Municipal Finance In The News

Cities Don’t Get Much Support for Migrant and Refugee Aid. This Global Fund Aims to Change That

Community mobilizers in the city of Beira, Mozambique help families facing climate displacement move to safer ground. Photo Credit: Samer Saliba.

This article first appeared on the Inside Philanthropy website. MMC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

War, human rights violations, struggling economies and extreme weather events have resulted in a staggering number of people on the move around the globe. Pointing to a series of “cascading crises,” UNICEF reported that 36.5 million children had been displaced from their homes at the end of 2021. A more recent U.N. report found that, over the last six years, 43.1 million children in 44 countries were forcibly displaced by weather-related disasters.

Most displaced people — around 70% — end up in urban areas, but cities lack the resources to serve them. A lot of that has to do with imbalances in aid funding. For examples, a 2023 report by the organization Development Initiatives found that most humanitarian aid funding is channeled to large, international organizations; far less goes to local entities on the ground: “In 2022, direct funding to local actors accounted for a mere 1.2% of overall assistance, unchanged since 2021, marking the lowest share since 2018. Despite ambitious donor intentions, direct funding for local NGOs stood at a paltry U.S. $98 million, a stark contrast to the $39.2 billion directly received by international actors — a difference of nearly 40,000%.”

This reality led to the creation of the Mayors Migration Council (MMC). Mayors from 10 cities started MMC in 2018, and since then, it has grown to include over 200 mayors and city leaders around the globe. The goal is to help boost cities’ influence and access to funding so they can accelerate and scale local solutions to help displaced persons and refugees. 

Philanthropy has played a key role in MMC’s work. George Soros’ Open Society Foundations was an early supporter, and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has been a consistent backer. MMC has also received funding from the IKEA Foundation, Robert Bosch Stiftung, a German philanthropy, and from government funders. The Argosy Foundation is among MMC’s project-based funders, as well as the Netherlands-based Bernard van Leer Foundation

MMC’s work aligns with the Hilton Foundation’s goal to channel 25% of its new global funding portfolio to local entities, including city governments, in the coming years. That goal drove Hilton’s decision to collaborate with the Bernard van Leer Foundation, Open Society Foundations, the IKEA Foundation and Robert Bosch Stiftung in supporting MMC’s Global Cities Fund for Migrants and Refugees, established in 2020, to meet the needs of cities as they support migrants and displaced people. In a guest post published by IP earlier this year, Hilton CEO Peter Laugharn and MMC Executive Director Vittoria Zanuso described the Global Cities Fund as “a nimble instrument created to quickly drive international funding to city governments often disregarded by traditional donors.”

Samer Saliba, director of city practice at MCC, says the Global Cities Fund was created in response to COVID-19, which had a punishing impact on municipal budgets, but has grown quickly from there.

“Cities were hit hard at precisely the time when cities needed to provide for migrants and refugees who were either impacted in health outcomes from the pandemic, or by mitigation measures impacting their livelihoods and their access to healthcare,” Saliba told me in a recent interview. “So we started in 2020 as a $1 million fund supporting five city governments. Since then, the fund has really taken off. It has increased eightfold to $8 million, and now has a pipeline of 28 city governments around the world.” 

Proof of concept 

In their guest post, Laugharn and Zanuso described how the Global Cities Fund works: “By channeling a small amount of money to city grantees, it allows cities to implement ideas of their own design while building their case for further, larger investment.”

The Global Cities Fund provides selected cities with grants of $200,000 over a period of 18 months. To date, multiple recipients have gone on to obtain additional funding to continue their projects after the funding period ended. One example is Medellin, Columbia, which was among the Global Cities Fund’s first five grantee cities. In 2021, in response to COVID, the city expanded its transitional housing program for refugees and migrants. The project was so successful that Medellin later obtained more funding from international donors and provided funding from its own budget to continue its housing assistance program. 

This year, the Palestinian city of Ramallah, located in the West Bank, used Global Cities Fund support to upgrade the solid waste collection system at the Qaddura Refugee Camp and to rehabilitate its public park. Other cities have used the funding to respond to the climate crisis and support climate migrants. For instance, Beira, a low-lying city in Mozambique, has experienced repeated flooding and extreme weather events have damaged public spaces, including its busy 20 de Agosto fish market. Beira is using its Global Cities Fund grant to refurbish the market and support the voluntary relocation of families at risk of climate displacement to safer ground.

Samer Saliba emphasized the range of programs the cities have underway. “These mayors are implementing programs in a variety of areas, including supporting children and caregivers, climate migration, and climate adaptation and mitigation. They aren’t viewing these issues in silos because migrants and refugees are not in silos themselves — they need different types of services. With our support, cities are delivering those services, while at the same time demonstrating that city governments are viable partners in delivering humanitarian and development assistance and worthy of international funding and financing.” 

“A drop in the bucket”

The Global Cities Fund has increased its reach since its founding, but the need will only multiply in years to come as the climate crisis and global instability ratchet up the number of displaced people who need refuge. According to a Mayors Migration Council brief published last year, “Despite the impact and scaling potential of the GCF, the significant finance gap for city-led inclusion of migrants and displaced people requires a fundamental shift in how governments, donors and global institutions partner and operate.”  

The Global Cities Fund can only support a fraction of the cities that need it. “It’s a drop in the bucket,” Saliba said. “I’m very proud that we’ve been able to increase the fund from $1 million to $8 million, and from five cities to 28 cities. But for every application that we received, we have two applications that are unfunded. We have dozens of expressions of interest from cities who have good project ideas.” 

Philanthropy is already playing an important role, but could be doing far more, particularly in a capacity that it often cites as one of its strengths: taking risks and engaging in experimentation that can then influence much larger actors. Saliba likened philanthropy to a tug boat guiding an enormous ocean liner: Like a tug, it can nudge huge, bureaucratic international organizations in the right directions. 

“Philanthropy can help pull these massive humanitarian funding tranches coming from the E.U., from USAID and other places, to show how the funding can be more effectively utilized by investing in city governments,” Saliba said. “The Global Cities Fund is not a solution in and of itself; it’s a proof of concept. What we hope to prove in this concept is that cities are viable actors — in some cases, the most viable actors when it comes to delivering effective, long-term institutionalized solutions for migrants and refugees.”


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