Atlanta is the ideal location for the North American offices of CIFAL, a branch of a Geneva-based United Nations agency responsible for the training of local governments, said Axel Leblois, a senior U.N. fellow and the executive director of CIFAL Atlanta.

CIFAL Atlanta is the only such U.N. agency in the United States outside of New York, and its activities cover North and South America as well as the Caribbean, Mr. Leblois told GlobalAtlanta in an interview at CIFAL’s office in Midtown.

“From the U.N.’s perspective, it’s the American city with the most intriguing political heritage because of the civil rights movement,” he said. “Atlanta is the face of America that people trust the most.”

“When I organize programs and invite authorities from different countries, they come to Atlanta and see it as a mutual international platform for them – it’s not associated with anything negative in their mind – it’s all positive.”

Mr. Leblois cited that more than 60 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, thus there is a need to train local authorities in critical issues of economic and social development. CIFAL Atlanta targets so-called megacities with more than 500,000 inhabitants to offer its training programs. According to Mr. Leblois, there are 70 such cities in the U.S. and Canada and 109 in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“In a way, it seems like a very narrow target, but it covers 430 million people. So, by transferring knowledge and best practices among a small group of people, you can actually affect a large population,” he added.

CIFAL provides a platform for local authorities, mayors, governors or municipal councilors and their key executives to transfer knowledge and best practices. Areas covered include HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, water management, information technology and commercial diplomacy.

CIFAL Atlanta works actively in helping local governments meet the Millennium Development Goals as agreed to by U.N. member states in September 2000. The eight goals, hoped to be achieved by 2015, include the eradication of extreme poverty, the provision of universal primary education, the reduction of child mortality, the combating of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, as well as debt relief and increased aid to poor countries.

Mr. Leblois previously served as president of Computerworld Communications Ltd., CEO of International Data Corporation Inc., president and CEO of Bull HN Information Systems Inc., formerly Honeywell Information Systems Inc., and CEO of ExecuTrain Corp.

He has also served as a trustee, vice-chair and chair of Atlanta International School’s board of directors since 1998. He is a graduate of Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and holds an MBA from the Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires (INSEAD) in France.

A transcript follows of the complete interview with Mr. Leblois in which he discusses CIFAL Atlanta’s activities. He may be reached by calling (404) 962-4833.

GlobalAtlanta: Tell us a bit about CIFAL and how it ties into the United Nations?

Mr. Leblois: CIFAL stands for the Centre International de Formation des Autorites/Acteurs Locaux (International Training Center for Local Authorities/Actors). CIFAL Atlanta is the North American affiliate of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). CIFAL centers provide training for local authorities, mayors, governors or municipal councilors and their key executives as well as private sector and civil society leaders in the areas of sustainable urbanization and environment, information society, and human, social and economic development. There are CIFAL centers across the world, but this is the only one in North America.

Often as a result of media attention, people sometimes think that the U.N. consists of just the Security Council, and they associate the U.N. only with that particular body, which is unfortunate as that is a source of much misunderstanding.

Most of the U.N.’s work in fact covers economic and social development issues. Its main affiliates include the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and other such bodies. These are essential and necessary agencies that are needed to be able to get things to work worldwide. A number of industries and intergovernmental activities could not operate in the world without these organizations.

UNITAR is one of these specialized institutions in the United Nations system. It is headquartered in Geneva. UNITAR is less well known than some of the other U.N. agencies are, as it did not reach out to the public at first. It is about 50 years old and was formed to train the civil servants of the member states of the U.N. system. Particularly in the 1960s when de-colonization occurred, a lot of these newly formed countries did not have knowledge of the U.N. system, the basics of international law, treaties etc. So initially UNITAR was geared towards training high level civil servants and officials, focusing on international law and diplomacy, the U.N. system, peacekeeping and conflict resolution.

As a result, today UNITAR is regarded as one of the foremost centers of expertise regarding peacekeeping and conflict resolution with a very field oriented approach and not just a theoretical one. For example UNITAR provides training for all the operations of the member states that deal with conflicts in Kosovo and places like that. The head of UNITAR, Dr. Marcel Boisard spent fifteen years at the Red Cross in the field dealing with cease-fire negotiations, prisoner exchanges as well as rescue and relief operations.

However, over the years, as the U.N. system activities expanded dramatically into the fields of international cooperation, as well as industry, trade, commerce and agriculture, we are now seeing that economic and social development issues are becoming more important. In fact, the Economic and Social Council of the U.N. has a much broader scope of decision making and influence than any other body of the U.N. because its decisions traverse all of the U.N. organizations.

So UNITAR progressively got more involved in supporting UN agencies for training of economic and social development issues to the extent that such matters now form about 70 percent of its activities, the remaining being international law.

In 2000, the U.N. adopted the Millennium Development Goals. The beauty of this is that for the first time in the U.N.’s history there is a clear blueprint as to which quantified and measurable goals we should aim for by 2015 in terms of ensuring human development and human security.

Among those human development goals are some very practical measures like the number of primary schools, telephone lines, and availability of drinking water in a country. When you analyze all these very specific goals you find that most of these goals fall under the jurisdiction of local authorities not central governments, and over 50 percent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas.

