Cities worldwide are emerging as influential actors on the global stage, prompting local governments to enhance global competitiveness and responsiveness through sister-city cooperation. These partnerships facilitate the exchange of technology, resources, and knowledge, fostering long-term relationships between multiple communities in at least two countries. Such collaborations are crucial in addressing the interconnected challenges faced by our world, including the accelerated impact of climate change and the escalating prices of food and energy, particularly in vulnerable countries.
Sister city cooperation has become an integral part of municipal development strategies, strengthening trade and economic ties across borders. South African metropolitan municipalities, for instance, have actively engaged in para-diplomatic activities since 1994, resulting in over 130 international sister-city agreements. Notable examples include the relationship between Jacksonville, Florida, and Gqeberha, as well as the sister city ties between Chicago and Durban, and Miami-Dade County, Florida, and Cape Town. These cooperative partnerships, managed primarily by International Relations (IR) practitioners, aim to leverage globalization and economic interdependence for socio-economic development. Subnational diplomacy has emerged as a new paradigm in public administration and governance, enabling city governments and mayors to carve out their niche in the global economy and attract business, talent, and opportunities.
While the sister city concept is also known as 'twin cities' or 'towns' in many parts of Europe, it represents a modern and less-explored type of inter-city network across various academic disciplines, from social sciences to economics. Multiple terms are used to describe these city-twinning relationships, such as 'sister cities,' 'twin cities,' 'municipal international cooperation' (MIC), 'city-to-city cooperation,' and 'decentralized cooperation.' While initially focused on social and cultural exchanges, sister-city partnerships have evolved into economic networks that facilitate trade and investment. This shift in focus signifies a departure from the traditional 'donor-recipient' model to a more collaborative and mutually beneficial approach where both parties pool their resources to achieve common benefits. Typically, city twinning begins with a joint decision by two local governments to work together and encourage exchanges between their constituencies. Geographic orientation also plays a role in defining city twinning, such as North-North linkages and South-South linkages, as outlined by Sister Cities International.
To accelerate the Sister Cities International initiative of establishing 500 new sister cities across Africa in the next 5 years, Sister Cities International organized an Africa Summit in Cape Town, South Africa, from February 20-24, 2023. The summit aimed to foster direct engagement between the United States and Africa, creating new channels for growth and opportunity throughout the continent. The focus areas included expanding business and trade opportunities, promoting tourism and cultural exchanges, supporting women entrepreneurship, advancing agriculture and sustainable development, and leveraging youth sports diplomacy. This global event showcased the breathtaking beauty, rich history, and vibrant culture of Cape Town and South Africa as a whole.
The African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University has partnered with Sister Cities International from an academic perspective to develop data infrastructure related to sister city partnerships. The primary goal of this collaboration is to strengthen university-based sister-city relationships and facilitate collaborations among African and U.S. scholars interested in city relations and sustainable development goals. Through a multidisciplinary dialogue on Africa-U.S. city relations held in February 2023, ACSUS established connections between Wits University, North Carolina Central University, the University of Nairobi, and the African Studies Centre at Howard University. This served as a catalyst in the pursuit of creating 500 new sister cities throughout the African continent over the next 5 years. As part of the City Relations program, ACSUS has implemented various innovative initiatives, including webinars, public engagements, and masterclasses, which will be open to scholars, corporate entities, and government officials throughout the year to educate about sister city partnerships.
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ACSUS – African Centre for the Study of the United States (africa-usforum.africa)
The author is the Project Coordinator: Africa – U.S. Cities at the African Centre for the Study of the United States, Wits University