MMC interviews Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr
“Invest in people, not walls”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr has served as the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone since May 2018. A finance professional with a record of leading institutional change, Aki-Sawyerr campaigned against the trade in blood diamonds during Sierra Leone’s civil war and co-founded a charity that supports disadvantaged children. In 2016 she was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her work during Sierra Leone’s Ebola crisis.

Meaningful development of cities such as Freetown cannot take place without human capital, insists Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, pointing out that the examples of New York and London illustrate that migrants have played a key role in delivering urban development for centuries. But all that goes out the window if concerted efforts are not made to tackle the climate emergency.

You’ve said that a significant amount of resources are being spent on building walls and fortifying borders around the world. Indeed, Frontex’s budget this year is almost half a billion euros, and you’ve said that this money would be better spent on building people. Building which people, and in what way?

The people that I’m talking about are the people against whom and in respect of whom the walls are being built: the people who others feel need to be kept out of their cities, their countries, their geographic locations. And what do I mean by building the people? It comes back to the second objective of the Global Compact for Migration, which speaks to the need for us to address the structural drivers of migration. People, generally speaking, are migrating because they’re looking for a better life, because they’re looking for opportunities, because they want to be sure that they can provide food, clothing, and education for their children. They’re moving from one place to the other, because of climate change and the impact of climate change on their livelihoods, on their opportunities.

In building the people, you are addressing those structural drivers of migration. You’re addressing the reasons why these people are moving because, again, the concept of building a wall, versus building people, is about investment. What are you investing in? And how do you invest in people? You invest in people by providing the opportunities that they need to fulfill their own potential. People crossing the Mediterranean, people crossing the border into the US, or even moving internally from the rural areas to urban areas, do so because they’re looking for opportunities, because investment is not being made in them where they are, or they’re facing a danger which is not being addressed— whether it’s conflict or climate—where they are. That’s what I mean: shift the investment, from walls to people.

Given that Freetown would probably benefit from human capital remaining in Africa, what’s your view on the widespread aspirations throughout the continent to be mobile? On the culture of migration, particularly in West Africa, including Sierra Leone?

It’s interesting. At the heart of what you’ve just asked is the question of choice. The impact of the brain drain is a serious one for a city like mine, a country like mine, where we need human capital in order for development to happen. Everybody needs human capital in order for development to happen, but I want to stop for a minute and move back generations, centuries, and look at the growth of cities all over the world. Cities like New York and London that are famous for being built by migrants—a collection of people coming with different skills and abilities to the table—have benefitted from the different ideologies and ideas and academics and professionals and scientists coming together, and the impact of that, in terms of growth, is that growth is fueled. So migration has fueled the development of cities for centuries.

We’re now in an era where we’ve got the Bretton Woods institutions and UN bodies, and the growth of continents, of cities, of economies, is influenced by world trade agreements, by existing hegemonies, patent rules, labour laws, and visa restrictions, which are very difficult to change. So, what you now have is different. It’s not so much an individual pursuit in which people are drawn to particular locations because there’s a buzz, there’s a vibe, whether it was Babylon or it was California, with the Gold Rush. It’s not just that individual movement any longer. It’s a movement which is now much more impacted by global institutions and global arrangements, which can result in making those natural developments a lot more difficult.

Stop for a minute and think about why we have poverty, such extreme poverty, 60 years after the Bretton Woods institutions were created. And let’s be realistic and talk about the structural adjustment policies of the ‘80s and the impact that they had. And talk about world trade. Who makes the guns, who gets the profits on the guns used in conflicts throughout Africa? There’s a whole other dimension to this. So where am I going with this? It’s where I started, I said it’s about choice. So when you find yourself in a country where poverty is almost institutionalised because of a myriad of factors, where it’s so hard to break out of poverty because of local and international dynamics… When that happens, and let’s come back now to the individual, the individual’s own desire is for a better life. These are uncomfortable conversations, but we need to face them if we’re going to talk about the migration that this new global system allows and not be hypocritical. A country might say, “No, I’m not opening my border to you, you’ve come here on a dinghy, you’ve risked your life.” But at the next moment, if that country needs more healthcare workers visas are given to those very people that are needed by their own countries. So you take them when you need them, and you block them when you don’t.

