Charter cities

This economist thinks that Paul Romer's charter cities are an amazing idea, one that is very likely to speed up the process of eradicating poverty across the planet. I also think that they they will be easier to establish, politically, that perhaps even Romer believes. I may be naive, but I can very easily picture a Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Obama ceding control of Guantanamo to the Canadians or the Norwegians for a limited time period before it is returned to Cuba. (for background on Charter cities and the US-Canada-Cuba scenario, see after the jump at the end of this post)

Chris Blattman disagrees:

Fundamentally, I think this is a problem not of economy, but political economy. Even if we know what an ideal Charter City looks like, have we mapped out how to get there amidst the lobbyists, big business, and international interests?

I think the crucial thing Chris is missing here is that, unlike say health-care reform, there really isn't any powerful constituency that would oppose Charter Cities. Lobbyists of all and any colours have no reason to fight them. Big business - all big business - has much to gain and nothing to lose. I find it hard to think of many scenarios where 'international interests' take offence.  There are gains from Charter cities that can be split between stakeholders so that everyone's happy.

Even if you think there are cases where some interest group objects, Charter Cities are small enough to ensure no-one stands to lose so much that they can't be brought around. 

Maybe it's time someone started tracking membership of the Charter City club (modeled along the lines of the Pigou club). In that case, count me in.

Here is Paul Romer's excellent TED talk on the promise of charter cities. The Charter Cities website summarises the concept and offers some indicative examples:
All it takes to grow a charter city is an unoccupied piece of land and a charter. Action by one or more existing governments can provide the essentials. One government provides land and one or more governments grant the charter and stand ready to enforce it. What might a charter city look like?

Case 1: Canada helps a Hong Kong blossom in Cuba

For decades, the Unites States and Cuba have been parties to a treaty that gives the United States administrative control over a portion of Cuban territory straddling Guantanamo Bay. In a new treaty signed by the United States, Cuba, and Canada, the United States could give up its treaty rights, and Canada could take over local administration for a defined period of time.

An administrator appointed by the Canadian prime minister would be responsible for setting up and enforcing the rules that apply in this special territory. The legal protection and institutional stability that the Canadians provide would attract foreign investors and foreign citizens to the city. As the city grows, the Cuban government would gradually allow freer movement of people and goods between the land it governs and the charter city. At the same time, supporting cities and suburbs would grow up on the Cuban side of the city’s boundaries. The charter city itself would eventually return to Cuban control.

In this case, a treaty creating a special administrative arrangement already exists and Hong Kong provides a model for how a city might be governed. An interesting variant would be one in which several countries (e.g. Canada, Spain, Norway, Mexico, and Brazil) stand in place of Canada alone.

Case 2: Australia and Indonesia create a new regional manufacturing hub

In a treaty that Australia could sign with Indonesia, Australia would set aside an uninhabited city-sized piece of its own territory. An official appointed by the Australian prime minister would apply Australian law and administer Australian institutions, with some modifications agreed to in consultation with the government of Indonesia.
People from Indonesia, many of them lower-skilled workers, could come live as temporary or permanent residents in this zone, but would remain citizens of Indonesia. A portion of their labor income could be taxed and return to the government in Indonesia. Levels of free public services and welfare support would be comparable to those in Indonesia. As citizens of Indonesia, the Indonesian inhabitants of the city would have no claim on residency or citizenship in Australia proper. They would be subject to the same immigration controls whether entering Australia from this zone or from Indonesia.
Highly skilled workers from all over the world would be welcomed as well, but would be subject to the same immigration controls they would face from their home countries. Australian citizens and firms would be able to pass freely between Australia proper and the new charter city.
As part of the treaty, the Indonesian government could agree to award the chance to move to the new city preferentially to residents from a small number of rural areas where people practice environmentally harmful forms of subsistence agriculture and forestry. The government could designate part of the land to be freed up in this way as a nature preserve, setting aside a much smaller portion of the now uninhabited land for a charter city of its own.

by datacharmer | Wednesday, October 21, 2009
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  1. Graham Brown Says:

    Old post I know, but just found it with Google. Did you ever find anyone who was tracking the Charter City club?

    I'm also greatly enamoured with the idea, although I'm not an economist. I felt there needed to be more of an information stream about charter cities, especially with the first one being planned in Honduras, so I'm blogging about it at

    Like I say, I'm not an economist, so mine will be a more nuts-and-bolts analysis. I think the economic argument has pretty much been made, and won.

    I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on the concept though.