TARSY AndrewPromises matter but sharing engenders trust: Reflections of a gathering of cities in transition
by Andrew TARSY
9 November 2014

The outpouring of love for former Boston Mayor Tom Menino was a deeply touching reminder that Boston is a city in transition. As our business and civic leaders get to know a new mayor and a new governor as well, opportunity knocks. In times like these inspiration can come from unlikely sources.

Recently a group of 75 urban leaders gathered in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from cities around the world to talk about making progress. These representatives of cities that are in transition out of deep-rooted conflict came from Kirkuk, Srebrenica, Tripoli, Nicosia, Kaduna, Derry-Londonderry and elsewhere. UMass Boston Professor Padraig O’Malley conceived of the Forum for Cities in Transition in 2005, to foster peace and reconciliation. He remarked to the delegations in Belfast that “at a time when nations are falling apart, cities just keep getting stronger”.

Prof. O’Malley sticks faithfully to the forum model because of his decades of experience working with divided societies, including South Africa and Northern Ireland, which led him to a strong conviction that the best teachers for leaders are others who have had similar experiences. It was in that spirit that he brought leaders from Northern Ireland together with Nelson Mandela in South Africa in July 1997, and his work has not stopped since then, bringing him to virtually every “hot spot” on the planet.

While Boston is hardly facing the existential challenges today like it did 30-40 years ago, there is plenty on our plate, and our peers in urban centers around the word have much to teach us, no matter what stage of development they are in. Here are five key takeaways from the four-day Belfast event that are as relevant to us as to any of those present:

  1. Many issues that surface as matters of identity and geography conceal deep economic concerns as well.

Boston should continue to embrace its diversity and develop more confidence speaking openly about some its historic challenges, particularly with race; but it should also be a model to the world of tackling economic insecurity head on. The city will reap enormous social dividends if people have good jobs and affordable housing; and like post-conflict communities in the former Yugoslavia, economic opportunity can go a long way in helping residents to feel more capable of resolving issues that have long seemed to be intractable. A new mayor and governor can tap the minds of our scholars and social entrepreneurs and pilot ideas for economic growth that are most likely to be replicable and scalable; and we should be careful not to sacrifice our distinct long-term advantages to attract short-term inward investment.

  1. Promises matter — but trust can only be reached by meaningful engagement and shared experience.

The bold promise is only a starting point. In Belfast, for example, political leaders have a public goal to take down all remaining physical barriers that have been used in the name of safety to separate neighborhoods for decades. But local people, living at the interfaces, wish to delay taking down the walls not in order to keep people apart, but in order to have time to better prepare them for living together. Creating sustainable mutual respect is a process and it takes time. Boston’s leaders can state audacious goals to motivate and unify the population, but not without cultivating a community that understands the benefit of the changes that will come.

  1. The private sector is an essential component of any city’s strategy for progress.

Some delegates detailed their public-private partnerships and programs to cultivate small business ownership in their cities. After war and the destruction of a local economy, few issues seem more important than creating conditions that will attract inward investment. The Forum announced the launch of a venture fund that will invest significant money in businesses in Forum member countries that have the potential to create jobs. And Northern Ireland, having achieved enormous progress on peace and stability, is now reaping a reward in the form of substantial foreign direct investment.

How can private sector ingenuity and capital best contribute to moving our city forward? What does it need from government to succeed? What is the role of the non-profit and academic world in supporting a larger strategy? These questions have to be answered in any city that plans on making life better for its residents.

  1. The substantial participation of women in all decision-making processes is not just about social justice; it produces better results.

Delegation after delegation acknowledged this reality, none more vocally than Forum delegate, Lydia Umar, from Kaduna, Nigeria. Powerful men readily make promises about inclusion; but evidence is hard to come by in conflict zones or here in Boston that this is actually happening.

  1. Strong public leadership is a must.

When it comes to delivering measurable results, there is no substitute for committed leadership. Stakeholders have to make public commitments, and need to be held accountable. Good ideas can come from anywhere – but making sure they get implemented successfully requires skillful leadership at the top.

With an undeniable global trend toward urbanization, cities know they have much to learn from each other. Sometimes wisdom comes to a place like Boston from unexpected places; what better than to listen closely to the brave leaders of other cities in transition?

Andrew Tarsy is a Senior Fellow in the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at UMass Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School for Policy and Global Studies.