Kilian KleinschmidtRefugee Camp
Marc Beckmann/Ostkreuz

“Mayors Will Rule the World”

Kilian Kleinschmidt managed one of the biggest refugee camps in the world. Now the German development expert wants to build big cities in Somalia, Libya, and other places so that migrants can find jobs at home and no longer have to leave their countries. “The nation state as we know it is going to collapse, anyway.”

In view of the migration inside and out of Africa, you are suggesting that it is a good idea to build an entire city from scratch in the Horn of Africa. Why?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: For years, millions of people in Africa, and not just in Africa, have fled to cities. Currently, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities; in two to three decades, this number will have risen to 75 percent. Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, for example, has grown in the last fifteen years by more than 15 million people and now has 21 million inhabitants – in the next fifteen years, it will grow by another 20 million people. We need to deal with this development. Ethiopia, for example, currently tries to develop mini-cities, in order to keep everybody from moving to Addis Abeba.

Portrait Kilian KleinschmidtExpert in international development

Kilian Kleinschmidt

Kilian Kleinschmidt is the founder and chairman of the Vienna-based Innovation and Planning Agency, which develops new concepts of collaboration and global resource sharing. He has over 25 years experience in international development, emergency response, resource mobilization, and regional cooperation spanning a wide range of organizations (UN, NGOs), countries, and programs.

He worked as UNHCR Mafraq Head of Sub-Office and Camp Manager for Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, the world’s second-largest refugee camp and the largest camp for Syrian refugees. Previous assignments include UN Deputy Special Envoy to Pakistan, Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, and Deputy Representative for UNHCR in Kenya.

What does this have to do with a new city in the Horn of Africa?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: We need to figure out how to best organize this urbanization. And whether there are any successful role models. For me, this includes Dubai. I know that this is a controversial debate. But Dubai once was a small harbor, and now Dubai and the United Arab Emirates are home to some nine million people. This includes seven million migrants, at least half of which come from conflict zones. For them, Dubai has also become a place of asylum. They work there, send money home, and thus help their families.

But the working conditions for migrants in the Emirates are often catastrophic…

Kilian Kleinschmidt: True, but by far not for all. Many of these migrants come from poor countries where the conditions are even worse. Singapore is an example of an essentially artificial city, with a special governance structure. We need to figure out whether such models could be one way to go in the future – for example in the Horn of Africa, in Somalia, but also in Kenya or Ethiopia. Because of climate change, this region now suffers from drought every three to four years; in the past, this happened only every ten to twelve years. If we don’t do anything, the people will have to leave this region in the medium to long term. What we will have then is a “desperate migration,” including to other parts of Africa.

Somalis collecting water. The region suffers from droughts every three to four years. Hans Winter/Süddeutsche Zeitung
Tourists take pictures of African refugees arriving in Europe. Marc Beckmann/Ostkreuz

And new planned cities, so-called special development zones, could be a solution for these people?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: You could build such zones in Africa, ten new Singapores or Dubais, which can accommodate perhaps one hundred million people. Why not? China is building one hundred new cities every year. True, many of them are badly planned. But it is possible to do a better job and apply smarter thinking. The big question is where to get the money for such projects. After all, it is not an aid project but an investment project. People want to make money from it. We live in a capitalist world, and capitalism is based on making profit.

European Table

In March, Kleinschmidt took part in the 2nd European Table organized by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, where participants explored migration not as a security threat but as an opportunity for economic and cultural prosperity. 

The European Tables, a series of dialogue events, is part of a program cycle entitled “Refocusing Europe,” which the Foundation launched in 2017. The series aims to present and discuss new concepts and initiatives addressing the enormous challenges that Europe is facing.

Are there concrete plans to establish such special development zones in the Horn of Africa?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: It’s all completely hypothetical at this point. But like I said, the demand and the potential exist in the Horn of Africa.

But it is also a very troubled region, politically speaking. Isn’t this an argument against such gigantic projects, which require planning security, stability, and safety?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: Not at all. I have worked in Somalia and interestingly, there was one branch of business that functioned even during the civil war – the trade in livestock. Throughout wartime, Somalia exported millions of camels and goats to Saudi Arabia and other countries. This agreement was respected by all, since it was a matter of survival. We can similarly imagine such a deal being made today among the various parties involved: We are developing a village on the sea into a port city, and this will become a trade and production center that will benefit all parties.

