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Charisma Acey

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Africa's Urban Transformation: Signs of Opportunity and Hope

Posted: 02/23/10 11:47 AM ET

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The people of Africa living south of the Sahara dessert (in the region commonly designated Sub-Saharan Africa [SSA], also a casual synonym for Black Africa) are in the midst of an urbanization revolution. People are moving into cities on the continent faster than anywhere else on earth. And within a couple decades all SSA countries will have more population living in cities than in rural areas, according to the 2006 UN Human Development Report.

The problem is that much of this urban growth has not resulted from an economic boom. Rather, what we have witnessed in the region over the last several decades is urbanization in the face of limited development. Faced with choices that spawn from a litany of problems beyond their immediate control or scale (weak agricultural sectors and economic performance, lack of intermediate cities and towns, growth of large cities with poor economic bases and municipal revenue capacity, increased global competition, less domestic protection, state privatization, decreased public spending, and more), people are searching for opportunity in large cities.

With cities unable to handle the population influx, urban migrants from smaller towns and rural areas wind up in extremely deprived, low income areas that are bereft of quality housing and adequate services such as safe water and sanitation, or adequate networked infrastructure such as electricity and transportation, among other challenges.

While the growth of cities and megacities (urban areas with over 10 million inhabitants such as Mumbai, Mexico City, Manila, Sao Paulo and Shanghai) and the so-called slums of urban poverty continue apace, the world is in reality trending towards convergence. Many of the countries classified by international bodies such as the UN and World Bank as less developed by income are nevertheless meeting the Millennium Development Goals, reducing child mortality, and raising the average standard of living for billions of people. Still, the reality is that this rapid urbanization in the face of limited development has particular challenges for African countries visible in the rapid urbanization of poverty and increasing inequality in cities.

In the face of regional averages with dire statistics, the temptation to generalize is strong. However, what looks like similar manifestations of urban poverty is often driven by deeply contextual local factors such as such as the right to land, segregation, labor market structures, ethnic and social ties to place, inter-governmental relations, fiscal governance, and even the legacy of colonial spatial inequality (and lack of redress in the postcolonial period).

By the same token, solutions to these problems can also be found at the local level. The well-regarded book by Judith Tendler, Good Government in the Tropics, became a sensation among development practitioners and academics for rejecting the notion of state failure and pointing out the conditions under which the state can improve service delivery. Along those lines the latest UN-Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements 2009 highlights numerous examples of cities and communities across Africa that have been tackling the challenges of urbanization head on for a long time and making positive strides.

In the midst of rapid population growth and inadequate land, housing and infrastructure, people-centered improvements to urban development can take place when citizens are included in planning processes. In this post, I just want to highlight three of these examples, described in the 2009 UN-Habitat report. They include:

  • The development of participatory urban planning practices in Kitale, Kenya through a 2001 project started by an international non-government organization (ITDG) that takes a partnership approach to the planning of urban space with local institutions.
  • The Urban Management Programme in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, launched in 1990, which brought together a wide spectrum of groups and actors in government and civil society to provide development rules and principles and alternative development options for various parcels of land.
  • The creation of a local urban observatory in Jinja Municipality, Uganda, where local stakeholders were brought into a process to create locally relevant urban indicators to monitor and develop appropriate policy responses to poverty, housing, poor health and educational facilities.

It is also difficult to generalize among those cities not listed among those with identifiable participatory planning and development programs. For example, Lagos, Nigeria, the second largest metropolitan area in Africa outside of Cairo, continues to be described by the lack of housing and services. Yet Lagos State (85% of the state is comprised of the Lagos metropolitan area) is now headed up by a dynamic young governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, who appears to be on a mission to transform the metropolis. When I was in Lagos doing my dissertation research, the governor had just stepped into office, and everyone from community members to government officials expressed hope for what he would accomplish during his tenure and he seems to be meeting and exceeding expectations and working towards improving the quality of life in Lagos within a very difficult governing context.

Out of all the doom and gloom that tends to come out of most discussions of African urbanization, people on the ground are taking action, in many places things are changing for the better, and progress is being made. Scholars and development practitioners, officials, and members of the media must do more to highlight and discuss what works in cities and how we can facilitate knowledge sharing and replicating the conditions for success in very different global spaces.

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.