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A street corner in Manhattan, New York, the US. Picture:123RF
A street corner in Manhattan, New York, the US. Picture:123RF

For the first time in human history most people now live in cities. By 2050, about 70% of the global population will be city dwellers, and already 80% of global GDP is generated in cities. Amazingly, half of the global economic output is generated from just 1% of the earth’s land mass.

To place the economic scale of global cities in perspective, Paris has a larger economy than SA, the New York economy is larger than all but 20 nation states and aggregating the world’s 10 largest metros equates to the economies of Japan and Germany combined.

Housing most of the world’s major centres of culture, education and innovation, cities are vital for the development and sustainability of humankind. But with scale and population density come problems. Cities produce more than two thirds of the world’s energy, yet contribute to a similar quantum of greenhouse gas emissions. Rapid urbanisation is placing unprecedented demands on infrastructure, which is compounded by unplanned migration.

As the Covid-19 pandemic illustrated, cities are epicentres of diseases and epidemics, placing extraordinary pressure on public health infrastructure. Crime rates and levels of inequality are highest in metropoles, all of which present city leaders with complex governance challenges.

Such is the pressure on global cities that many have gone bust. New York, Detroit, Liverpool and Birmingham are a few notable examples of major cities that have failed financially. Closer to home, 43 SA municipalities have collapsed, with about 150 currently on the brink.

These contrasting pictures of economic scale and unprecedented challenges are key motivations for cities to conduct their own international relations. Twinning has been a feature of cities’ international relations since the end of World War 2, but late 20th century globalisation has provided the need and opportunity for cities to cultivate international networks in areas of shared experience and threat, such as climate change, migration, public health and security.

More than 300 city networks are now active across the globe, underpinned by the famous maxim of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who observed: “States talk — cities act”. City leadership is closer to the day-to-day challenges thrown up by urbanisation than their national counterparts, and often more directly accountable to their citizenry. This is particularly true in the case of SA, where local government elections are based on direct ward-based voting.

Soft power

One of the main drivers of what has become known as “city diplomacy” is the sharing of experience and best practice. Driven by the desire to achieve local economic growth and development, city leaders are often freer of the political and national straitjackets constraining their national counterparts in their international engagements, and more solutions orientated. While cities lack the legal standing and recognition of states and cannot enter into internationally binding treaties, they engage with and sign up to soft law and in turn can exercise significant soft power. Moreover, cities are now recognised by a plethora of UN agreements and enjoy institutional status in forums such as the UN climate change conferences.

City diplomacy can be a double-edged sword. In the case of unitary or authoritarian states, cities’ international engagements and policies are aligned with or supportive of national foreign policy. In federal systems and more devolved national governance frameworks, they can adopt positions and policies at variance with the national government. A case in point was the decision by more than 70 US cities to defy Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to withdraw the US from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

City mayors and mayoral networks are also playing a more prominent role in international relations, again sometimes at variance with national governments. Locally, the example of the City of Cape Town’s antipathy to the docking of the Russian Lady R vessel, or Western Cape premier Alan Winde’s “threat” to have Russian President Vladimir Putin arrested should he enter the Western Cape come to mind.

SA cities have participated in the wave of city diplomacy sweeping the globe. In addition to housing formal diplomatic consulates, the cities of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town conduct a raft of international relations ranging from twinning agreements to membership of international networks such as United Cities and Local Government and the C40s city climate leadership group.

Yet, apart from engaging in leadership exchanges, hosting international vanity projects and enhancing the international prestige of the city, the major challenge confronting city diplomacy remains that of delivering economic, social and governance benefits to citizens. To date, the material, economic and developmental benefits of SA city diplomacy are not evident, at least not to the neediest.

• Kilbride, an honorary professor at Stellenbosch Business School, is chairman of Spirit Invest.

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