You’re an economist, so when you see the wage differentials for both professionals and non-skilled workers between somewhere like Freetown and London or Paris, isn’t migration going to be an inevitable aspiration for a long time to come?

Of course, it’s a big driver and that’s what’s driven the brain drain, that plus the selective issuance of visas. But again, there’s another element to this, which is important. The term “migrant” is used very selectively, and that’s something else that we need to unpack. You’re a migrant when you’re not wanted or when you’re going to be given a low-paid job. I did my masters at the London School of Economics and then worked for a global professional services firm. Was I a migrant or was I just an individual? If I had done that in reverse, and had come from New Zealand to Freetown, would I be called a migrant or would I be called an expat?

From an African perspective, do you think there’s some degree of historical rough justice when you see the migrants from the continent irregularly entering Europe? How do you feel about the level of political panic that’s caused by a relatively small number of irregular migrants from Africa, mostly fleeing poverty and wars, that some would argue the unequal world economic order has significantly contributed to?

Yes, exactly my point. But I don’t think there’s any rough justice because do you know what percentage of people actually survive that crossing? Do you know how many young people die in the deserts in North Africa? How many are languishing in jails now? And I meet these young people. So yes, I know that there are some people who say rough justice, but I don’t think it’s justice. I think the fact that people still feel the need to do this is painful. I’ve had young people who have tried to migrate, been jailed, seen their colleagues die in front of them in the desert, seen girls raped, come back to Freetown and try again. That is horrific. Horrific. Not to mention the mafia, don’t forget the organised crime that’s behind illegal migration systems. Let’s not leave them out. Another beneficiary. No, no, the justice is not on our side.

Considering climate change, what do you think will happen in term of migration in the next decade or more? Is Freetown or other areas of Sierra Leone especially vulnerable to climate change?

Oh, yes, it is going to affect things hugely. I’m not being dramatic, but it depends massively on what we do in the next five years. In the next year even. If we don’t as a global community stop people like the climate deniers and actually begin to put real policy in place to reverse, or at least slow down climate change our conversation isn’t just going to be about migration, it’s going to be much broader and existential. I was on a call with Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, yesterday. He said he woke up to a red sun because of the fires there.

I became mayor because of this. I became mayor because of the environment and sanitation. And this desire to want to fight back and prevent a climate disaster in our city is one of my primary reasons, it was my primary reason for being mayor. Cities in Africa are facing a lot of the impact of climate change. It’s catching up very fast with the rest of the world, but we’ve been on the receiving end already for a number of years now with extreme climate events. And what’s different is it comes back to these structural drivers of migration, where you have poverty, where you have no infrastructure, where you have no resilience capacity, you don’t even have a fully functional and effective fire force. So in poorer countries your ability to be resilient in the face of the more extreme weather patterns is much lower. The kind of the weather disasters that we’ve had in parts of the US versus what you had, say, in Haiti. Haiti has still not fully recovered. When climate change impacts are felt in rural areas, people are driven to leave for the city and the city cannot cope without further investments, and when you can’t cope, then it drives people from your city across the ocean, so it’s a chain that we need to break.

Do you think the penetration of digital connectivity and communication is exacerbating migration in all its forms, or does location matter less precisely because of digital access and proliferation?

I think that that’s a question that is loaded with potential. I think location could matter much less than it used to. We’ve seen the growth of the telemarketing, call centre businesses and such like in places like India and parts of Eastern Europe, where someone now has a job which is linked to another country and without having to leave their country, and we come back to: why is it that people move? People move because they’re looking for opportunities. There is enormous potential for there to be a spreading of opportunities and job creation, but I say it’s “potential” because there are still barriers to entry, there are still restrictions and patents and agreements, and obviously, we’re seeing a growing sentiment of nationalism in the West, the rhetoric of “make America great again”, do everything American, don’t let other people take your jobs. Digital penetration in Sierra Leone, it’s so low, the cost of the internet is so high, access to computers is so limited, so again, I feel there’s potential, but we need to get through the barriers on both sides of the divide for that potential to flourish.

