Africa-US Cities Conference February 2023 City to City: Reshaping and Renewing Africa-US Relations

“The United States should work with African partners today to … start an urbanization initiative, including partnerships with U.S. cities, to help African cities plan for their growth in critical sectors like energy access, climate change adaptation, transportation, and water management” Joe Biden, 1 August 2019.

The above quote by then presidential candidate, now US President Joe Biden speaks to a recent surge in public engagements and intellectual work on Africa-US city relations. Although the coronavirus has halted much physical contact between African and American cities, virtual meetings have been in full play over the past couple of months, underlining the importance of city relations as a critical avenue for engagement. Increasingly, the engagements are being forged around thematic issues that Biden talked about – energy, climate change, transportation, water, and many more.
Against the backdrop of the broadening and intensifying Africa-US interfaces, this concept note lays out thoughts and processes that will lead to the convening of an academic conference in February 2023. The conference is an initiative of the Africa-US Cities Research Group (see separate concept note on the Research Group) which is hosted by the African Centre for the Study of the United States based at the University of the Witwatersrand and the Southern Africa Sister Cities. It will be held as part of the Sister Cities International program of activities in South Africa in February 2023. The academic conference and related activities arise of out of a partnership between the Sister Cities International and ACSUS since early 2020.
Cities as International Actors
At a time when the high politics of foreign policy and international relations, including multilateralism and its actors, seem bogged down by competing interests and struggles for power and prestige, city to city outreach and diplomacy appears to offer new lenses for examining practices and discussing academic frameworks. Cities and city partnerships and networks are a way to move the discussion forward, allowing for the formulation of progressive policies and the sharing of best practices between mayors and other practitioners on the one hand and academic in multiple disciplines on the other hand. Indeed, it is civil servants and non-state actors at the local level of governance who are dealing with the realities of many of the transnational challenges facing the world, including climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. This is true in Africa as it is in the US and around the world. The connecting thread with the academic end of things is that scholars in various disciplines are following suit to fashion theories and concepts that make sense of the dynamics at the level of practice.
Africa’s past may have been rural, but its future, like much of the U.S. is urban. Despite persistent perceptions of Africa as a rural continent, this is changing rapidly as the African continent has one of the fastest urbanization rates in the world. It is estimated that Africa’s urban population in 1950 was 27 million people, increasing to an estimated 567 million people by 2020. Already more than 50% of Africans live in an urban environment. With Africa’s population set to double by 2050, cities on the continent will need to accommodate an additional 950 million people. This rapid growth of urban areas challenges existing notions of sustainable development and governance. However, it also provides many opportunities for the development of new urban areas that can adapt to changing climate realities and for the development of new and innovative future cities. Modern America has had a longer arc with regards to the spatial and demographic expansion of its cities compared to Africa. What do scholars and practitioners see as similarities and differences between the two regions as a whole or with regards to cities?
It has been aptly argued that Africa matters to US cities, while the same can be said of the US to African cities. This dictum has been in practice since the 1960s when relations between African and American cities were established. It is one of the key perspectives that inform the concept of cities as diplomatic or international actors. Diplomacy in the 21st century is no longer limited to only diplomats and statesmen. Indeed, public and digital diplomacy, whether conducted by the non-state actors, citizens, diasporas, businesspeople or cultural organizations, are vital instruments for the development of strong Africa-US relationships going forward. Furthermore, this new form of diplomacy is no longer confined to the narrow fields of para-diplomacy but is being embraced in mainstream diplomacy. This confluence of actors and practices is one of the factors that give vent to the notion of cities as global and diplomatic actors. However, a question that scholars and practitioners should ask themselves is: will these city-based forms of diplomacy end up replicating and reinforcing the dynamics that have deadlocked state and multilateral relations in the international order? This question is even more sophisticated when one considers the fact that some of “city” diplomacies are undertaken and studied under the rubrics of non-central government diplomacy, stat and non-state diplomacy, citizen diplomacy, para-diplomacy, and many other iterations.
Conference aims and objectives
The Africa-US academic conference aims to look at the areas where city partnerships already exist, highlighting areas of cooperation, nature of enabling networks, the lessons learned from these interactions and best practices to be shared. It also aims to highlight opportunities for further future cooperation not just between the cities but also between practitioners and scholars. This will also be an opportunity to develop further academic knowledge of cities in Africa and the US and their networks and interactions and the theoretical implications of these networks and interactions.
The Call
Adopting an academia-practitioner partnership approach, the conference invites members of the Africa-US Cities Research Group and practitioners associated or affiliated with the Sister Cities International to be involved in the steps leading up to the conference (see below). Because the issues that practitioners and scholars work on are diverse, the conference will not favor one discipline over another. Instead, the conference encourages inter-, cross-, multi-, and intra-disciplinary approaches. Participants are welcome to choose from the following range of thematic areas:
• Potential topical issues in the Africa-US city (economics, political economy, security, governance, environment, culture, history smart cities, cities and health, cities and environment, cities and sports, cities and digital technologies, cities and the built environment, cities and planning, etc.)
• The research and academic gaps in the study of Africa-US city networks and relations.
• Past and ongoing research and intellectual work on Africa-US city linkages.
• Comparative analyses on the responses of African and American cities to COVID-19 today and in the post-pandemic period.
• Pathways for the strengthening of research, teaching and academic exchanges between African and American cities.
• Methodological, theoretical, and conceptual approaches to the study of Africa-US city relations.
• Potential topical issues in the Africa-US city relations across disciplines.
• African and American cities from the perspective of the concepts of city diplomacy, citizen diplomacy, smart and safer cities, and cities as international actors.
• Comparative analyses of African and US city planning and management theories and practices
Way Forward
The conference will be held at the University of the Witwatersrand on 22 February 2023. The starting point towards hosting the conference will be to convene the inaugural meeting of the Africa-US Cities Research Group in August 2021 to discuss the following:
• Inaugural meeting of the Africa-US Cities Research Group (see separate concept).
• Deliberate on the Africa-US cities conference draft concept note and move towards creating a final draft
• Agree on the calendar of activities towards the conference including: an internal symposium, publication of thought leadership articles, publication of special journal issue, advertising of the conference and publicity.