Throughout wartime, Somalia exported millions of camels to Saudi Arabia and other countries. Today, Kleinschmidt wants to help revive the Somali economy. Moenkebild/Süddeutsche Zeitung

Is it true that you are already working on a concrete project in Libya?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: Last summer, our office developed an action plan for Africa for then Chancellor Kern. Now, we focus on Libya to make visible the business opportunities in Libyan communities and cities. We closely collaborate with the EU’s “Nicosia Initiative,” which cooperates with six Libyan cities in building partnerships.

"We are thinking about special development zones. These regions would then no longer be governed by the normal Libyan law but would have their own rules."
Kilian Kleinschmidt

So this would be about special development zones?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: We are thinking about special development zones or about changing certain cities by setting a framework of rules and regulations. These regions would then no longer be governed by the normal Libyan law but would have their own rules. This is something that is familiar from special economic zones. But special economic zones are usually places where factories are built and workers go for work. We are taking this a step further, arguing that we also need to move towards governance, and that there need to be special forms of governance, too, since it is not just about business or the economy.

What does this mean exactly? Would these zones have their own police force or their own laws?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: There are many models, and one needs to find out what would work in the Libyan context. In Pakistan, for example, private investors build entire cities. These cities have their own security systems, security firms, and so on …

But will these places be accessible for everybody?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: Yes. There will be special controls, of course, since they are protected zones. They will be cities or parts of the country that work differently from other regions.

What about the risk of these cities turning into a state within a state?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: The nation state as we know it is going to collapse, anyway. All over the world. Mayors will rule the world.

And these special development zones are to be islands of bliss and prosperity? Is that your idea?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: Of course, there has to be a national or regional framework in place, but it makes a lot of sense in many, many contexts to have places within this framework that are responsible for themselves.

Could such special development zones not be seen as a kind of recolonization of Africa?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: We are speaking about investments. And if we do something like this in Somalia, we can be certain that the majority of the capital would come from Somalis. It won’t come from well-meaning German capitalists but from the Somali diaspora. This would also be true in Libya. The Libyans have stashed away billions and now want to invest again. It is about developing concepts about what can be done. Of course, we can also invest capital from China or Europe. But we can be almost certain that most of the capital will be regionally or locally sourced. In any case, it needs to be understood that this is not about charity but about creating jobs, so that people will be able to earn money and support themselves. And this is something that won’t work via aid structures but via investments and collaboration.

A Syrian refugee stands on top of a water tank at Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, the world’s second-largest refugee camp and the largest camp for Syrian refugees. From 2013 to 2014, Kilian Kleinschmidt was in charge of this camp. ap/dpa/picture alliance/Süddeutsche Zeitung

From 2013 to 2014, you were in charge of one of the world’s largest refugee camps, Za’atari in Jordan. This camp housed above all Syrian refugees. You were sent there by the UN because of the violence and chaos in the camp. How did you succeed in re-establishing peace?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: We changed the narrative. First, you acknowledge that refugees are not saints but normal people – meaning there are nice people and not so nice ones. I was the first to publicly talk about a mafia enriching itself from the camp. Many were shocked by this, since one wasn’t allowed to talk about that. But it was necessary to acknowledge this reality. Only then can you change it. And that’s what we did. Za’atari was initially conceived as a logistics camp only; its main goal was to provide the refugees with water and food and basic services according to standards. But for the refugees it is the place where they live and which they want to shape and design the way they want, as we all do. They do not want to use communal kitchens and toilets and they do not want to set up their tents and containers in neat rows.

"People who have fled a civil war do not trust others. For them, a prescribed structure can feel like a dictatorship."
Kilian Kleinschmidt

As camp manager you accepted that the camp did not work as planned?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: Instead of sending in the police, we tried to design the camp in cooperation with the refugees. We acknowledged that our rules were the wrong rules, that they did not fit the needs of the refugees. People who have fled a civil war do not trust others. For them, a prescribed structure can feel like a dictatorship. Therefore, we spent an incredible amount of time talking with the refugees. This constant dialogue was very exhausting, but after about a year it worked. The last violent demonstration took place in April 2014, now Za’atari has become one of the most peaceful camps in the world.

Is there something to learn from that for the special development zones?

Kilian Kleinschmidt: Refugee camps are no historical exception; they have always existed. Many of our cities used to be military or refugee camps. The lines are often blurred. And the idea that most refugees will return to their homes is wrong. Therefore, you need to accept this and create new living spaces for the refugees, and these could include special development zones.

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