“Dialogue Is The Only Bridge Between People”

Keynote speech given by Thomas-Peter Binder, Founding President of the TCWTA, on September 14th in Langkawi/Malaysia

I believe that the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus hit the nail on the head with this statement. It is my pleasure to announce to you today the birth of an organisation that is dedicated to building bridges between towns and communities and thereby fostering dialogue between people of different nationalities and cultures. This organisation is the Twin Cities World Tourism Association, or TWCTA for short. TWCTA’s aim is to revive the concept of twinning and actively assist towns and communities with the development and implementation of such partnerships.


Building bridges through dialogue

The statement by Albert Camus that I mentioned at the beginning is only half of the full quote, which is:


“We must always seek to engage in dialogue with each other.

Dialogue is the only bridge between people.”


The Turkish writer Isaak Öztürk put similar thoughts into words:


“Most problems would disappear if people talked to each other more

instead of talking about each other.”


Camus and Öztürk emphasise the importance of real dialogue, of direct and cooperative interaction between people, for enabling peaceful coexistence between cultures and nations based on mutual understanding and respect. This is precisely what TWCTA is hoping to contribute towards by promoting town and community twinning.


Twinning fosters peace

Town and community twinning experienced an upsurge after the Second World War. Following the terrible years of the two world wars, smart people realised that twinning partnerships were a simple and proven means of avoiding war and conflict. After all, those who talk to each other regularly, know each other and show an interest in the opposite culture and way of life don’t resort to violence to gain an advantage over one another.


In Europe, twinning experienced a second boom when the iron curtain fell. Again, the aim was to use direct dialogue to strengthen the relationships between different communities and towns, develop and enhance shared knowledge and thereby facilitate friendly and peaceful coexistence. In both cases, town and community twinning made an unspectacular but important contribution to ensuring peace between nations. “Unspectacular” in the sense that twinning does not usually make major headlines. But “important” in the sense that it strengthened the relationships between different cultures in the long term.


We often refer to different cultures colloquially as “foreign cultures”. However, for twin towns that know each other and engage in dialogue, there are no foreign cultures, as they are no longer strangers to each other. Differences do exist, of course. Berlin is different from Beijing; London is different from Nairobi. Twinning aims to retain these cultural differences and individual strengths. Because among friends, essential differences can become strengths. Thanks to their very different backgrounds and experiences, they can help, advise and support each other well in many different areas.

Communication in the past

After the Second World War, when the idea of twinning was first implemented on a large scale, making twinning partnerships a success was hard work, and sometimes complex and demanding. Overcoming the distance between two towns was far from easy. The internet didn’t yet exist. You could make phone calls, but they were expensive. Physical travel by car, train or plane also entailed considerable effort. Cars were much less common than they are today, and the railway network was nowhere near as well developed. What’s more, air travel was an expensive luxury that not everyone could afford. Staying in touch with a twin town and occasionally visiting each other in person therefore called for meticulous planning.


Knowledge about other towns was also much more difficult to come by. The media landscape was fundamentally different from that of today. Some people might have subscribed to a daily newspaper at most. And each country only had one radio station and one TV channel. Maybe two or three in bigger countries, but there certainly weren’t many. Media density and diversity were in no way comparable to what we experience today.


A fascination with all things foreign

The population’s knowledge about other countries and foreign customs was correspondingly low. But people were still interested in how others lived their lives in different parts of the world. Foreign travel therefore experienced an unprecedented surge in popularity from the 1950s onwards, especially in Europe and the United States. Documentaries about far-away countries and customs were so popular that the streets were deserted at broadcast time. People were desperate not to miss these TV programmes. Twinning also helped people to improve their knowledge of life in distant places and learn about the characteristics of other cultures.


Proximity and distance

The world has changed. We live in a globalised world. The continents and individual countries have become much closer. We have countless television channels to choose from. We can watch English, Japanese, Italian or American TV programmes no matter where we happen to be. The internet has reduced the distances even further. Thanks to social media, we can now communicate and interact with people in distant countries whenever we like, and without losing any time. Physical travel has also become fairly easy for most people. But not for all. Plane tickets are cheap these days, and airlines now fly to many destinations several times a day. So, in a time when it is so easy to make contact with people from other cultures, is twinning really still necessary?




The value of twinning

I firmly believe that it is. Because, although these days it is theoretically very easy to engage in dialogue with people from different countries, people do so very rarely. In fact, we are now seeing large swathes of populations who want to turn their back on the globalised world, who are only interested in their own culture and nation. These people are frightened by the diversity that characterises our world. They perceive the differences between themselves and other continents, countries and cultures as a threat. This increases the risk of conflict.

Twinning is an essential tool for countering this, as it enables direct dialogue and interaction. It offers a platform for friendships. People from towns and communities that are connected through twinning show an interest in each other. They want to get to know each other, help each other and become stronger by pulling together. They contribute their qualities to the partnership, in the knowledge that they can benefit themselves from the advantages and strengths of their twin city. Within the context of twinning, conversations can take place outside the bounds of the short character limits imposed on social media platforms such as Twitter. Twinning is therefore especially important in this globalised and digitalised world.


Dialogue – Relationship – Friendship

It’s not hard to post a short message on Facebook or Twitter. A more or less profound statement can be written quickly and published to the whole world with a single click of the mouse. In contrast, establishing a twinning partnership with the aim of fostering real dialogue in the medium and long term is much more difficult.

Jean Bareth, co-founder of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, defined town twinning as follows:


“A twinning is the coming together of two communities seeking, in this way, to take action with a European perspective and with the aim of facing their problems and developing
between themselves closer and closer ties of friendship.”


Twinning partnerships are long-term commitments. They are not projects with which an elected politician can make their mark and which are then forgotten again after a change at the top in the community. They should therefore not be tied to individuals but, instead, broadly supported within the town. Twinning partnerships should not just be about individual projects, either. That would make them project partnerships. Projects can, of course, also be supported within twinning frameworks, such as the construction of a school building. But the partnerships must extend far beyond the project. Last but not least, town twinning should be based on a dual commitment: the mutual commitment of the elected authorities and the local councils on the one hand, and the active involvement of the population on the other. It is important that a lot of the stimulus in a twinning partnership comes from the population. That is when a partnership really flourishes and is not dependent on politics. And that’s when both sides derive the full benefit of twinning.


Travel educates

This brings me to the final aspect of twinning that TWCTA wants to promote. We want to encourage people to travel to the twin towns. While contact through social media is all well and good, it is no substitute for real, personal and direct interaction between people. “Travel educates,” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was right. However, it is not travel by itself that educates but, instead, the interactions with the people in the destination being visited. The Dalai Lama challenged people to do the following: ‘Once a year, go someplace you have never been before.’ He asked them to do so because we always learn so much in places that are unfamiliar to us, and because our personality blossoms as a result of the many new experiences. Travel is the best form of education there is. Twinning encourages travel because we are keen to get to know our twin town. However, it doesn’t encourage superficial travel but, rather, a deep and meaningful exchange with our partner. Twinning partnerships are an excellent form of education.


Town twinning – a project with many benefits

You can therefore see that twinning projects offer many benefits. The Twin Cities World Tourism Association therefore wishes to promote town twinning and support it with a varied programme and services. We are currently in the process of developing these services. The first results of the development programme will be visible very soon. We would be delighted if you would support us in our efforts. Thank you very much for your attention.