Magazine article UN Chronicle

Developing a People-Centred Approach to Urbanization in Africa

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Developing a People-Centred Approach to Urbanization in Africa

Article excerpt

ABOUT 40 PER CENT OF AFRICA'S POPULATION currently live in towns and cities, according to the UN Population Division estimates, and over 50 per cent will do so by 2025. While the overall population growth is expected to be 2.1 per cent a year between 2000 and 2030, despite declining fertility and the impact of HIV/AIDS, the urban population is expected to grow initially at 3.3 per cent. This conceals a considerable variation, with some urban centres increasing from 4 to 5 per cent per annum, while others grow at slower rates. (1) Although presently Africa is the least urbanized region, by 2030 its urban population is expected to exceed the total population of Europe. Over half of the continent's urban population lives in urban centres comprising fewer than half a million people. Beyond these estimates, it is extremely hard to be precise; lack of resources, conflict and political difficulties mean that census data is patchy and unreliable. Some large countries like Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have no reliable population figures. For example, although we think that Lagos and Kinshasa are among Africa's largest cities, we do not know how many people live there. In addition, economic crisis, conflict and drought lead to fluctuations in urban populations that are often not captured by census figures.

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Conventional wisdom has it that the incidence of poverty and its severity and depth are greater in rural areas. Urban residents, it is alleged, benefit from the opportunities offered by urban labour markets, a greater availability of utilities and better access to education and health services. In the period of economic growth and public sector expansion in the 1960s, that was true in some countries: import-substitution industrialization policies led to growing employment opportunities; the public sector expanded; utilities installed during the colonial period had not yet broken down under the pressure of rapid urban growth; and committed post-independence governments found it easier to deliver free social services in accessible urban areas. However, the oil price increases of the 1970s, followed by the debt crisis and the adoption or imposition of structural adjustment policies (SAPs) in the 1980s, soon changed the situation.

Urban people, inevitably more integrated into the cash economy than those living in rural areas, were hard hit by inflation and private-sector stagnation, even before the policies typical of the SAP "short sharp shock" treatment, such as price decontrol, job shedding by public and private sectors alike, reduced expenditure on services, reduction or elimination of subsidies and increased user charges. Driven by a hypothesis that "urban bias" in policy and investment was an important contributor to the failure of African countries to develop, the supposedly privileged urban population was to have its advantages eliminated. SAPs were, therefore, deliberately anti-urban in their effects. The extent to which there really was urban bias, whether it persists or has an adverse impact on economic development, remains controversial. Some allege that it continues, but the limited research undertaken has been unable to demonstrate the magnitude of the effects of urban bias or their implications for growth and poverty, since investment returns may also vary between urban and rural areas, being potentially greater in the former. (1) Unfortunately, in the 1980s, SAPs were generally blind to equity implications. Even when attempts to collect poverty data were launched, these were based on national sample surveys and could rarely be disaggregated sufficiently to permit intra-urban analysis.

Average urban incomes are no doubt higher than average rural incomes. The proportion of people living in poverty is smaller and the standards of service provision per person are higher in urban than in rural areas. However, available figures indicate that income and consumption inequality is generally greater within urban areas. …

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