Why Charter Cities? An Immigrant's Perspective

Charter cities offer residents in emerging economies something they rarely get: a choice of where and under which institutions to live.

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When I was two months old, my parents moved our family from Lagos, Nigeria—the city in which they’d met, and where most of their respective families still lived—to Dallas, Texas. Their motivation wasn’t financial, nor did it have much to do with external events like war or persecution. Instead, they moved for one reason: to ensure that my siblings and I would have the best educational opportunities in the world.

Along with moving to a city with much better schools than could be found in Lagos, they also found that our new city was safer, had more reliable infrastructure, and offered ample opportunities to start a business. They voted with their feet not only for better schools, but for better institutions. My parents, in short, moved to their version of a charter city.

My mom and dad made a choice unavailable to those in most African countries today, and certainly in decades past. For centuries global empires imposed their own legal systems, legislatures, and cultures upon entire populations. Most colonial powers brought with them extractive institutions, many of which are still in place in one form or another today. In my native Nigeria, nearly 60 years after gaining its independence, religious and tribal strife persists.

Charter cities represent an opportunity for emerging economies to escape the legacies of the past. Not beholden to generations of institutional failures, charter city entrepreneurs can chart a new course for their communities, much like my parents did when they relocated our family from Lagos to Dallas.

This emphasis on choice is key to the Charter Cities Institute’s mission. We partner with new city developments to build a governance system that offers the best fit for their local environment. To date, each of our partners—those we’ve announced so far and those we’ll share more about in the future—sought us out. This is the first layer of choice baked into our model.

Secondly, rather than viewing charter cities as islands unto themselves, we see them as laboratories capable of producing reforms that can eventually be adopted by host countries eager for sustainable economic growth.

In Shenzhen, for example, reforms to land, labor, state-owned enterprises, and more were eventually adopted across China, precipitating the greatest reduction in global poverty the world has ever seen. Similarly, we hope that charter cities will inspire reforms that reach beyond their physical borders. But to do this, we've had to establish relationships with the governments in the countries in which we're operating. Working with, not against, governments offers a more promising path to realizing our mission of helping not one or two, but hundreds of charter cities flourish.

Most importantly, charter cities offer residents in emerging economies something they rarely get: a choice of where and under which institutions to live. Roughly 750 million people around the world would leave their homes right now if they could, no doubt the vast majority for economic reasons. Charter cities, as my colleague Jeffrey Mason recently argued, can offer would-be immigrants an opportunity to experience a boost in income like what they might experience by moving internationally. I'll be forever grateful that my parents made the difficult and expensive choice to move our family from Lagos to Dallas, but parents shouldn't have to make that choice to offer their children a better future.

And because charter cities are built on greenfield sites, their growth doesn't have to come at the expense of current residents. That is, charter cities can be beacons of economic opportunity with well-functioning institutions, without displacing people in the process. Our metrics for success are directly tied to how the lives of future charter city residents improve. We'll know charter cities are on the right track as they attract more residents, who are then able to access better educational opportunities, and build the great businesses that are currently out of reach.

In short, we at the Charter Cities Institute want charter cities to be points of pride for their residents.  Emerging economies are on the cusp of what could be an incredibly positive moment—an influx of new minds, new dreams, and if we seize the moment before us—new, tangible opportunities, which aren't limited by where a person is born. We can't do this alone, though. Our partners, from future charter city residents to charter city entrepreneurs to governments, are going to determine what the future looks like for the growing number of individuals moving to cities across the world in search of a better life, just like my parents.