Nazia Hussain: Cities Leading by Example

December 14th, 2011

Nazia Hussain is the  Director of the At Home in Europe Project at the Open Society Foundations.

We asked Nazia about her work and the role of local government in promoting effective integration policies and practices.

The role of the city is crucial to responding to the urban challenges in Europe today, including the changing demographics, the diverse communities, a multiplicity of identities and the impact of rapid change on government structures and institutions. They are integral in creating or reframing narratives and debates on the impact and reality of diversity and equality in their environments.

Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe Project works to identify issues that residents in Europe’s urban spaces share as common concerns regardless of their ethnic or religious background and where they differ, a better understanding of these differences and how they can be overcome. Through strategic policy reports and advocacy activities we examine how the city engages with and consults its residents against a range of issues.

Since 2007 we have focused part of our work on Muslim integration and have released a number of reports under the series title, Muslims in EU cities. These reports focus on participation and citizenship, their role and impact in the media, education, employment housing, health and the criminal justice system. They offer the direct voices of residents from different communities and recommendations from living conditions and opportunities.

The key aim of our work is extract model of good practices regarding social inclusion that can be promoted to policy-makers, civil society and communities in European cities and beyond.

What have you learned about the role of local government in creating inclusive and welcoming communities?

The issue of identity and belonging is integral to successful cohesion in any city or country. A key finding from our research on Muslim integration in European cities has been the issue of belonging and how it is stronger at the local and national level but the perception of being seen as a Brit, Dane, Swedish, etc by members of wider society is fraught. This is an area where we have learnt that local government can play a role in responding to concerns and finding innovative ways to address them – policies which respond to difference can be pragmatically addressed by local government where engagement and participation requires genuine consultation with all people and communities. This is where leadership at the local, regional levels provides a powerful and crucial attitudinal framework. They must lead by example.

We also know that the city authority is a significant player and employer in terms of economic and social integration. They are crucial in creating and implementing key local policy targets including cohesion and employment. They can create initiatives which target barriers to participation and ensure that their workforce reflects the full diversity of their local population.

Within the range of legislative powers available to local government, are there instruments of public office that have surprised you?

There are many tools available to local government. Anti-discrimination laws are in place, civil society actors are present and working on combating concerns but what is needed is the political will to actually implement these tools. A key component of public office is the protection of its residents and citizens and city government are doing this through consultation mechanisms, forums which bring people from different communities together and funding of some initiatives.

However, community building requires spaces and places to meet and this is something that local governments can provide. At the same time, policies must provide for all but at times they don’t reach out to particular groups that are not engaged with mainstream policies. Sometimes interventions are required, tailored interventions, which are about improving the achievements of all people without being viewed as offering special treatment to some groups. Some cities have understood this whilst others operate an ethnic blind policy which granted does not always work but which at times may be the one way to pursue participation.

In the current economic crisis, is there a special role for cities?

The economic downturn has an impact on all communities and severely tests policies towards community cohesion and integration. Insecurity leads people to feeling vulnerable and finding a reason for this insecurity. Financial insecurity does fuel tensions and the longer the recession, the more aggravated the feeling of hardship. If policies are tightened (immigration in particular), then all groups in society and its systems, will suffer. The city administrations have a special role in this time which is to ensure that short term solutions do not impact on longer term prosperity and cohesion.

Strengthened labour market and integration policies at the city level are vital at this time and one key role of local governments is to reverse attitudes to migration and the discourse on it. How the city responds at this time is important in reducing the risk of minority communities being viewed as problematic and as scapegoats.

Another key impact of the recession is on civil society organizations which are state funded in some cases. Local authorities can ensure that civil society growth is not affected as these are the groups which enable greater participation in cities and countries.

Neighbourhood level activities help community building and diversity and simply cannot survive without funding. This is an example of where short term solutions have had an impact on longer term cohesion. In these times, private foundations and organizations need to step up and work with the authorities in supporting this sector.

Nazia Hussain provided the introductory remarks to the webinar, Closing the Gap: City Leadership on Employment and Workforce Diversity, November 23, 2011, Cities of Migration Learning Exchange. Interview conducted: December 6, 2012.

Nazia Hussain is the Director of the At Home in Europe project at the Open Society Foundations. As part of the Open Society Foundations on-going work on minority rights and non-discrimination in Europe, Nazia is directing research and leading advocacy efforts on integration policies/practices in various EU cities and the impact of these policies on identity and belonging. Prior to joining the Open Society Foundations, Nazia worked for over eight years in various post-conflict countries. She was deployed as a human rights officer with the United Nations in Afghanistan, with the OSCE in Kosovo and Croatia and the EU Monitoring Mission in Macedonia. She also worked for a number of years at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International as their researcher on Afghanistan. Nazia holds an MSc in political theory and political sociology and a BA (honours) in English literature.

The Open Society Foundations is an organization that works to build vibrant and tolerant societies that are accountable to their citizens. We work with local communities in more than 70 countries and we support rule of law and human rights, including justice, education, public health and freedom of expression. The At Home in Europe project is a program of the Open Society Foundations. Doing research and advocacy, we work to advance the social inclusion of vulnerable communities in a changing Europe by exploring the political, the social, the cultural and the economic participation of minorities and other marginalized groups in Western Europe. This is done through engagement with residents, with civil society policy-makers and city authorities.

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