Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 19:05 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 19:05 | SYDNEY

Charter cities: The slate is never blank


Sam Roggeveen


18 June 2010 13:20

I recently came across this Atlantic article about a new idea in development called 'charter cities'. Here's the concept, as described in The Atlantic:  

...dysfunctional nations can kick-start their own development by creating new cities with new rules...By building urban oases of technocratic sanity, struggling nations could attract investment and jobs; private capital would flood in and foreign aid would not be needed...To launch new charter cities...poor countries should lease chunks of territory to enlightened foreign powers, which would take charge as though presiding over some imperial protectorate.

That's a very crude abridgment, so please read the whole Atlantic piece and watch as the man behind charter cities, Paul Romer, describes his idea:

The charter cities idea has attracted criticism for its apparent neo-colonialism, though Romer is not proposing to forcibly take land from countries to set up such cities. Governments would be leasing the land voluntarily, and as the Atlantic article says, charter city residents would be free to vote with their feet.

A more cogent critique comes from Laura Freschi at Aidwatch:

The charter cities idea appeals because it is bold. It promises a fresh start for people mired in the muck of old conflicts, inequality, and bad government...Unfortunately, in earthquake-devastated Haiti as in troubled central Africa, the promise of starting from scratch is an illusion. It has always been true that no matter where you go, you take yourself with you—culture, history, habits, attachments and animosities come along like a skin you can’t shed...

Early development economists working at the hopeful dawn of colonial independence believed that they really were starting from scratch. The last fifty years have shown us that they weren’t, and this has been—and remains—one of development’s biggest blind spots.

Not just development — it is a hard lesson learnt by governments and military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan too. There are no neutral, technocratic solutions to the governance and development problems that bedevil poor countries, and there is no such thing as a blank-slate country to impose those solutions on.