INVESTING IN AND EMPOWERING COMMUNITIES

The image of the state as a sovereign, self-contained and geographically circumscribed guarantor of public welfare is dead, if such an image ever really existed. In its place we are increasingly confronted with the reality of delocalized power centers and competing city regions struggling to win and hold a place within a hierarchy of cities defined in terms of trade and territorial interests.

For the generalities, let me explain. A “nation” is a collection of cultural, ethnic and social identities organized around a common public discourse – a founding myth, a shared language, a unique geography – and shared rules concerning public intercourse. It is commonly agreed that a nation’s authority is sovereign in defining its national and territorial interests, and that authority is maintained through a monopoly power on the use of coercive force.

The reality of nation building is that nations are built-up through alliances of wealth-producing territories, generally city regions organized into hierarchies. Such hierarchies are arbitrary and user defined, reflecting criteria as diverse as the number of books published over a period of time, the number of births per thousand women, tax collections, or commercial banking deposits.

Whatever benchmark one uses, one must always come back to territory’s ability to generate sufficient wealth to maintain and grow its position within the relevant hierarchy.

Wealth and the local economy
A city may be thought of as a closed system, an economy endowed with a certain ‘patrimony’, or capital. Local production systems employ that ‘patrimony’ to support production for local consumption, for the local market.

Inputs for manufacturing and service production are provided locally or outsourced. As local demand grows in volume and sophistication, more local suppliers are brought into the production process, replacing factors that were formerly imported. The process of import replacement combined with a culture of quality improvement then combine in a virtuous spiral to create more jobs and better products at ever more competitive prices driving growth and wealth creation.

A city region is a collectionof markets, ranging from machine tools and parts manufacture to health, social services and public safety. Production for local markets is exchanged locally with wealth remaining within city limits. Surplus production and energy (in the form of ‘services’) however, may be exchanged in neighborhing economies where a product or service may enjoy a differential advantage. Such exports bring ‘new’ wealth into the local economy in the form of ‘profits’. Within city limits, such ‘new wealth’ is redistributed through cultural activities, taxes and transfer payments.

Local production and community problem solving
In this simplified view of a closed system, local production satisfies local market demand: a local solution to a local problem. In the real economy, multiple production processes operate concurrently operating according to rules of fairness and equity.

Local production, whether cultural or in terms of goods and services, is a measure of an economy’s market capacity. Vibrant cities are attentive to local markets. They organize and reorganize markets to meet local demand. While production capacity can be augmented in the form of technology transfers and non-local producers may enjoy differential advantages, local production alone creates and sustains the conditions necessary for local problem solving and technological appropriation. No amount of money investment can make a technology transfer sustainable without local appropriation.

The UNDP and the ISI@MED program
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP, www.undp.org) has found a way to support and encourage local capacity development in the Mediterranean area, networking local and regional producers (who are in the business of local problem solving) into communities of practice. The Information Society Initiative for the Mediterranean (ISI@MED) is focused on empowering local communities through information exchange and the use of information and communications technologies (ICT).

ISI@MED is a three-year program underwritten by the UNDP and supported administratively by the Marseille Center for Mediterranean Integration (www.cmimarseille.org) to promote local capacity development by helping territories shape participatory and integrated approaches to local problem solving based on information access and sharing techniques.

The focus is to bring information and communications technologies to bear on solving local production problems. Working within a framework of decentralized cooperation (the United Cities and Local Governments and other peer networking organizations), ISI@MED will target three Mediterranean city regions, Latakia in Syria, Tripoli in Lebanon and Oujda in Morocco to develop exchange and dialogue on addressing community information issues to solve local problems.

ISI@MED will produce a best practices manual for ‘information society’ practitioners in those communities before working to build peer-to-peer cooperation between city and regional governments of the southern rim of the Mediterranean, including Dakar, Senegal.

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