Cities: Political Actors and Agents of Change
A lot has changed in the world of foreign policy since the deliberations at Dumbarton Oaks. Nation-states are no longer the exclusive actors in the foreign policy arena. In fact, their role may be dwarfed by that of cities. The rise of the city as an actor in foreign policy has created a new set of circumstances in which conflict takes place. It is not hard to see this today – many conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine, and even Sub-Saharan Africa, are being played out in urban areas. These conflicts can be in direct relation to urban policy or urbanization pressures, as in the case of Taksim Square, or indirect because cities are bases of large human settlements, that if impacted, can wreak havoc on a country, as may be the case in much of the Middle East. Most recently, however, city space has been a place of hotly contested issues and opposition and has served as the stage for protests in Ferguson and New York City. But, after a conflict is over, what is left of the once dense, populous areas that lured people with their promise of a better life and access to better infrastructure and resources? How do post-conflict cities and regions rebuild?
There is no doubt that the process of rebuilding and reconciliation is multifaceted and has both physical and emotional implications. However, I will not attempt to address these complicated issues here. While attending the EU Open Days in October in Brussels, an annual event that brings together participants working in the fields of economic, social, and territorial development, I attended a session called Cities in Transition – a panel discussing post-conflict cities and their efforts to rebuild. The panelists from Kosovo, Jerusalem, Kabul, UN-Habitat, and Belfast, spoke about their experiences, including priorities of social inclusion and the role of civil society. Although each panelist had a different experience of conflict, there were three things that they all agreed on that I think are worth mentioning as imperatives for reconciliation and urban reconstruction in post-conflict cities.
Although the panelists were from very different cities that had faced very different states of conflict, they all emphasized the importance of leadership in the reconciliation and reconstruction process. Post-conflict cities need a visionary leader who can help reinvent the city; they need to be able to turn their vision into actions that produce results for an equitable and accessible city. In many ways, post-conflict cities face a unique opportunity, not only to rebuild, but to rebuild in a way that is equitable and inclusive. Dr. Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, former Mayor of Kigali, and current Deputy Executive Director and Assistant Secretary-General for UN-Habitat, noted that the mayor needs to be enabled to lead and facilitate change. Visionary leaders that are repressed in their efforts will not be able to lead effective rebuilding. Furthermore, leadership acting on its own would be like pushing a boulder up a hill and these visionary ideas must be combined with a bottom-up approach.
The second point emphasized by the panelists, and closely related to the first point, was the importance of participation in the process of rebuilding. Moreover, Mayor Mimoza Kusari Lila, Mayor of Gjakova, Kosovo, spoke about the importance of including people in the change process. She said that change is not only about the hardware, but about the software, too. Buildings, roads, and infrastructure are important elements of rebuilding, but without the input of the citizens, the “hardware” is meaningless. Mohammad Yunus Nawandish, Mayor of Kabul, revealed that he walks around the city to meet with people, including the 580 elected neighborhood leaders in the city’s 22 neighborhoods. This not only illustrates the participatory nature of the city’s process, but also the strong leadership he is providing.
A third important factor that post-conflict cities need to strive for is an environment of trust, reciprocated between citizens and leadership. However, trust is not built in a vacuum and leadership plays a critical role in building an environment of trust. As Dr. Aisa Kirabo Kacyira noted, “people will regain dignity when they feel there is justice and truth.” When an environment of trust is created, the visionary leadership can implement their vision with input from the community. Without trust, neither a visionary leader, nor an active bottom-up approach, will have a lasting impact. Trust is the basis on which all reconciliation and reconstruction activities occur.
Many conflicts today are either carried out in urban areas, or have a large impact on urban areas, and the process of rebuilding is complex and multifaceted. Breaking down infrastructure and systems is much easier than building it back up. Although post-conflict cities and regions often face many acute and urgent problems with housing, infrastructure, or basic services, the process of rebuilding and reconciliation can only begin when there is an environment of symbiotic trust, visionary leadership, and an active and inclusive civil society. Physical change without the human element is like putting a bandage on a cancer. It doesn’t treat the root of the problem, it just covers it up.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.