So there was a real need for the U.N. system to reach out directly to local authorities in a number of areas of economic and social development.

GlobalAtlanta: That’s where real service delivery happens isn’t it? At the local level?

Mr. Leblois: That’s exactly right. So back in the early 2000s there were different major U.N. summits across the world like the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg. Different organizations like the World Bank, UNITAR and the UNDP began to strategically think about local authorities. Previously their focus had been at the central government level.

If you look at the World Bank’s loan portfolio today, an increasing share of funds goes to local government, which is a complete departure from historical times. The World Bank even has a department specifically dealing with local government and a program called the Cities Alliance targeted at the so-called megacities.

At the Johannesburg summit, UNITAR realized that there was no way with a limited structure based in Geneva that we could develop a significant program for local authorities across the world, dealing with hands-on situations in Indonesia, Peru, China or Mexico, for example. So, UNITAR made a very smart strategic decision to create a kind of franchise system partnering with major cities around the world, and also to an extent with universities, to set up CIFAL training centers such as the one in Atlanta for example.

So it’s a very new paradigm for development in these countries because you rely on the skills of people who have hands on expertise with these local government issues.

GlobalAtlanta: Why North America though and, of course, the obvious question, why Atlanta specifically?

Mr. Leblois: First of all, UNITAR was interested in opening an operation in North America because that’s the only continent they are not in. We have one operation in Brazil focused on environmental, transportation and urban planning issues. But there are a lot of other major urban issues that UNITAR wanted to focus on such as international trade, infrastructure development, homelessness, AIDS, and technology.

To cover these topics you have got to be in North America- to attract the best people, to attract the right business leaders and academic resources. And it made great sense to have a U.N. training center in North America serving the North American local authorities as well who are eager to share experiences with their international colleagues. Yes, its sounds like a strange idea but initial results make us believe it’s working well.

When the idea was raised at UNITAR to open a North American center I said why don’t you consider Atlanta? I think Atlanta has great potential, after all it is a very ambitious city, and it wants to position itself on the map as the capital of the Americas. I had friends at Hemisphere, Inc., who could help UNITAR set up a CIFAL center in Atlanta and they were excited by the concept. So I called Dr. Boisard to New York, and we explored the possibilities. After a detailed review of its options, UNITAR agreed to select Atlanta. We opened the center in September last year with Mayor Franklin and Dr. Boisard signing the agreement at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

I told UNITAR and the city that I would be happy to volunteer to head up CIFAL Atlanta which is what I have been doing since then. I am delighted at the opportunity, especially because when we discussed Atlanta, I told UNITAR the following – Atlanta is a city with fantastic economic expansion, it’s got the third highest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters in the USA after New York and Chicago. Atlanta also has a large number of international citizens as well as world-renowned organizations like CNN, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the Carter Center and CARE.

The airport is great, the busiest in the world, with non-stop flights to many overseas destinations. Also, whereas it’s not well known outside the USA, the academic community in Atlanta is one of the strongest in the country. Whenever you look at the different disciplines across the university system there is almost always one of the Georgia schools amongst the top 5 or top 10, not necessarily the first one but always consistently amongst the top.

From a U.N. perspective it’s also an American city with one of the most respected political heritages because of the civil rights movement. People come from all over the world to Atlanta and they see the Carter Center and the King Center. Atlanta embodies the values and heritage of America that international participants from Latin America and the Caribbean trust the most. When I organize programs and invite authorities from different countries, they come to Atlanta and see it as a mutual international platform for them – it’s all very positive in their minds. And, of course, wherever they come from around the world they find many direct links to their respective countries since Atlanta has such a huge diverse community from a language, culture and food standpoint.

We believe that because we are in Atlanta, we can also leverage real expertise in issues affecting large urban areas, which supports our strategy directly. To share best practices in an effective fashion, we need common experience amongst our participants. If we look at urban areas, the nature of these issues is very different when you have a small town or a population several million people. If you are the mayor of a very large city like Buenos Aires for example, you may not have anyone in your own country to compare experiences with.

So we decided to focus on capital cities and urban areas with more than 500,000 inhabitants. There are 79 of those urban areas in the US and Canada and 108 in Latin America and Caribbean, or 187 in total – in a way it seems like a very narrow target but it covers 430 million people! By transferring knowledge and best practices among this small group of local government decision-makers, you can actually affect a large population – so that’s why we focus on this group.

As we looked at putting together different training programs and best practices, we knew Atlanta would have superb resources not only financially but also logistically and intellectually.

GlobalAtlanta: Why do you think U.S. cities need that type of municipal level training? What would be the value proposition for the U.S. market?

Mr. Leblois: A number of the issues we cover are particularly relevant to U.S. cities and we offer the unique opportunity for U.S. mayors to benefit from international sharing of experiences. There are organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities with a lot of excellent seminars for municipalities. Typically we do not launch initiatives where there is an existing resource that works. It makes no sense because we are not in the commercial space – so we have no market share ambitions. Instead we try to identify areas where there is no existing international platform for North American mayors to share best practices.

