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Local politics

Seize opportunities

by Stefan Wilhelmy

Opinion

In many German cities, up to 40 % of the citizens are from families with migration histories: Schoolchildren in Aachen.

In many German cities, up to 40 % of the citizens are from families with migration histories: Schoolchildren in Aachen.

German municipalities are becoming increasingly involved in development affairs, for instance by twinning with foreign cities and implementing fair trade policies. Cities are thus rising to their global responsibility. Moreover, they can boost their image, especially when they involve citizens from families with migration histories in relevant programmes. Interview with Stefan Wilhelmy
"It is becoming ever more important for local authorities to consider the interests of diverse social groups."

ENGAGEMENT GLOBAL’s “Service agency Communities in One World” SKEW published a report on Migration and Municipal Development this year. How are both issues related?
Many local governments want to engage in de­velopment affairs or are already doing so. Some start municipal partnerships, others implement fair trade policies or participate in international networks. Since such commitments usually depend heavily on citizens’ participation, local governments should involve residents with migration histories, who are 30 to 40 % of the population in many German cities. Immigrants play another important role, moreover: they act as bridge builders, because they often possess special intercultural competence and understand their country of origin, its customs and language.
 
The recent report is an update of a study first published in 2007. What was the original idea?
SKEW’s mandate is to support municipalities that want to be active in development affairs. Back then, we assumed that municipal authorities could add value if they cooperated with citizens with migration histories. To test the thesis, we commissioned research and started a pilot project with five model towns. The idea was to put migrants’ organisations in touch with One World initiatives, German civil society groups that promote development. Moreover, we wanted municipal offices for international affairs to interact more closely with those in charge of migration. Usually, these offices do not coordinate their action much.
 
How did you encourage exchange between the local governments and the people?
For two years, we organised networking workshops with all relevant parties. In addition, we offered the municipalities support for drafting brochures with information about all institutions and voluntary associations involved in related matters. Doing so was particularly successful in Kiel. Our report shows, however, that for municipal authorities to become active incentives given by the national and federal state levels matter too. The idea must have been to start tangible projects or spur change in some other way.

Did you succeed?
Yes, in Bonn, for example, where a citizen who is originally from Ghana worked hard to set up a partnership with the town of Cape Coast, and both partners in this twinning have since been quite active. Another good example is Kiel. This city now has a permanent working group that involves two civil society umbrella associations – the Forum Migration and the local One World network – as well as the city council. Another good example, though not one of our five pilot towns, is Ludwigsburg. This city’s commissioner for integration is originally from Senegal, and he managed to convene the African diaspora at the local level. This is a great achievement, because the people concerned come from many different countries. They are not easy to unite. Nonetheless, they regularly organise a local “Africa Day”, the proceeds of which benefit Ludwigsburg’s twin city, Kongoussi in Burkina Faso.
 
The pilot project has expired. What’s next?
Let me point out that it matters to us that our projects live on after their formal finalisation. In regard to integration, there are many measures which initially raise migrants’ expectations, only to be discontinued at a later point. Our pilot project’s goal was to gather experiences in order to expand the impact later. That’s why we established the nationwide network for migration and development which aims to foster exchange among municipal experts and supports them. Obviously, the municipalities are responsible for continuity too. Politicians must give their bureaucrats a clear mandate. Typically, projects need a “custodian”, someone who works passionately for the cause.
 
Evaluation showed that new initiatives usually only take hold if there is a catalyst for exchange. Will the SKEW now try to initiate such programmes in all German municipalities?
No, we cannot do that. The pilot project was about determining whether such networks have any potential, and that was the case in the first five municipa­l­ities. But in other cities, the initial spark has to come from the municipal government itself. It is already happening in some cities, including Ludwigsburg, Stuttgart and Aachen. The nationwide network I mentioned and SKEW’s services will support and encourage more municipalities to get involved.
 
How willing are local authorities to work with migrants’ organisations?
Municipalities that are already engaged in development affairs one way or another tend to be quite willing. In other cities, the interest has increased significantly in recent years. In 2007, we still had to do a lot of persuading to get five pilot towns involved. Local governments tend to be overburdened, so many hesitate to take on new duties that will only bear fruit in the long run. It is becoming easier to involve people however. Previously only large cities were interested, but now we are cooperating with towns of less than 100,000 people.
 
How do municipalities benefit from international cooperation?
It is becoming ever more important for local authorities to consider the interests of diverse social groups. In addition, international engagement promotes the intercultural competence of officers. Above all, however, international cooperation creates a positive and cosmopolitan image of a city, which also makes it more attractive as a business location. Many cities currently have a shortage of skilled workers due to demographic change. The number of retired people is growing, while the working-age population is shrinking. This naturally makes immigration and involving migrants more important.

Despite the shortage of skilled labour, however, Europe seems more inclined to restrict migration.
Yes, but things are changing. In Germany, the topic is being discussed at federal level too. One result was the introduction of the “blue card” in Europe, a special resident status for professionals with solid qualifi­cations, in July 2012. At the local level, however, the relevance of immigration depends a lot on the local economy. For a mayor of a city that is experiencing fast growth, immigration is a rather different issue than for a mayor of a city with high unemployment.
 
Does involving immigrants in local politics have an impact on how they integrate into their new home town?
Indeed, the integration aspect is very important and cooperation means immigrants get recognition from local authorities. Participants in Kiel, for instance, rated the benefits for integration as very high, because, among other reasons, nearly all parties in the city council took part in workshops, and there was even a meeting with Thorsten Albig, who was the mayor at the time, and has since become Schleswig-Holstein’s state premier. The event made immigrants feel appreciated, and politicians recognised just how much immigrants contribute to their new communities. In our eyes, these are welcome and valuable side effects, but SKEW’s priority is to boost the developmental impact of cooperation. It is note­worthy, moreover, that local partnerships put migrants’ organisations in touch with One World ini­­tiatives. It is amazing that they normally don’t have much contact, even though their goals are relat­ed. Bringing them together means tapping their full potential. Interview by Eva-Maria Verfürth.