Africa-US Cities Research Group (AUC Research Group)
23 July 2021
Developed by Leaza Jernberg and Bob Wekesa
Introduction and Background
This discussion paper is intended to start a process leading to the establishment of the Africa-US Cities Research Group, by clarifying the initiative, its purpose, agenda, and potential deliverables. It looks to serve as a deliberation, debate and consensus-building draft leading to buy-in by potential research group members and kick-starting a measurable and sustainable program of activities. A background is therefore important in understanding developments over the last couple of years that necessitate the establishment of the group.
The Africa-US Cities Research Group is being proposed as build up on initiatives dating back to the establishment of the African Centre for the Study of the US (ACSUS) in March 2018. From the initial planning for the establishment of the Centre, particularly in the final phases in 2017, it was determined that ACSUS would not be confined to a single discipline but should serve as a cross-cutting hub for academic and public-intellectual inquiry on Africa-US relations and engagements. The wide-ranging field of public diplomacy was identified as a strategic entry point due to its intersection with social sciences, humanities and natural and applied sciences.
During the March 2018 launch of the Centre, an Africa-US public diplomacy symposium, entitled “Breaking the ice: First Africa-US Public Diplomacy Conference” was held in partnership with the Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) at the University of Southern California with CPD’s director, Jay Wang, making an eye-opening presentation on the concept and practice of city diplomacy. It became clear that public diplomacy writ large would be one of the major areas of focus for the Centre with Africa-US city diplomacy a key narrower area of inquiry and engagement.
Following the launch, the Centre hosted a forum entitled “City Diplomacy: The case of South African cities as Actors in International Affairs” in partnership with the City of Johannesburg in April 2019. Topics included dynamics in the academic and professional practice of city diplomacy; branding, positioning, and promoting cities; the globalization of cities through internationalization, intersections, and networks; environment and climate change; economic diplomacy; and the place of diasporic communities in cities. This inaugural event set the tone of the academia-practitioner partnership that undergirds the move towards the establishment of the Africa-US Research Group. It brought together speakers from Wits University and University of Johannesburg representing scholarly interests, City of Johannesburg and City of Tshwane representing practitioner interests, Brand South Africa representing governmental interests and the African Diaspora Forum representing non-state actors.
The interest generated during the April 2019 forum spurred follow up activities and projects. In May 2019, the Centre hosted a symposium on “African Refugees, Returnees and Displaced persons” as part of Africa week celebrations during which a presentation was made on “migration and diaspora diplomacy: The City of Tshwane as a case study”. In the same month, a symposium organized by the De Montfort University and University of Johannesburg with the support of the British Council was held in Lagos, Nigeria, on “Sustainable Development and the Foreign Relations of African Non-Central Governments (NCGS)” with city diplomacy topics featuring prominently. The involvement of ACSUS enabled the beginning of a conversation leading to the informal establishment of the African Cities and Internationalization Research Group in July 2020 after a series of virtual discussions comprising of a small number of scholars. At the same time, a relationship established with the US-based city partnership organization, the Sister Cities International (SCI), in early 2020 congealed into joint strategy discussions on academia-practitioner partnerships. Between June and August 2020, the Centre organized a series of virtual forums under the theme of “Brainstorming Cities During Covid-19: Comparisons, Responses and Future” in partnership with the Sister Cities International and the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network” covering a wide range of topics. In October 2020, the Research Group members were invited to make presentations during a virtual forum organized by scholars from global south entitled “Governing the Pandemic in Large Cities: From the BRICS and Beyond”. In April 2021, the Centre worked with the African Cities and Internationalization Research Group, the Sister Cities International, the Center on Strategic and International Studies and the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network to convene the “Africa-US Cities Networking and Academic Symposium” bringing together seven American and Southern African sister city partnerships as well as scholars from several African and American universities. These activities have served to create an informal network of academics and practitioners working on issues related to African cities. However, as we shall see below, various factors necessitate a rethink that would lead to a more productive and sustainable research and policy development agenda.
Justification for the Africa-US Cities Research Group
As the introduction and background demonstrates, ACSUS started off with a strong intellectual investment and work on cities with a wide array of activities relating to the concept and practice of cities. The connecting thread throughout these activities has been cities as international actors, a perspective that inspired the formation of the African Cities and Internationalization Research Group. Why then the proposed shift to the narrower Africa-US Cities Research Group? Several factors inform the new direction. At the core of the proposed shift is the need for value-based uniqueness, differentiating focus on Africa-US cities from the broader “cities” field without summarily turning back on multiple connections.
First, an internal analysis has shown that there is a need to clarify and sharpen the work that ACSUS does with regards to cities so that it fits with and is aligned to the Centre’s vision and mission whose core is an Africa-US mandate. Rather than duplicate the efforts and activities of organizations working on global and African city projects, it would be more valuable for ACSUS to collaborate with other city projects from an Africa-US standpoint. This shift would distinguish the Africa-US cities project from other “cities” academic and practitioner initiatives in Africa and elsewhere in the world of which there are hundreds. Wits University alone has four Centres that work on cities specifically and urban studies generally, and there are many more across the continent and globally. Although there are US-based organizations and organizations working on Africa-US city relations, there are few if any based in Africa. This justifies the creation and sustenance of the Africa-US Cities Research Group that would fill important intellectual and practice gaps with ACSUS driving the initiative.
