Africa's Exploding Cities

African Business, August-September 2006 | Go to article overview

Africa's Exploding Cities


The UN-Habitat's World Urban Forum III which was held in Vancouver, Canada in June was perhaps the most significant global congregation so far of this new millennium. The theme was 'Sustainable cities'. The first ever UN Conference on Human Settlements was held 30 years ago, also in Vancouver. At that time, one third of the world's population lived in urban areas; today, 50% of the human population is urbanized and the trend is growing rapidly, especially in the developing world. Africa has the world's fastest rate of urbanization.

The task of the conference was to gaze into the crystal ball and work out policies and processes to make the cities of the future pleasant, healthy and profitable places to live in. But first, the growth of slums, which are expanding at an alarming rate in the developing world, has to be checked and the phenomenon of rural poverty has to be tackled.

The World Urban Forum was also a tribute to the relentless determination of Anna Tibaijuka, the Under-Secretary General of the UN and Executive Director of UN-Habitat, to place the issue of urbanization at the top of the global agenda. On the following pages, we begin our coverage with an exclusive interview with Ms Tibaijuka, who, as an African, brings an insider's eye to Africa's urban crisis.

Anna Tibaijuka

The future for Africa is urban

Mrs. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka. Executive Director of UN-Habitat and UN Under-Secretary General, is the highest ranking African woman in the UN system. A Tanzanian national, she joined UN-Habitat as Executive Director in 2000. During her first two years in office, Mrs. Tibaijuka oversaw major reforms that led the UN General Assembly to upgrade the UN Centre for Human Settlement to a fully-fledged UN programme, now called UN-Habitat. Mrs. Tibaijuka has substantially strengthened UN-Habitat policitically, financially and operationally, greatly increasing its visibility and impact. In 2004, British Prime Minister Tony Blair invited Mrs. Tibaijuka to be a member of the Commission for Africa.

A record 9,000 people attended the World Urban Forum III held in Vancouver, Canada in June.

The Forum, regarded as the best ever, was a tribute to the hard work of Mrs. Tibaijuka and her team.

African Business editor Anver Versi, who participated in the Forum as a Dialogue Moderator, interviewed Mrs. Tibaijuka.

Anver Versi: The world will be entering uncharted waters in the very near future; for the first time in human history, the number of people living in urban areas will exceed those in the rural areas. What are the broad implications of this massive change for Africa?

Anna Tibaijuka: The implications are enormous. Whereas the proportion of people living in cities and towns in Europe and the Americas has stabilised at about 75%, in Africa and Asia, only 39.7% of Africans and 39.9% of Asians currently live in cities. However, Africa and Asia are in for a major demographic shift. Already, with urban growth rates as high as 4.58%, Africa is urbanising faster than any other continent, and by 2030 Africa will cease to be a rural continent. In fact, with 748m urban residents, the African urban population will be larger than the projected total European population of 685m.

The fact that Africa is on the move means that many urban centers are doubling their populations every 10 to 15 years. The result is that local authorities have to cope with accommodating the rapidly increasing population not only in terms of their shelter and service needs but also in providing means of livelihood and in ensuring inclusiveness and participatory governance.

We estimate that already about 72% of the urban population in Africa lives in slums. The proliferation of slum settlements and the increasing urbanisation of poverty does not augur well for Africa.

Urgent action is needed. Policy makers and planners need to understand that the future of Africa is urban and that this massive change will alter the pattern of politics, nature of conflicts and the overall sustainability of the continent's economic development. …

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