Mekonnen Mesghena: An Agenda for Shared Prosperity
June 26th, 2014
Mekonnen Mesghena is policy analyst and head of Migration & Diversity at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Berlin. This was his opening speech on June 5 at the 2014 Cities of Migration Conference in Berlin:
A week from today on 12 June, the whistle will blow to mark the start of the World Cup.. But while the world eagerly awaits the football championships in Brazil, mass protests have rocked the big cities there. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in Fortaleza, Salvador, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities. The protests are not of course aimed at football but at the frustration and daily experiences of social exclusion, corruption and misguided development projects. What people want is simple: better living conditions, security and the mobility to get to work. “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport,” said Enrique Peñalosa, Bogotá’s former mayor.
Large cities like São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro are dynamic places with major promise and potential for development. Longing and hope drive countless numbers of people into these big cities every year. At least some of them manage to find a better life with access to education, work and better living conditions. For many, however, it remains a distant dream. In Rio alone approximately 1,200 favelas exist in which roughly 1.4 million people live – this represents a quarter of the city’s population. In São Paolo there are roughly 1.3 million people who live on the social, economic and cultural margins of the city. Throughout the whole world, roughly one billion people live in these precarious and extremely poor living conditions.
This situation is likely to come to a head in many cities in the future. Across the globe, city populations are growing by around 70 million people per year – that’s approximately 1.4 million per week. Nowadays more than half the global population lives in cities – and by 2030 this proportion will grow to 60 per cent, and by 2050 to 70 per cent. In coming years, only three per cent of the planet’s surface will generate about 90 per cent of the global economy for around three quarters of the global population. In Europe too, the demography of certain regions is shifting due to migration and changes in age structures: the result is growing cities and shrinking regions.
Freedom of mobility
The growth of cities is, on the one hand, the result of people’s lives shifting to urban areas and on the other, the result of increasing immigration – especially in the EU where citizens enjoy freedom of mobility. This is one of greatest achievements of the European project, against which right-wing conservatives and populist political movements mobilize and stir up fear nowadays. However, the success of the populist parties in Austria, Denmark, Great Britain and France is not only a reaction to the Eurozone crisis and a vote against the loss of national sovereignty. It is equally a statement against “others” both inside and beyond borders, and is therefore another attempt to segregate and exclude by defining European ethnic identity and its territory as markers for membership. This is an attack on the foundation of the European Union – an embodiment of multiculturalism and diversity.
Germany, the geographical centre of Europe, contrary to reason and the facts, has vehemently denied its state as a country of immigration despite every fifth German citizen being from an immigrant family. Thanks to its stable economic situation, according to a recent OECD report, Germany ranks as the second most popular country of immigration after the USA. This is where a populist myth is unmasked: although in the last twenty years the figures for immigration have never been as high as they are today, the jobless figures have never been so low.
In the region of Stuttgart alone, where full employment prevails, some 63,000 jobs cannot be filled because of a lack of labour force. On the other hand, countless numbers of young people have had to leave their families, familiar surroundings and social networks in search of better perspectives to start a new life elsewhere. But the new generation of immigrants to Europe do not necessarily head to sources of work and food. Mostly, they go to cities where they believe they will find functionality, modernity and new opportunities of development. “Many Italians, Spanish and Greeks come to Berlin but the jobs are in West and South Germany,” says sociologist Edith Pichler. On the other hand, people’s choices are not only based on economic reasons but also how to make their ideas and plans come true: migrants don’t just go to Germany, Denmark or Great Britain but quite specifically to Berlin, Copenhagen and London. “Large cities will become increasingly important in the future and people will increasingly define their identities through them,” says the globalization and development researcher Ian Goldin.
Cities have always been laboratories of social innovation and pioneering places of change for precisely the reasons of social and cultural diversity that makes them stand out. Democracy was thought up and experienced in cities, great inventions have been made in them and new lifestyles have been tested. They are places where innovative forms of cohabitation have to be developed such as participation in a diverse, multicultural society. The success of many large cities is largely to do with the fact that the hopes and dreams of those people who have decided to settle in them can come true. If successful, the result can be an urban society that is strong both socially and economically as well as dynamically cosmopolitan. For centuries, migration has played an active part in the urbanization and development of cities.
Liberal and inclusive cities are successful in creating opportunity-oriented conditions that offer integration, participation and upward mobility. Cities and their immigrants can contribute to a social, political and economically successful society. Failure can result in segregation, marginalization, poverty and social tensions.
Channels of access to legal rights and freedom from discrimination on the work market are some of the decisive factors that can help migration have a positive effect on urban wealth. City politics have a great influence on economic opportunities and initiatives that enable migrants to fulfill their potential. Discriminating and racist urban and economic structures not only harm the people that they directly affect; they also have a negative effect on the state and development of the city.
This not only applies to migration, of course. Urban populations are much more heterogeneous nowadays. They are more diverse in every respect: socially, culturally, ethnically, demographically etc. But the extent to which diversity is reflected in the cultural, political and economic structures of cities is a very different story. Cities deal with their heterogeneity in very different ways – and are often quite differently prepared for it.
Incidentally, the liberalism and openness of a city cannot simply be measured by whether and how it attracts and accommodates a “creative class” – as Richard Florida describes the group of highly-mobile and highly sought-after professionals. The openness of a city should be measured above all by the way it accepts people into the community who have little and who arrive with little, who need its protection and help; and by the way it helps those people to stand on their own two feet as quickly as possible. Anything else harms not only the people affected but also the community, giving impetus to marginalization and racism. The public space occupied in Rome, Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam and several other European cities by refugees from Lampedusa and refugee activists no doubt presents cities with enormous challenges. But there is also no doubt that the problem cannot simply be erased from the cityscape by excluding refugees from cities, and from the work training and employment markets.
Need for representation
A humane and progressive city requires not only a progressive spirit but also progressive institutions and facilities: kindergartens, schools, universities, the work market, public administration, the media, theater, museums and so on. In all these areas, however, we are dealing with glaring gaps in representation. To different degrees, this continues to affect different social groups: women, the elderly, people from immigrant families, the disabled etc.. Politics and political institutions are just two areas where blatant gaps exist between reality and representation. While every fifth German citizen comes from an immigrant family, German city parliaments are made up of just four per cent of people with an immigrant background. This is precisely where representation forms the nucleus of democracy. The proportion of immigrants in many German cities is as high as 50 per cent.
In the media, the situation looks even direr: only every 50th journalist is from an ethnic community. The situation in city schoolyards is even more dismal. Despite the growing numbers of schoolchildren who have an immigrant biography, and who are culturally and linguistically diverse – in some classrooms, up to 80 per cent of the class – barely 5 per cent of their teachers come from immigrant families. Civil servants are particularly underrepresented.
In the face of rapidly changing city demographics and growing multiculturalism, cities are forced to look for and formulate political and practical approaches that address the entire city population. The progressive and tolerant dynamism that urban coexistence requires must not be forced into parochialism that lacks vision. It has to be made tangible for the rest of the country. A modern city society, characterized by social and cultural diversity requires policies on diversity that raise the visibility, representation and mobility of various population groups in cities on several levels, while creating opportunities to take part in decision-making.
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