Secondly, an internal discussion has shown that there is need to re-think the disciplinary direction of the research group. The use of the term “internationalization” connotes African Cities and Internationalization Research Group as primarily focused on disciplines allied to international studies such as international relations, diplomacy, and international communication. Yet, the Centre is set up as a multi-, inter-, trans-, cross-, and intra-disciplinary hub. All these terms can be reduced to “inter-disciplinarity” even though there are distinctive nuances between them. As the world has increasingly urbanized, the number of academic disciplines, universities, institutions and think tanks studying and researching cities has equally grown. While all disciplines have an international dimension, the mere use of the term “internationalization” seems to favour “international relations” rather than a wide array of social sciences, humanities, built environment, natural sciences that connect Africa and the US in the context of cities. The re-think therefore helps to bring into the fold disciplines that might be left out but with the Africa-US focus as the organizing principle.
Thirdly, casual observations show that practice is well ahead of the academic end of things in the cities research and policy ecology. City management officials, state and citizen city diplomats, corporations, Non-Governmental Organizations, supra-national organizations such as the United Nations and others are on the coalface of Africa-US relations. This suggests that academia would have to catch up and with the now acknowledged imponderability of divorcing academia and practice in just any human endeavor; a good model would be one that advances partnerships. In some respects, ACSUS has already embarked on this academia-practitioner linkage journey as the background shows, and this can be built on. The establishment of the Africa-US Cities Research Group would be mutually beneficial to the sometimes differing but often coalescing interests of academics and practitioners.
Fourthly, there are conceptual questions around the extent to which a research and practitioner project on cities can go. Cities are part of urban settlements with varying geographic and population sizes. The term “city” can therefore be confounding as it may apply to areas designated as municipalities, towns, and market and shopping centers, and other human settlements with a measure of density. While it is feasible to research and engage in a wide range of urban formations and issues, this would create too large a remit and one that would be too broad to fully comprehend. Indeed, the definition of “city” is itself a contested matter. Moreover, what the term “city” stands for in the US and Africa may differ. Thus, rather than focusing on densely populated areas in general, it is proposed that the Africa-US Cities Research Group would focus on urban areas formally designated as “cities” with practitioners and academics weighing on the very question of the designations. In much of Africa, many large urban centres are not designated as cities while in the US, many smaller urban areas as designated as cities. How do we make sense of these distinctions? This fundamental question could be the starting point of our intellectual work perhaps via production of think pieces that can be further developed into a special journal issue.
Fifthly, and devolving from the above reasons, while there have been a good number of activities, the work of the African Cities and Internationalization Research Group has not yielded much in the way of knowledge production even as there have been many public engagement sessions. Yet, the discussions have uncovered and broached many excellent ideas. The establishment of the Africa-US Cities Research Group would therefore situate the production of academic, policy and practical knowledge in a narrower yet by no means constricted field.
Individually and collectively, these factors provide sound motivation for the reconceptualization of the African Cities and Internationalization Research Group into an Africa-US Cities Research Group. It may be that a larger global cities research group may emerge as part of the discussions.
To serve as a leading academia-practitioner hub, shaping intellectual discourse and deepening the understanding of Africa-US city relations through research, teaching, outreach, exchanges, public engagements, publishing, and multimedia platforms.
• Conceptualize, theorize, and develop an inter-disciplinary body of knowledge on understanding African and US cities to advance both scholarship and practice.
• Promote dialogue, cooperation, networking between scholars and practitioners working on Africa-US issues with mutual benefits for multiple stakeholders and communities of interest.
• Generate information and knowledge on emerging academic and professional dynamics in the Africa-US city field thereby influencing scholarship and practice within and beyond this field.
Two factors will guide the criteria for membership. First, members of the research group do not have to be those based on the African continent or in the US per se as a focus on Africa-US cities should not be construed to mean members have to physically domiciled in Africa or the US. Instead of geographic demarcations, the key qualifier would be academics and practitioners working on Africa-US city issues regardless of where they are geographically based. Likely, most of the potential members are based in the two regions but there could be interested members domiciled in other parts of the world but ideationally engaged with relevant topics. Indeed, one of the areas of potential research and engagement is comparative analysis of Africa-US city relations with Africa-Europe/Asia/Australia/Chinese, etc., cities. A related linguistic-geographic matter is that for practical purposes, the business of the research group will be conducted in English until such a time that the research group has garnered capacity to translate activities into languages such as French, Swahili, Arabic, Portuguese, Swahili, Chinese and others.
