History of the city link

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The city of Ostend cautiously went about finding an international partner within the development cooperation policy.

Step 1: participation at an international conference

Spring 2000. Ostend’s Urban Council for Development Cooperation (Stedelijke Raad voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking) (an advisory council in which 25 local associations are represented) heard about the preparations for a Flemish programme for municipal international cooperation (which would later lead to the development cooperation agreement).

A short time later, Ostend was represented at a conference in Brussels for the least developed countries (LDCs). Many mayors from the South attended the conference. Most of them were looking for a partner for a city link and had brought with them a profile description of their municipality. Ostend was looking for a suitable candidate that resembled Ostend to some extent in terms of size, location, industry, etc.

Only Banjul, the capital city of The Gambia, was eligible. The mayor of Banjul was there and the chair of the Council and the North-South officer seized the opportunity, asking: 'whether he, the mayor of a capital city in the distant country of The Gambia, would be interested in a city link with the queen of seaside towns of a small European country'. And he was!

Step 2: grant application, first attempt

The flying start later proved to be a false start. The team that had worked hard on the grant application (alderman, chair of the Urban Council for Development Cooperation (SROS) and the North-South officer) were forced to conclude that not everyone was ‘on board with’ the new vision on development cooperation: there were big questions about the city of Ostend’s engagement (and the input) and the Municipal Executive adopted a wait-and-see approach. The application was withdrawn and the plans were put on hold.

Step 3: incorporation into an International Cooperation policy plan

With the arrival of a new alderman for International Cooperation in September 2001 and the information that funds were available for additional projects from the Flemish Community (Vlaamse Gemeenschap), the application was taken up again. The North-South officer went a course with the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities (VVSG) and built on networks of contacts with fellow officers. A policy plan for International Cooperation, which also included the principle of a city link, followed. The Municipal Executive approved that plan and an application was then submitted to the Flemish Community.

Step 4: choosing a partner

Without waiting for an answer from the Flemish Community, Ostend started looking for a possible sister city. Contact was re-established with Banjul and it was still interested. The mayor had since become Minister of Youth and Sport and had enthused the new mayor.

However, Ostend wanted to be thorough: the plan was to look for three potential sister cities in three continents and to arrive a reasoned decision after comparing them.

Candidates had to meet the following criteria:

  • comparability with Ostend in terms of size, location and economic sectors;
  • easy accessibility (length and cost of the journey, time difference, etc.);
  • good communication options (telephones, faxes, internet traffic, option to use French or English as the language of communication, etc.);
  • relative stability of the regime;
  • presence of a Belgian consulate/embassy in the country;
  • presence of a foreign consulate/embassy in our country;
  • ties with Ostend and Ostend associations; ties with Ostend residents of foreign heritage;
  • ...

Step 5: potential partners

A sister city in Peru seemed to bear a fair resemblance to Ostend. Peru was to be the theme country of the 11.11.11 campaign in 2002 and other sub-associations of the Urban Council for Development Cooperation also had projects running there. The Urban Council for Development Cooperation has a few people who can act as interpreters and Ostend already had a contact person in Peru through an earlier Broederlijk Delen operation.

The Philippines was another option. The Filipino community (one of the largest foreign communities in Oostende) had actively participated in the 11.11.11 campaign in 2001 (when the Philippines was the theme country) and showed an interest in further cooperation. 11.11.11 had many projects running in the Philippines and other member organisations of the Urban Council for Development Cooperation were also operating there. Some contacts from the Filipino community were briefed and undertook to pull out all the stops to find a potential sister city.

The Congolese community is represented in the Urban Council for Development Cooperation. They proposed a city link with the city of Boma. A representative of the company was seen and undertook to submit an application.

Step 6: exploratory contacts

The alderman for International Cooperation and the North-South officer visited the embassies of Peru and The Gambia to make initial contact and request assistance. This was readily granted at both embassies. In the meantime, an acquaintance who was involved with the Antwerp North-South Council went on a trip to The Gambia and re-established relations with the city authorities of Banjul and the minister (former mayor) on behalf of Ostend. On his return, he provided Ostend with a report on the situation in Banjul and its needs.

A member of the Urban Council for Development Cooperation who spent a month in Peru received the same instructions: establish relations with the city of Ilo. However, the interaction there was far trickier. The municipal authorities had not been informed in advance of Ostend’s intentions and the arrival of an ‘envoy’. Information provided by the embassy turned not always to be correct. Although the mayor of Ilo was interested, the information he promised never reached Ostend.

Meanwhile, the Congolese community had dropped out. The Filipino community, for its part, had been looking for a potential sister city. It submitted a comprehensive application for Dingalan, a seaside town that lives off fishing and a budding tourism industry. However, when the North-South officer tried to contact Dingalan’s town hall with additional questions, it turned out that there was no telephone in the town itself. Various attempts to send a fax to several fax numbers in a neighbouring village also failed. Dingalan was therefore discounted because of the inability to communicate swiftly and efficiently.

Step 7: confirmation of the choice of partner

Although it had been the intention to propose the choice of partner to various forums (the officers, the SROS, other advisory councils, etc.) based on a number of applications of equal merit from cities in various continents, only Banjul in The Gambia proved to be a sound candidate partner, bringing the process full circle. The initial choice turned out to be the final one, but a lot of ground had been covered in the meantime and all those involved had a better understanding of the objectives and possibilities of the city link. In January 2003, the city of Ostend concluded an agreement with the Government of Flanders for the first time.

Step 8: Signing the partnership agreement

On 5 December 2003, an agreement was signed between the municipal authorities of Ostend and Banjul.

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