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Thursday, March 23, 2017
- With around 320,000 inhabitants on 141 square kilometres, no other relatively small city has played such a historically critical role like the City of Bonn.
Founded 2,100 years ago by the Romans, from being the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven to being the capital of Germany for over 50 years (1949-1990; seat of the Federal Government and Parliament until 1999), Bonn is also one of the best-guarded safe-deposit boxes of European and recent world history.
IPS interviews the City of Bonn’s Mayor Ashok-Alexander Sridharan.
IPS: For over half a century Bonn was the centre for top world leaders deciding on the future of Germany and Europe. What in your opinion is the City of Bonn’s best-kept political secret from that period?
Sridharan: The fact that Bonn today has become an insider tip on the international stage – especially in the area of sustainability – certainly originates from those roughly five decades when Bonn acted as capital city for the most successful democracy on German ground. It was this valuable heritage that Bonn could draw back on when the decision was taken in the Federal Republic of Germany to make Bonn Germany’s United Nations City.
IPS: After New York and Geneva, Bonn has become one of the world’s biggest venues for United Nations organisations, with the presence of a total of 19 agencies. And your City is strongly involved in international development cooperation at the municipal level, on international youth projects and on the international dialogue of cultures. What are your current and future plans for the City?
Sridharan: At international level, Bonn is successfully establishing itself as Germany’s United Nations City with a strong focus on sustainability-related issues. ‘UN Bonn – Shaping a Sustainable Future’ is the joint slogan of our Bonn-based UN agencies. With the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development, we have been able to welcome another important UN agency on board this year. And in December, the UN SDG Action Campaign will open its central campaign office in our city.
Bonn has increasingly developed into a sustainability hub. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) play a central role in this context.
Naturally, our city is also called upon to take up this issue in its own affairs. It is for a number of years now that we have successfully engaged in municipal development cooperation. We maintain partnerships with Bukhara (Uzbekistan), Cape Coast (Ghana), Chengdu (P.R. China), La Paz (Bolivia), Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) and Minsk (Belarus), for instance.
Moreover, we are integrating the sustainable approach locally in our own day-to-day affairs. We promote fair trade and sustainable procurement, as well as eco-friendly mobility. Also, we are stepping up the use of renewable energies and advocate social interaction and a sense of togetherness in our local community.
IPS: The City of Bonn is also one of the largest international media hubs. Deutsche Welle, based here, organizes an annual Global Media Forum bringing over 2,000 professionals from all continents. Are there any new initiatives by your City in the field of international information and communication?
Sridharan: We use every opportunity to raise awareness for the special capabilities in our city among journalists from all over the globe coming to Bonn for whatever reason. We do so as Germany’s United Nations City with a focus on sustainability, but also as birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven, as important IT centre in Germany, and much more.
IPS: How are you managing your City’s share of migrants and what measures have you initiated on integration? How many are there now waiting for formal migrant status and have the number of migrants gone up this year? Are there any climate migrants? How do you strike a balance between what is considered humane and the need to adhere to and execute policies?
Sridharan: Between September 2015 and February 2016 the number of refugees reached a peak with roughly 150 people arriving here every single week, persons who were seeking shelter in Germany.
This was a big challenge for all: for the refugees with an unclear future in their new surroundings, for our administration that was faced with the tremendous task of providing temporary accommodation for a great number of people, including very traumatized refugees.
Last, not least, for our local citizens, now encountering many different new neighbors with a foreign language and culture! These were difficult months, especially since we had to accommodate several hundred refugees in our gymnasiums. At the same time, innumerable volunteers saw to it that Bonn was able to truly welcome these refugees and to take good care of them.
It is with relief that I can say that today’s situation is a little more relaxed. At this time, we are accommodating 3,000 refugees in municipal housing, an increasing number of them with permanent resident status.
Another 3,000 people in Bonn have received residence permits after their application for asylum had been granted. The number of people applying for asylum has decreased, as no more refugees are being sent to the City of Bonn by our authorities at this time. People coming from what is considered a safe country must go back home, which they often do voluntarily.
At the same time, we have been able to improve the type of accommodation we offer. Nobody must sleep in gymnasiums without any private space. The temporary housing we are able to offer now still has provisional character, but with some private space and independence. Also, we are managing to build more reasonably priced apartments, which we were already lacking before the refugees arrived in Bonn.
