Municipal Finance Op-Ed

Urban Migration: To Meet the Needs of Migrants and Displaced People, Trust Cities

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

Cities are Doing More with Less

Addressing urban migration requires good urban governance that meets the needs and preference of all residents within the city, including migrants and displaced people. But good urban governance in low to middle income countries requires that the international community trust and support city governments who have been welcoming migrants and displaced communities for decades and with little outside support.

To fill this clear and growing need, the Mayors Migration Council (MMC) launched the Global Cities Fund on Inclusive Pandemic Response. Currently supported by Open Society Foundations and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Fund is the MMC’s response to the unmet needs of cities as they support migrants, refugees, and IDPs during Covid-19. By directly funding cities to implement inclusive response and recovery programmes of their design, the Fund builds precedents of fiscal feasibility in city governments within low to middle-income countries that are often disregarded by donors with low risk tolerance, despite these cities’ tremendous efforts in protecting migrant and displaced residents.

Unfortunately, international support to local leadership on issues of urban migration and displacement remains outside of the norm. While there are many factors contributing to this behaviour, at the centre of the issue is trust. As one city representative of Mogadishu, Somalia recently told me, “the mistrust of city governments has prevented us from improving our capacity for financial management and service delivery. Until we have the resources to demonstrate and improve our capacity, city governments will continue to play a peripheral role in our core mandate of serving all our residents, regardless of status.”

Urban Migration in Beirut: Local Action, Global Impact

Take Beirut, Lebanon, for example, one of the Fund’s inaugural city government grantees and home to an estimated 300,000 refugees. At the time of this writing, Lebanon is dark. There is limited electricity, a shortage of critical supplies such as medicine and gas, and an economy devastated by hyperinflation, all due to an inept national government at odds with itself. This in turn has affected Lebanese city governments’ ability to deliver critical services, and too few international actors have stepped in to close the gap.

While the Municipality of Beirut had a budget worth around $600 million in October 2019, that same money is now only worth $80 million due to inflation, significantly limiting the municipality’s ability to respond in the face of compounding shocks including widespread urban displacement, economic catastrophe, Covid-19, and the Beirut explosion on August 4th, 2020.

Rather than rally behind city government and civil society actors, over 90,000 people have signed a petition for the country to be placed under the guardianship of International Humanitarian Task Force, effectively seceding the country’s responsibilities to the UN. But this is not a long-term solution. The UN has been active in Lebanon for decades and is one of the largest employers in Lebanon. Their longstanding presence has done little to avoid the present situation. While the Government of Lebanon is the ultimately responsible for the crisis, the solution cannot be blanketed outside influence, something which Lebanon has received far too much of since gaining independence in 1943. The solution must be a local one, supported internationally, but locally driven.

I personally know and trust Lebanese in city governments and civil society organisations who are more than capable of fixing their country with the proper support and resources. One of them is Municipality of Beirut Councilmember Yusra Sidani, the project lead of Beirut’s first Municipal Mobile Health Clinic, supported by the Global Cities Fund. The clinic provides free and non-discriminatory Covid-19 testing and vaccines to individuals who are unable to access basic medical services due to lack of transportation, lack of finances, or other barriers to care. As Councilmember Sidani recently told me, she understands why international agencies would have a negative perception of Lebanese government workers, but she hopes outsiders judge her by her actions rather than their own preconceptions.

The author (third from left) alongside Taina Christiansen, Head of UN-Habitat Lebanon (first from left), Governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud (fourt from left), Mayor of Beirut ,Jamal Itani (fifth from left), and Councilmember of Beirut, Yusra Sidani (sixth from left) @ Samer Saliba

Having worked for a large humanitarian INGO in the past, I recognise that Beirut’s Mobile Health Clinic is far from an original idea. While I was recently in Beirut to support the launch of the project in July of 2021, I saw several other mobile health clinics parked around the city, all with UN stickers on them. With the Global Cities Fund’s support, Beirut now has the first and only clinic with a Municipality of Beirut sticker on it, launched alongside local community partners, and with UN Habitat Lebanon support. It will have its problems (it requires an external power supply and runs on gas), but being locally owned won’t be one of them. What’s more, this small local action represents the municipality’s institutional commitment towards migrants and refugees, one they will carry forward themselves.

Our Call to Action

During a recent event highlighting the promise of the Global Cities Fund, Mayor Itani of Beirut stated, “the partnership [provided by the Fund] is just as important as the resources. We are over ten years into the Syrian displacement crisis in Lebanon with hundreds of thousands of refugees residing in Beirut, with dozens of INGOs here to serve them, and too few partnerships to show for it.”

To meet the charge from cities such as Beirut, the MMC and Fund’s Strategic Partners of UNHCR, IOM, UN-Habitat, and UCLG collectively called on international actors to work with the MMC to provide at least 22 cities direct financial support to implement their projects focused on migrant, refugee, and IDP inclusion by the end of 2022. It’s easy, 22 by 2022.

I personally call on the international community of donors and partners to find at least one city government willing to deliver good urban governance to migrants and displaced people within their cities and offer them your trust and partnership; to work with cities, not around them. If you don’t know where to start, our Global Cities Fund Project Prospectus has 20 city governments ready and waiting for your support.


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