted in people’s lives and respectful of their diverse aspirations. I suppose this is why focusing on international cooperations between cities and regions was more appealing to me than the conventional nation-led diplomacy. While working for subnational governments abroad, I came to appreciate how multicultural encounters and international solidarity were fostered, all while supporting development projects rooted in their local contexts. What should have been six months of internship transformed into an almost decade-long mission with wonderful collaborations built along the way.

As incredibly fulfilling as this experience was, I couldn’t help but wonder about the significance of such global connections at local scales in the face of our world’s current challenges - climate change along other societal threats. Decentralized cooperations seemed undeniably fruitful locally but far too uncommon and often unnoticed to be recognized for their contributions at a global scale. Consequently, the growing feeling of being the agent of an isolated phenomenon convinced me to step away from the practitioner’s world. I looked for a master’s degree that would help me find a better-suited scale to engage on our pressing global issues – which led me to NMBU.

Houses overlooking a lake in Madagascar
Previous work in decentralized cooperation in Madagascar Photo: David-Pierre Giudicelli

The serendipitous turn of an academic journey

Within the global development studies master, I had the chance to dig into a good balance of mandatory and freely chosen courses, explored in an interdisciplinary way. Though to my surprise, diving into very diverse but interrelated topics - from food systems to climate justice, poverty or gender - systematically brought me back to the crucial need for contextually rooted solutions, and the role of local forms of governance. Across the themes covered, subnational governments emerged as key entry points to address sustainability challenges within local contexts. Moreover, transnational relations were arising as potential catalysts for global awareness, advocating capacity, and experience sharing.

The relevance of connecting cities and regions to tackle global issues started surfacing from various parts of the literature, often labelling the phenomenon “paradiplomacy”.

Intrigued by a term I had not heard before, I decided to explore it further in my master’s thesis. Though to adopt a more solution-seeking approach, I paired the newly discovered concept of paradiplomacy with sustainable development and climate action, aiming to explore the subnational answers to our most pressing global issues.

This proposed local-centred approach notably allowed me to connect with TOWARDS, one of NMBU’s newly started sustainability arena

A few months of intense investigations followed, leading not only to a discovered taste in research, but also to a reignited interest in decentralized forms of international relations.

Beyond the phenomenon, paradiplomacy’s untapped potential?

While my past experiences had made clear how cities and regions could enhance local development through their collaborations, reviewing the evidence from decades of research taught me that the phenomenon was far from isolated. Across the world, subnational governments’ role in global affairs had been progressively studied, observably impacting global governance through various approaches ranging from town twining, regional cooperation, up to worldwide transnational networks. I had therefore been a paradiplomat. I had participated in a global phenomenon that, although often underacknowledged, was already part of a changing world.

Beyond the worldwide nature of the phenomenon, reaching the conclusions of my research hinted at how paradiplomacy could further support global transformations. The study of two specific cases – namely the Norwegian City of Oslo and the French region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine – was highlighting the capacity of subnational governments to actively contribute to a climate resilient development through their paradiplomatic activities. Climate action and sustainable development were indeed being addressed in various context-specific manners through foreign collaborations, allowing me to conclude on the apparent though yet unfulfilled potential of paradiplomacy.

A note of hope to end a fulfilling journey: paradiplomacy’s growing role in a changing world

While subnational governments have won back their place in my convictions, the research I conducted has made me more aware of the current gaps and needs of a somewhat fragmented field. Paradiplomatic studies have undoubtedly earned their name, but they have yet to structure to take their place amongst a very inter-national world. The stakes of alternate framings for global governance, adding multilevel and polycentric variations to centralized or market-based models, appear worthy of more coordinated efforts.

Thankfully, beyond insights gathered throughout this journey, my final discovery has been a community in the making. The fragmented research landscape I deplored in my thesis is now being connected, notably through the recent initiative of a global paradiplomacy scholars forum aiming to establish a long term network of researchers. The relative isolation of this underrated field may belong to the past. New perspectives are opening for a collective endeavour aiming to further explore the subnational take on our global issues.

As a phenomenon that globally connects diverse local realities, paradiplomacy could as such play a key and worth exploring role in the transformation of global governance, and the push towards sustainability.

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