Secondly, the research group is conceived as an academic-practitioner partnership. Thus, academics and practitioners working on or interested in Africa-US cities issues would be welcome to join the group. Membership would be equal without favoring academics over practitioners or vice versa. These would include academics and researchers working in universities and research organizations; officials working in governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations; executives in corporations. While status would be considered, the research group would not discriminate between senior and emerging scholars nor create over constricted hierarchies between senior government officials and corporate executives and their juniors. The key consideration would be that anybody working on Africa-US city relations broadly conceived would be welcome to join even as programs and activities inform members’ participation level. Being essentially a start-up, the research group will open to interested academics and practitioners with a cap or limit to the membership numbers deferred to a later stage. For instance, consideration on membership in the years after the launch of the research group might be based on the level of output, productivity, and participation.
Approaches and Methods
With “Africa-US cities” as the abiding locus and inter-disciplinarity as the conceptual framework, typological segmentation will be undertaken to ensure that the various themes, approaches, theories, and methods that underlie the study of cities are catered for. Below are some of the thematic issues that will inform the research and engagement agenda. Any of these themes or topics within the broader goals and objectives may take precedence as proposed by one or more members who show willingness to provide leadership by, for instance, writing concept notes and discussion papers, making presentations, or engaging in any other activities that advance the mission of ACSUS. Coincidentally, ACSUS’ partnership with the Sister Cities International has taken shape around a conference that will be held in February 2023 which will serve as one of substantive projects of the group in its formative months.
Conceptual issues: How do we define Africa and US cities and how do we conceptualize the Africa-US city research agenda?
Academic disciplines: What are the intersections between the various urban aspects of disciplines such as planning, architecture, engineering, sociology, geography, economics, international relations, history, anthropology, media and communications, arts and culture, politics, law, etc.
Theories and methods: What are the concepts, theories, and methods being used in the study of cities and how can they be understood and applied in the Africa-US city inter-disciplinary set up?
Professional practice: How does professional practice intersect with academia across design and planning, information and communication technology, security, management and governance, legal and regulatory frameworks, citizen diplomacy, branding, etc.
Emerging developments: How do we make sense of dynamics such as future cities, smart cities, safe cities, green cities, charter Cities, 15-minute cities, world/global Cities, inner cities, etc.
Units of analysis: How do we study “city-within-city” units of analysis such as central business districts, inner cities, neighborhoods, suburbs, municipalities, case studies, sanctuary cities, etc.
Geostrategic and Diplomatic categories: How do cities relate in the areas of bilateralism, multilateralism, tri-lateralism, para-diplomacy, non-central, sub-state, globalization, transnationality, inter-state, exchanges, etc.
Networks and organizations: What are the issue-specific and multi-issue networks including those involved in governance, environment and climate change, security, arts, culture, sustainable development, etc.
Global issues: How do issues such as health pandemics, climate change, migration, humanitarian disasters, Agenda 2030, and financial crises affect cities?
Regional issues: How do regional trade blocs like the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) affect Africa-US city relations?
Proposed Programs, Activities and Deliverables
In keeping with the goals, objectives, and approaches, the research group will strive to roll out its knowledge production and engagement in a manner that links theory and practice and, academics and practitioners. A flexible, multi-pronged approach would be favored over a rigid, linear one. For instance, highly academic knowledge products such as peer-reviewed journal articles can be broken down into thought leadership or opinion and commentary articles rendered in language accessible to the policy community or corporate organizations, the public, etc. In another approach, thought leadership articles aimed at the policy community can be enhanced into academic knowledge products such as peer-reviewed journal articles. The content of these knowledge products can be presented at public events and used as teaching materials. Thus, the activities will be spread across research, publishing, teaching, outreach and exchanges, and public engagements.
• Research: Facilitation of policy, industry, and academic studies; establishment of thematic and inter-disciplinary reading groups based on specific interests; commissioned research; responses to calls for proposals and papers; providing feedback to researchers as they work on individual or group projects, etc.
• Publishing: Book Chapters, journal articles (independent and special issues); policy briefs; commentary and thought leadership pieces; proceedings of events such as seminars, workshops, and conferences, etc.
• Digital media: Production of short videos and documentaries, social media engagement, use of digital platforms such as vlogs and podcasts, etc.
• Teaching: Modules and teaching manuals for undergraduate and post graduate programs; training programs for practitioners; seminars for group members, etc.
• Outreach and exchanges: Hosting in each other institutions; field visits; virtual meetings, etc.
• Public engagements: Invitation of leaders in governmental, NGO and corporate fields for guest presentations; dissemination of research findings to general and communities of interest, etc.
To kick-start these acticities, ACSUS will make a modest financial, human resource and communication contribution with the understanding that joint fundraising will be undertaken along the way.
Practical steps forward
• Convene the first meeting of Africa-US Cities Research Group to serve as the launch of the initiative. A small number of potential members will make a presentation leading to brainstorming. A key outcome from this session will be agreement on a broad schedule of activies. If need be, a second meeting can be arranged to further clarify issues.
• After the initial meeting of the Africa-US Cities Research Group, a meeting of Wits University entities working on cities will be convened to share developnments and invite interested scholars to join and craete synergies.