Let me give you examples from our program – the workshop on managing AIDS from a municipal standpoint. This is much knowledge that the largest U.S. cities are in dire need of leveraging because the common wisdom today is that unless local authorities become deeply involved in the fight against AIDS, we won’t be able to stop it. It’s just not possible. But what should the local authority do? Should they focus on prevention, treating people who are infected, or perhaps focus on children? In that regard, U.S. cities along with Caribbean and Latin American cities face similar problems and often can learn from each other.

We also have a program on water strategies for municipalities- an issue that is still under the radar for many cities. People know it’s serious but they have no idea how big an issue it is in the long term.

With regards to AIDS and water issues, for example, the Canadians have extraordinary expertise with water issues and in terms of AIDS, the Brazilians have tremendous experience. Now we are not saying that we simply take Brazil’s experiences and apply it to the U.S, but sharing such knowledge may trigger some creativity and help people look at things differently.

Other relevant topics include how to deal with the homeless population – it’s a huge issue and many people don’t have the faintest idea what the real issues of the homeless are.

Another issue we are looking at is social housing with public private partnerships, and we have great people in Atlanta focusing on this subject. So we will have a workshop on this, and that will be for the U.S. but will also attract people from Canada and Latin America.

GlobalAtlanta: CIFAL Atlanta also covers Latin America and the Caribbean. What are some of the topics you consider attractive to cities in these regions?

Mr. Leblois: Our field of expertise when we started CIFAL was in the area of public private partnerships (PPP) – how can municipal authorities leverage PPP’s in the areas of social programs, economic development, infrastructure, etc.

There are a number of areas where we think we can do very interesting things, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Another great opportunity is how these countries can leapfrog to newer more innovative information and communications technologies that can serve their communities better- this is a critical area of best practice sharing. Last May over 300 people, for example, attended our workshop on rolling out broadband wireless communication technologies to underserved communities.

Another topic of great interest is the use of information technology to enhance communication between local authorities and citizens – a more interactive model – there are a lot of pilot projects taking place. I went to Monterrey in Mexico, and this year they are rolling out an ambitious multi-agency Web based program that will enable citizens to have online access to all municipal resources.

Another area of focus is municipal workforce productivity – there are a lot of ways to vastly improve what is being currently done – and we think these topics are very attractive to mayors from all countries.

Commercial diplomacy is also an area that’s very important to Latin America and the Caribbean. When critical agreements are concluded, most of the time it’s done by central authorities. In some countries like Colombia, you have a very sophisticated process to get local authorities involved in the process e.g. what should be negotiated to your best advantage, what kind of schedule can be considered, etc. But in other countries, there is no process at all for local authorities to get involved in major decisions that affect the city. No one asks the mayors.

When we had our first workshop we had the mayor of Santiago, Chile, the mayor of Asuncion, Paraguay, and ten heads of municipal associations all over Latin America. Then, on the last day I took them to a room and put up a list of the best practices they had identified during the course of the workshop. They commented on them and then voted one by one and selected ten best practices that will be the foundation for the program for the next few years.

For example, one of the best practices deals with how to get local authorities involved in the negotiation process up front, to get a foot in the door of the central government so that their voices can be heard. Another deals with strategic plans, which must be designed by local authorities with the input of the private sector.

It was a very productive workshop and we had mayors telling us that they should have done this a long time ago.

GlobalAtlanta: How do you ensure that this knowledge is shared effectively during the workshops and then applied to solve real life problems?

Mr. Leblois: Firstly, we go out and search for the key people to invite to our workshops. It’s by invitation only, and delegates don’t have to pay for it. They just commit to participate fully and we fund the program for them. We also tell them whom else will be attending – so it’s a compelling value proposition.

The participation in the workshop is not haphazard. UNITAR uses a knowledge management tool that was donated by BP and designed initially for their key executive training programs.

For each workshop there are areas of best practice and those practices are the key success factors that makes things happen – and for each of these best practices there is a defined level of competence. For example, if you have ten best practices and five levels of competency – that’s fifty boxes to check before and after the program. Our participants do this self-audit or assessment and we then input this into a sophisticated spreadsheet model, which generates a list of the best performers so you know who are the most likely candidates for best practice sharing in terms of their stated areas of expertise.

Then we can organize the agenda and the breakout sessions in a very targeted way enabling us to tailor the sessions to meet participants’ needs. Typically, we generate so many interactions in these sessions that the relationships that are created keep going after the workshop.

One of the critical factors for success is the cooperation of local experts. For example the airports in the U.S. create about $500 billion worth of revenue both directly and indirectly – which is about the size of Brazil’s GDP.

Airports are an economic hub and a lifeline for many countries in the Caribbean and also South America. At our Leveraging Airports for Economic Development workshop conference this year we had Mario Diaz, the deputy general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport, as one of the moderators.

He was with the New York Airport previously and the New York Ports Authority before that. Mario is very sharp – probably one of the best experts in the world on the financing of airport infrastructure. We sat down together and identified seven areas of best practices, which we submitted to our steering committee and potential participants to identify which were most important to cover for the workshop.

So this process of identifying and sharing best practices that are not necessarily obvious from city to city, from urban area to urban area is a specialized task.