Monday, June 23, 2008

Achieving sustainable development in Africa: Why cities matter

Prominent economists and policymakers seek to catalyze an African green revolution that mimics East Asia’s rise in agricultural productivity in the 1970s. But over one-third of sub-Saharan Africans currently live in urban areas.  According to the UN Population Fund’s State of World Population 2007 report, that figure may swell to over half the continent’s population in the next thirty years.  My view is that if there is any hope for sustainable development in Africa, cities must play a crucial role.

 It is time to end the “urban bias”. This notion of the 1970s does not square with the reality of poverty in Africa.

 The urban concentration found in many developing countries does not have the same economic and institutional foundations that one observes in cities of developed economies. The rapid growth of cities in Africa is associated with absence of many of the benefits of accelerated growth in cities in the West. Many African cities cannot boast high levels of economic development or high standards of health, life expectancy or education.

 Poor agricultural performance, the lack of coherent national policy that integrates economic and spatial planning; poor municipal services and a fragile fiscal base are symptomatic of ‘urbanization without development’. Yet today, millions of Africans continue to be drawn to cities in pursuit of better job opportunities, education and health services.

 Cities in Africa suffer severe fiscal distress. The fiscal crisis of African cities is compounded by failure to solve the central government-local government jurisdictional tussle. Central governments have tended to institute and maintain significant governance, financial, legal and regulatory controls, leaving little room for innovation and entrepreneurship by local authorities.

 City authorities lack powers required for effective political and economic decision making, particularly in such critical areas as revenue generation, investment in urban infrastructure, and service delivery. Where central governments do not allow municipal authorities to collect tax revenue or borrow capital, and yet hold them responsible for provision of services, non-delivery is the end result.

 Many African governments view urbanization as a problem to be stopped rather than an inevitable trend that calls for policy changes. This view was bolstered by a 1999/2000 development report from the World Bank. The report concluded that African cities are part of the cause and a major symptom of Africa’s economic and social crisis.

 More recent academic research, including studies from the World Bank itself, debunk this assertion, concluding that many aspects of urban poverty are caused by limited political and institutional capacity.  Cities are centers of innovation by the very fact that they are home to the very forces that shape or drive productivity and growth -innovation, finance, manufacturing, marketing, information, and knowledge production.

Some of the specific issues for policy makers may include:

  1.  What are the forces driving urbanization and how do they differ from one region to another?
  2. What is the link between urban infrastructure, employment, service provision and poverty reduction?
  3. What are the gender dimensions of urbanization and urban living?
  4. How do urban spaces affect interaction between different ethnic, racial and religious groups? This question has significant implications for social cohesion and nation building especially for ethnically diverse countries.
  5. Does demographic concentration exacerbate political conflict or promote engaged state-society relations?
  6. Is our urban future to be characterized by poverty and “service apartheid”, fear and violence, or sustainable and prosperous urban spaces characterized by inclusiveness and cosmopolitanism?
  7. How can urban planning and urban development strategies be integrated into and help inform national and rural development policy?

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