Interview to Maria Grazia Montella: Enhancing city-to-city cooperation for better integration policies

Interview with Maria Grazia Montella

Former Inclucities Project Officer, today Senior Consultant Policy and Programmes Migration

Text by Floriana Russo, Whole-COMM's Communication Manager

Local levels of governance play a pivotal role in welcoming newcomers, however migration policies operate primarily under national jurisdiction, risking to disregard specific needs of smaller cities. Funded by the European Union’s Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF), the IncluCities project tackled this issue by establishing a city-to-city cooperation. It formulated customized action plans to address the needs of the participating cities in terms of integration, developing an online platform for newcomers. A network of eight European cities exchanging on inclusion matters was the main objective of the project.

IncluCities systemic approach aligns closely with the interests and agenda of Whole-COMM. To delve into the project’s achievements and lessons learned, we had the opportunity to conversate with Maria Grazia Montella, former Project Officer of IncluCities.

Can you tell us about the objectives and actions of IncluCities?

At its core, IncluCities was driven by the goal of fostering inclusive policies for third-country nationals in middle-sized cities. This was achieved through city-to-city cooperation, which facilitated the exchange of knowledge between mentor and mentee cities and associations. The project aimed at empowering cities with practical strategies to deliver effective integration policies. This  contributed to the strengthening of the coordination between different tiers of government.

The mentee cities and their associations crafted individualized Action Plans tailored to their specific integration needs, while mentor cities and associations established an inclusive online resource center, offering comprehensive information on local inclusion services for various newcomer groups.

The ecosystem of the project was built on three levels and composed by CEMR, leading the project, six national associations of local and regional governments and eight municipalities. While CEMR was responsible for systematizing and scaling the inputs at the EU level, the associations served as intermediaries between the municipalities and CEMR. They provided guidance to the cities, facilitating mutual learning across diverse contexts and disseminating project outcomes at the national level.

What have been the most notable results of the IncluCities project?

In addition to the online stop shop and the Action Plans, the mentor-mentee scheme  further enriched the knowledge exchange. Beyond the visible outcomes, IncluCities brought about a transformation in cities that typically overlook EU policies due to geographical and political reasons. The mentor-mentee structure allowed a deep exchange with more experienced cities that expanded their knowledge about  EU and regional funds, while generating a network that extends  beyond the project’s initial goals.

Based on your insights derived from the actions initiated by IncluCities, what discernible differences have emerged between urban settings and more rural contexts?

In the scope of IncluCities, the project predominantly operated within urban environments, distinct from rural regions or dispersed villages. Nonetheless, there are two instances in which the mentor city and its counterpart presented contrasting contexts, offering opportunities for comparisons.

Smaller contexts are more flexible
Notably, smaller localities demonstrated greater flexibility, especially amongst the mentee cities. This allowed them to adapt and propose innovative inputs to existing policies with relative ease. On the other side, larger administrative structures in more urban settings tend to be rigid due to the larger influx of people.

Compared to bigger realities, smaller localities have typically a stronger and more personal link with local associations and volunteer sectors. The close-knit nature of these communities fosters efficient communication and collaboration. Conversely, in larger urban contexts, interactions and exchanges are often more structured, which can both serve as an advantage and a limitation.

Financial accessibility in larger contexts
Larger cities possess a distinct advantage in terms of financial accessibility. Their ease of securing funding is augmented by the information and knowledge they’ve gathered through their prior experiences, positioning them favorably to request funds. On the other hand, smaller contexts that may lack prior experience in accommodating newcomers, often encounter limitations in terms of knowledge and resources to locate and access funds. There are however exceptions, as demonstrated by the Jelgava case.

The case of Jelgavaga, which developed an emergency response program in less than a week
Jelgava, a post-industrial rural context in Latvia which had never really experienced migration, started receiving a – relative – huge amount of refugees from Ukraine. Just a couple of days after the war began, 1000/2000 people arrived overnight. At this juncture, IncluCities was already at the midway through developing an action plan for the city.  Leveraging on their small size and on the groundwork laid by the action plan, they rapidly activated essential organizations. Remarkably, within a week, they had established a responsive municipal-level program that continues to operate effectively. 

Looking ahead, what should be done to deliver better integration policies and strengthen coordination between levels of governance?

First of all integration should be seen as a holistic process. Instead of thinking of newcomers and existing citizens separately, it’s better to think about the whole community together, adopting the Whole Community approach. This means creating services that benefit everyone, using a collaborative approach in which newcomers can immediately become part of the community participating in its social and political life. This is a foremost step for newcomers to feel a sense of belonging and co-create a city that is inclusive for all. Massively including women in the process has proven to boost the impact of the policies in a relatively short time. 

Secondly, we should strive for inclusion rather than integration. If integration means a one-way process in which the newcomer has to learn and then adapt to the new environment, inclusion implies a multilevel and multidirectional process in which the community as a whole is involved in shaping a new form of coexistence.

A few notes should also be made in consideration to multilevel governance. 

While involving diverse perspectives enriches discussions and enhances the decision making process, structuring these conversations is crucial for their effectiveness. Encouraging a cluster advocacy approach, which entails structured dialogues between NGOs, municipalities, and other stakeholders, provides a promising path forward.

Policy making on the European level faces limits when it comes to multilevel governance due to structural differences between the Member States. Factors such as the size of the country and the type of administrative structure it possesses can influence how it engages in the EU political discourse internally. 

Lastly, a lesson confirmed by the project outcomes is both simple and fundamental: to produce an effect on a national scale, one must concurrently engage across different levels of governance, spanning from different types of organizations, including migrant-led ones where available, to municipalities. The entire ecosystem must be involved to achieve meaningful outcomes.

Further insights can be found in the policy paper Inclusion goes local, Translating project practices into policy recommendations which targets policy makers and provides them with the main takeaways of IncluCities. 

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