Forum Institutional

Cities in Africa and Europe must lead in the recovery. Here's why

Crowds of people walk through the Abacha Street market amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Freetown, Sierra Leone March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Cooper Inveen - RC2XMF9XFHVL

City mayors are already collaborating on fashion - a sector important to both Milan, Italy, and Freetown, Sierra Leone (pictured) Image: REUTERS/Cooper Inveen

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr
Mayor, City of Freetown
Giuseppe Sala
Mayor, City of Milan
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities.
  • Migration will continue to drive urban population growth. As such, city leaders are uniquely placed to address the challenges and opportunities that this population growth creates.
  • Cross-border cooperation between cities in Africa and Europe, like the Mayors Dialogue on Growth and Solidarity, can help states progress on global goals and inform national policy on migration and beyond.

This year must be the time to reset the relationship between Africa and Europe. With the blow dealt by COVID-19 to both continents and the inequalities highlighted, forging a stronger partnership between Africa and Europe has never felt more critical. We need to find common solutions to global challenges, from pandemics and climate change to migration; new forms of cross-border cooperation are needed – and fast.

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Yet, while African and European states struggle to find common ground, cities on both continents are already working together to build back better.

Cities matter: by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Cities offer opportunities and benefits, such as access to services and infrastructure; and jobs for individuals and their families, leading to more choice and higher wages. It is, therefore, not surprising that 20% of migrants already live in the world’s major cities. The pandemic has highlighted the essential contribution of these migrants in sustaining the cities in which they live as key workers, from healthcare and sanitation workers to supermarket cashiers, truck drivers and more.

Urban and rural population projected to 2050 Historical sources & UN (1500 to 2050)
Urban and rural population projected to 2050 Image: Our World in Data

Human mobility can create opportunities for those who move and those who stay. It also helps connect people across borders and continents. Yet the movement of people from Africa to Europe has become a charged and contentious topic with narratives of fear, control and lost sovereignty fuelling nationalist movements in Europe and eroding public trust. Governments are under enormous pressure with distrust in national institutions at an all-time high.

We city mayors can help change the narrative on migration, restoring trust in the ability of institutions to address the reality of migration and the forces that drive it. We know that changing the narrative starts with changing realities on the ground. Together, we are working to find practical ways to address the reality of people moving into and between our cities. Cooperation with governments must be the rule if we are to achieve lasting change.


We are already collaborating on a sector important to both Milan and Freetown: fashion. We are creating opportunities to open export markets for women entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone in the fashion and textiles industry; and the opportunity for Milan’s fashion industry to explore the West African market, investigating sustainable dyes, textiles and ethical-sourcing options in Sierra Leone.

Other cities are considering housing finance options for residents and exploring new approaches for managing and upgrading informal settlements. Mayors are working with national governments to engage in inter-state processes, such as 2021’s African Union/European Union summit. Through the Mayors Dialogue on Growth and Solidarity we are working to increase local access to financing from international and regional development banks, connecting cities with national interlocutors.


Cities can reinvigorate the partnership between Africa and Europe by making progress in areas where cooperation between states is stuttering with migration a sticking point. This year offers a window of opportunity for change with the long-awaited AU-EU Summit set to kickstart a new chapter for relations between our two continents. Cities must play a central role and represent the voices and needs of our residents, while sharing good practice, knowledge and ideas on how to bring our communities and societies closer, emphasizing the myriad connections that exist between our cities, countries and continents.

Our practical approach to cooperation across borders has much to offer policy-makers at the national and regional level. Cities are a decisive level of government and to achieve global goals it is necessary to work with and support action at a local level.

Ahead of this year’s summit, we are asking for others to join us in giving cities a seat at the table to create a different future for our communities and societies. We are asking national governments to have their cities participate in delegations as allies in achieving national goals. We are keen to work with the international system to reinforce the voice and agency of cities (via access to financing so that we can deliver results on the ground). We also call on public and private actors willing to invest in practical experiments that test innovations between and within cities so that those which are successful can be brought to scale. The Mayors Dialogue offers a platform to turn all this into reality, building on many decades of collaboration between African and European cities.

Collaboration between our cities is driven by a shared belief that every person has the right to pursue happiness and a sense of achievement at home, wherever home is. The biggest challenge to achieving this vision is political: countering a zero-sum politics of fear that pitches us against them. Instead, more than ever we need a politics of solidarity that brings people, cities and societies together. The current pandemic is not the last crisis we will face. We must learn lessons fast and focus on cooperating more and better across borders. It is here that states have a lot to learn from us cities.

The Mayors Dialogue on Growth and Solidarity is a city-led initiative that will deliver innovative and practical solutions for human mobility in African and European cities. It aims to improve the lives of all urban residents, including migrants, and help redress the power imbalances that persist between the two continents. The Dialogue is led by the cities of Freetown and Milan. Other cities participating include Accra, Agadez, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bristol, Dakar, Durban, Helsinki, Kampala, Kanifing, Kigali, Lisbon, Mannheim, Maputo, Paris, Tunis and Zurich. The Dialogue is supported by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Mayors Migration Council (MMC), Robert Bosch Stiftung and Open Society Foundations (OSF).

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalUrban TransformationGeographies in Depth
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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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