African urban areas have failed in this ‘Century of the City’

Sunday October 19 2008

THE 100 YEARS BETWEEN 1950 and 2050 have been dubbed as the “Century of the City”, and according to Mrs Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of UN-Habitat, “will be remembered for the greatest social, cultural, economic and environmental transformation in history – the urbanisation of humanity”.

Africa, the world’s most rapidly urbanising continent, will be half-urban by 2050, and its urban population of 1.2 billion will represent nearly a quarter of the world’s. But how will African cities be faring?

According to a new UN report to be launched this week, the forecast for African cities is not only grim, but downright depressing.

While cities in North Africa are performing relatively well on a number of development indicators, sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing rising disparities and increasing levels of urban poverty.

‘‘The State of the World’s Cities 2008/9’’ notes that sub-Saharan Africa has the highest levels of urban poverty in the world, with some countries experiencing poverty levels of more than 50 per cent. This poverty often manifests itself in slums.

In 2005, six out of every 10 urban residents in the region were slum-dwellers – nearly double the proportion for the rest of the developing world, and four times that of Northern Africa, which has the lowest slum prevalence in the world (largely due to investments in public goods and infrastructure and political commitment to slum prevention).

The huge difference between Northern African and sub-Saharan African cities is also evident in the patterns of income distribution, with the former enjoying relatively low levels of inequality and the latter exhibiting among the highest levels in the world.

South Africa’s cities have the highest levels of inequality in the world, a fact attributed to past apartheid policies that led to structural and systemic failures in income distribution that have yet to be completely dismantled in the post-apartheid era.

Other African countries that exhibit high levels urban inequality include Namibia, Botswana and Kenya.

Another trend observed in African cities is that of urban primacy – disproportionately high concentrations of people and investments in the largest city, usually the capital.

This often means that public services and infrastructure are concentrated in one large city, with smaller secondary cities having less access to public resources.

This can lead to regional disparities and uneven urban development within countries.

Although there is a correlation between economic prosperity and urbanisation, in Africa, urbanisation is often a result of negative forces, such as conflict, which often leads to an influx of migrants from war-ravaged regions, which exacerbate both poverty levels and slum prevalence in cities.

LUANDA, KHARTOUM, AND Kinshasa have experienced high urban growth due to protracted civil strife in rural areas.

However, not all the news about African cities is bad. Rising urbanisation levels on the continent could lead to better health and education indicators, and produce the kind of prosperity experienced in Asia’s emerging economies.

High economic growth rates recorded in recent years could also lead to higher incomes and reduced poverty levels in the long term.

The trick is to ensure that the benefits of economic growth benefit larger groups of people and do not remain concentrated.

Rwanda is among those African countries that are trying to ensure that urbanisation and modernisation benefit larger proportions of a nation’s people.

North African countries, such as Tunisia, are well on their way to becoming slum-free. South Africa is responding to its exceptionally high levels of inequality by making public goods, such as water and other basic services, more accessible to lower-income groups.

In the short-term, however, African cities can expect to suffer from rising inequalities and slum growth – phenomena that are likely to become worse as a result of the current global financial crisis.

Overcoming the crisis will involve not just sound economic management, but the implementation of more aggressive pro-poor policies, which should include human resources development and investment in infrastructure.

However, one asset that African cities seem to have in abundance is social capital – the networks that bind communities together.

The State of the World’s Cities 2008/9 shows that urban residents in the developing world, particularly in Africa, rely on a variety of social networks to survive, and this form of capital is critical when it comes to finding jobs or housing.

Unfortunately, urbanisation models adopted by many African countries threaten to break these ties that engender trust within communities.

Many African cities, including Nairobi, are becoming increasingly segregated, with gated communities living behind fortified estates, and festering slums concentrated in areas that lack the most basic of services.

This trend is likely to make the prospect of sustainable urbanisation on the continent even harder to achieve.

Ms Warah is the editor of the ‘‘State of the World’s Cities Report 2008/9: Harmonious Cities.’’ The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.