SISTER cities are defined as a form of legal or social agreement between towns, cities, counties, prefectures, provinces, regions, states - and even countries - to promote cultural and commercial ties.

It's a global phenomenon and everyone wants a piece of the sister city action.

You might be astounded to know there are more than 15,000 sister city relationships around the world and that number is growing fast.

Just imagine the potential economic benefit from linking with 127 million Japanese or 1.4 billion Chinese, who represent 18 per cent of the world's population. That's a lot of people and why shouldn't we be getting a piece of the action like everyone else.

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We've been trying, but the reality is that Whanganui has seen very little economic benefit from our sister city relationships, regardless of the warm fuzzy feelings they provide.

And maintaining these relationships comes at a financial cost - it's not cheap to send a mayor and their entourage all over the world.

I have no idea what Whanganui has invested over the years but at a recent council meeting there was talk of Palmerston North spending $150,000 a year and our council staff were hoping for something like a $50,000 budget.

From all accounts, the first sister city relationship was formed in 836 between the German city of Paderborn and the French city of Le Mans, although this was not officially +acknowledged until 1967. As early as 1905, the West Yorkshire town of Keighley became sister city to the Paris suburbs of Suresnes and Puteaux.

Here in Whanganui, the district council is discussing the pros and cons of our sister city relationships. Evidently, we are pretty popular, having received approaches from a number of cities that want to be our bestest of buddies - in addition to our two existing sister cities, Toowoomba in Australia and Nagaizumi-cho in Japan, established in 1983 and 1988 respectively.

Wilbur Zelinski is an academic guru who wrote extensively about the sister city phenomenon in 1991, but, on the financial front, there is very little research to suggest real benefits. Economic benefits are often difficult to quantify, if they do in fact even exist.

Of course, there are shining examples like Seattle, with its 21 relationships, which has evidently done particularly well off the sister-city lark. However, Seattle is a large city that is strategically located and offers a lot of economic benefits to its suitors. It is very difficult to compare Whanganui with places like Seattle.

So why have all these sister cities flourished? There are two streams of thought ...

Firstly, in the mid-1800s there was the advent of world fairs and sister cities were seen as a way to promote these events. Secondly, after two world wars had torn the planet apart, there was hope that sister cities would "foster mutual respect and understanding that could transform diplomatic relations" - or, at least, so thought President Dwight D Eisenhower who established Sister City International in 1956.

So, commendably, it was a way to help bring the world together; it now seems the focus has changed, and the reason these relationships persist is self-interest and the hope of financial gain.

Whanganui is a small community with high debt, high rates and low socio-economic incomes. I would suggest we have more important priorities than fostering world peace and cultural understanding.

Perhaps that $50,000 could be spent on something more tangible, like advertising and promoting the new council-owned, NZ International Commercial Pilot Academy, which is more likely to bring economic benefit than sister cities do.

We have a limited budget and we must set priorities.

â– Steve Baron is a Whanganui-based political commentator, author and Founder of Better Democracy NZ. He holds degrees economics and political science.


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