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Nairobi must learn quickly and catch up with developed cities

OPINION
By Timothy Wanyonyi | May 8th 2021
An aerial view of part of Nairobi. [Courtesy]

If cities are the lifeblood of engagements between countries, then the case of Nairobi and cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles is instructive. For instance, many Nairobians have relatives or acquaintances pursuing academic, economic, and educational careers in the American cities. The Kenyan diaspora remittances are principally facilitated through financial institutions based in Nairobi.  

Globalisation is such that one city is linked to other cities across trade and economics, security, environment, migration, culture, health and multilateralism. These global factors are at play in Nairobi in a manner that makes it a truly “global city” as multiple state and non-state linkages with American cities demonstrate.  

Perhaps the most significant factor in Nairobi’s international dimension is that it has served as the world headquarters of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) since 1972 and as the global headquarters of United Nations Human Settlements (UN-Habitat) since 1978.

In other words, Nairobi is the world’s capital for the foremost UN agencies governing some of the hot-button issues of our world today – climate change, global warming and housing. Indeed, the US ambassador to Nairobi is often by extension America’s ambassador to the UN system in Nairobi.

Because of this multilateral position, Nairobi attracts a dense network of state and non-state actors on environmental and housing matters. Many – such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Greenpeace – are American.

Therefore, there is an intersection of multilateral, environmental, settlements and city diplomacy between the American cities and Nairobi. On trade, Nairobi serves as the Kenyan, Eastern Africa and in some cases, African hub of American multi-nationals.

For instance, Silicon Valley ICT giants such as Google, Apple, Hewlett & Packard, Facebook, Netflix, Uber and others have their regional hubs in Nairobi. On security, Nairobi and American cities have shared concerns over terrorist-inspired attacks. The September 2001 attacks on New York happened three years after the 1998 bombing on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Recently, terrorist organisations have targeted Nairobi for among other reasons, Kenya’s close ties with the United States. The attacks on Westgate Mall in 2014 and Dusit Hotel in 2019 are still fresh in our collective memory. While there are intersections between Nairobi and US cities, there are many limitations and drawbacks in attempts at building relationships and partnerships. For instance, under the Sister Cities International (SCI) arrangement, the existing relations between Nairobi and the cities of Denver in Colorado and Raleigh in North Carolina can do with some revamping. A major drawback is that Nairobi has not developed a clear and focused international policy. I hope the American organisations represented here can help Nairobi move in that direction.

With regard to UN-based issues, an exchange of ideas could revolve around how US cities are handling the diplomacy of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how Nairobi can be involved drawing on its position as the headquarters of the UNEP and UN-Habitat.   

On trade and economics, the point to note is that American companies operate diplomatic machineries, sometimes referred to as government relations, that go beyond traditional or conventional state-based diplomacy domiciled in the ministry of foreign affairs. Those familiar with the current governance of Nairobi will agree that its diplomatic architecture does not measure up to the diplomatic mechanisms of American companies. Furthermore, there are lessons for Nairobi to learn from international affairs offices of American cities which coordinate diplomatic activities with their international firms.  

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