You’ve said that the relative absence of city leaders in the discussions ahead of the global compacts was unfortunate and wrong. That was in 2018. Do you feel anything has changed in terms of the voice of mayors and city managers since then?

One thing that’s happened, obviously with Covid, with the Black Lives Matter movement, is that, not really by choice or design, we’ve seen mayors around the world stepping up by necessity, and in some instances simply because their national governments have abrogated all responsibilities and said, “you go. You go find jobs in the city.” I’m sure you’re familiar with Benjamin Barber’s work, If Mayors Ruled the World. So the interesting thing here is by virtue of our proximity to those whom we serve and their access to us and their sense of responsibility.

For example, yesterday I was the first person on the scene when a bridge crashed, but the bridge is not the City Council’s responsibility; according to our mandates, the bridge is a responsibility of the national government through the Sierra Leone Roads Authority. But residents in the city somehow expect that mayors to be in charge of everything that goes wrong. And so you have to be there and play that role of advocacy if that’s what’s required of your central government, because you have a responsibility to keep the city working, even if you don’t have specific mandates for road maintenance or bridge repairs. Your overall job is to make sure that the city works.

What’s changed is Covid has catapulted many mayors in different parts of the world to the front of the response because their residents have seen them responding and they needed to respond. Black Lives Matter has also highlighted this. And that moves on to migration, because migration impacts your city, it impacts your city residents in reality and through perception. So it’s very important that those who are going to be held accountable have the opportunity to influence the policies that are made, and that didn’t happen effectively with the Global Compact [for Migration].

Has the Covid-19 pandemic set back the objectives of the Global Compact for Migration?

I don’t think it’s set it back; I think it’s shone a spotlight on it. All over the world, we saw the importance of not leaving your migrant communities out. Because they are your frontline workers and you see them working in the hospitals, you see them driving public transport, you see them providing those essential services of food deliveries…Those were the migrants by and large, all over the world, that were seen. The importance of not leaving migrant communities out was also demonstrated when migrants were forgotten in efforts to get case numbers to zero, when not enough attention was paid to Covid-19 testing in migrant communities.

A lot of the rural migrants in my city live in the informal settlements. The president of the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor, also known as the Slum Dwellers Association, often refers to those living in the informal settlements as the silent army. He says to me, “Mayor, the day we decide we’re not coming to work, all of Freetown will close, because no one will be driving your cars, no one will be looking after your children, no one will be cooking your food.” Because that’s all done by the slum dwellers and the slum dwellers are, in many cases up to 30 percent, 40 percent, internal migrants depending on which slum it is, the more established ones, it’s a smaller number, the newer ones, it’s a higher number, sometimes the 60s and 70s. They are almost all rural to urban internal migrants. And it’s no different to what we saw with Covid in cities around the world. Covid has told us we need to pay attention to our migrants. In some countries we need to know that some of our taxi drivers are actually doctors and in the time of Covid, it may be useful to have them be doctors and not drive taxis!

You are on the leadership board for the Mayors’ Migration Council, and you’re quite active and vocal in that forum. After being mayor of Freetown, do you have your eyes set on becoming more involved internationally on migration issues, or is that too narrow for you?

No, no, no, my passion is Freetown! My interest in migration is very deep not least because of my personal and family history. I’m a Krio so I’m a descendant of freed slaves who came back to Sierra Leone, to Africa after being in the US via Nova Scotia. I look at it from so many different angles. I will continue to speak to international migration issues, but I am passionate about addressing the structural drivers of migration, and I need to do that from here in Freetown.