We do our best to integrate the refugees here: They can visit language classes. International classes preparing for the German schools have been established. Our Job Center runs a special Integration Point offering services for the people seeking work in Germany and wanting to stay.
Refugees come from many countries. People from Syria make up the largest group, comprising roughly 1,100 persons at this time. Whether or not the small number of other refugees from Africa includes so-called climate migrants, we do not know.
Finally: We have many migrants in Bonn. However, refugees who need special support for their integration in our city and community only make up a small share. It helps that the structures that have been established for our growing international community in Bonn are already there – for people who come to work or to study in Bonn or even to move here with their entire family.
The thought behind Agenda 2030 ‘Leaving no one behind’ is something we are living here in Bonn – just like elsewhere in cities in Germany, Europe and all over the world.
In December, the Pope has invited to a European meeting of mayors at the Vatican for an exchange of experience among city representatives on the ways refugees are being welcomed here. I will be delighted to share our experiences on that occasion.
IPS: The City of Bonn has always worked on sustainable project partnerships and contributed to international cooperation. What are your new initiatives on international cooperation?
Sridharan: In a globalized world with tight networks and strong dependencies cities must cooperate at international level. This holds true especially for cities like Bonn – a city that has always maintained close contacts around the globe, as United Nations City, business location and science hub.
We have joined a number of different international city networks. In October, I was elected Vice President of ICLEI. ICLEI is a city network for sustainability with over 1,500 members worldwide.
Every year, several hundred city representatives meet here in Bonn to discuss topical issues on climate adaptation and urban resilience during our annual ICLEI Resilient Cities Conference. We will seek to intensify this type of cooperation in the future.
Cooperating with our partner cities from Africa, South America and Central Asia plays an important part in this context as well. In recent years we have run a project with our partner city of Cape Coast in Ghana for the restoration of a fresh-water lagoon. With La Paz we have just initiated a joint project tackling waste separation and disposal. I am convinced that municipal cooperation will become ever more important still.
I have every confidence that municipalities can render highly important contribution, even when it is small, towards consolidating administrative structures in these countries.
IPS: Your City hosts key conferences; the City is pro-active on climate change. Although Mayors deal on a daily basis with the most pressing development issues, very little global development funding, reported to be 1%, is channelled through local governments. Are you working with other Mayors globally to correct or revise the allocation of resources?
Sridharan: Municipal development cooperation, the cooperation of cities and municipalities worldwide, is an area of politics which is increasingly gaining importance. The Federal Government has recognized this and has considerably stepped up funding for municipal cooperation with emerging and developing countries. It is a matter of fact that cities and municipalities can only render their small proportion towards global cooperation.
However, practical experience, face-to-face contact with local citizens and an exchange at eye level make municipal cooperation an indispensable element of international development cooperation.
Laying down a separate goal for cities under Agenda 2030 and adopting a New Urban Agenda during the Habitat III conference in Quito at the beginning of October are encouraging signals.
By 2050, four out of five people worldwide will live in cities. The heads of state and government will have to learn that the global development goals may not be reached without including the cities. This implies that cities will receive the necessary funds to fulfill their important tasks.
Together with my fellow mayors from other cities, I will continue to advocate for more support of the local level.
IPS: Where do you want to see your City? What is your dream, vision for the City of Bonn? How do you want to see Bonn further evolving?
Sridharan: I think Bonn is on a good way: as second political center in the Federal Republic and Germany’s United Nations City, we fulfill a number of national tasks for our country. We have gained a sound reputation as IT center and rank fourth Germany-wide as far as the number of employees in this field is concerned.
We are home to some global players like Deutsche Post DHL Group and Telekom and to some extraordinary scientific institutions doing top-flight research. Being birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven, we are looking forward to celebrating the 250th birthday of our most famous son in 2020.
I am aware that this is a lot that needs to be maintained and consolidated. We will continue to develop Bonn into a location for dialogue and exchange on global issues concerning the future of mankind.
This is my declared goal. But most importantly and our biggest asset: that is Bonn’s citizens – well educated, willing to excel, open-minded and with a Rhenish cheerful nature.