For years, sister cities were the municipal equivalent of real sisters: They shared good vacation spots, enjoyed one another’s tastes in films and books, and occasionally interceded in parental problems.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re not about to downplay the role of the basic model or suggest it’s outlived its usefulness. It has real value. A city-matching program that focuses on learning from other cultures and building diplomatic and economic relationships has a lot to teach us. As Adam Kaplan, the membership director at Sister Cities International (SCI), puts it, “Everyone does student exchanges and cultural projects. That’s the core of sister cities.”

But now there’s a new thrust to get these 2,000 international partnerships working together on concrete development programs, the kinds of projects that require good management and real dollars to build things.

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SCI’s mission, Kaplan says, “is no longer just to inform people about another culture but to provide a fruitful relationship. People are becoming more comfortable and are less intimidated about forging ahead with small-scale development relationships that target substantive project-based activities.”

That hadn’t always been the case for several reasons. One of the big ones was a lack of cash -- particularly with sisters from developing countries.

Enter the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which recognized that the established relationships between sister cities was an asset. It provided grants so that American cities can work as a go-between for its sister -- a partner that can provide encouragement and guidance if the other city has a problem sustaining an effort.

“One of the things that makes a sister-city relationship work is to have a local American city support group -- the people who have the contacts and know where the levers of influence are in your city,” says Allan Levenberg, a key player on the Richmond, Va./Segou, Mali, sister-city team.

Additionally, says Darryl Brown of the Boulder, Colo./Kisumu, Kenya, Sister City Committee, the American sister can “come up with a plan with the community rather than saying, ‘You guys need a well.’”

The Gates Foundation envisioned that, given the opportunity to participate in real development, the relationships would continue long after a project is over, and that the project itself would be a sustained benefit to the recipient communities.

So how did these Gates Foundation grants work? The cities (sister-city pairs) submitted competitive applications. It was only after the grants recipients were selected that they drew up lists of potential projects. These were weeded out until final projects were announced. Those projects had to get approved by the SCI -- including the building plans and a lot of the nuts and bolts of budgeting, contracting, purchasing and the like. Pretty much anyone involved went through training for program design monitoring and evaluation.

This last piece, to get on our own soapbox for a bit, is particularly crucial. Ensuring a good chance to know what works and what doesn’t -- and why -- is often the missing link in all kinds of well intended efforts.

One of the biggest grants -- $7.5 million -- went to the Africa Urban Poverty Alleviation Program, which focuses on water, health and sanitation projects. One typical project was a toilet block at a Kenyan School, which was funded through the Boulder/Kisumu Sister City Committee. It’s already been completed and provides sanitation facilities for more than 1,200 young people attending the Khudo School.

Similarly, thanks to the efforts of the Richmond/Segou team, a maternity ward at the Community Health Center is now complete and will offer health services to 28,000 people in Segou and surrounding communities.

With most of this funding going abroad, what’s in it for the U.S. sister cities? There is, of course, the genuine sense of doing something good for the world. But more practically, to the extent that folks in Western cities are interested in working internationally, these experiences make everyone far savvier.

“You see things spin off from these relationships as well,” Kaplan says. Fort Worth, Texas, for instance, worked with the Mbabane, Swaziland’s City Council to have a Texas Christian University graduate student spend six months as an intern at Mbabane City Hall as part of his graduate program. “Piece by piece,” Kaplan says, “it adds to your community.”