Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing the largest urban growth in the world, but most development efforts continue to target rural communities.

September 28, 2007

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Due to efforts by nongovernmental groups such as the Save Darfur Coalition and celebrities like the Irish rock star Bono, pressure to address sub-Saharan Africa’s high poverty levels has grown exponentially in recent years. Much of this attention continues to focus on rural populations: Prominent economists and policymakers aim to spur a “green revolution” in Africa 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, and in the next thirty years that figure may swell to over half the continent’s population. According to the UN Population Fund’s State of World Population 2007 report, some 72 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population currently lives under slum conditions. Economists say urban areas can—and do—spur economic growth. But without improvements in local governance and infrastructure, as well as coordination between local, national, and international groups, many experts caution the region’s urban areas will remain impoverished.

The Urban Bias

The United Nations Population Fund projects that sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population will double between 2000 and 2030. Some of this growth is due to migration from rural areas, but most of it will occur due to natural increases in the urban population as well as the reclassification of rural areas as urban. Nor will it be concentrated in mega-cities like Lagos (with a population of roughly 10.9 million, according to the UN Population Division); instead, the bulk of urban dwellers will reside in cities of less than two hundred thousand people. Such municipalities have more flexibility in policymaking, but experts warn they lack the resources to handle significant population influxes. In many cities, local revenue is less than 1 percent of their country’s gross domestic product.

Despite the region’s clear urbanization trend, national governments and development groups continue to direct their energies toward rural economic development. Economists attribute this focus to a widespread belief in “urban bias,” the notion that urban groups receive preferential economic treatment because, by virtue of their location, they are able to pressure the government more effectively than rural groups. While there was truth in this idea when the economist Michael Lipton introduced it in the late 1970s, Christine Kessides, an economist at the World Bank, says it no longer applies to the reality of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. All the same, the idea of urban bias “still reigns,” says David Satterthwaite, senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development. 

The Problem or the Solution?

Economists say that sub-Saharan African urban residents are marginally better off than their rural counterparts. Health metrics are higher for urban dwellers, and cities offer more education and employment opportunities for women. Even so, the majority of urban dwellers in sub-Saharan Africa live under slum conditions, without durable housing or legal rights to their land. At least one-quarter of African city dwellers do not have access to electricity. A 2000 World Health Organization report estimated that only 43 percent of urban dwellers had access to piped water. Waste disposal presents a tremendous health hazard in many urban areas; in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, plastic bags are used as “flying toilets.” Indoor air pollution, poor nutrition, and urban crime all pose threats to urban residents.

High urban poverty levels in the region lead to the popular misconception that in sub-Saharan Africa, unlike the rest of the world, urbanization is not spurring economic growth. Many national governments view urbanization as a problem to be stopped rather than an inevitable trend that necessitates policy changes. This perspective was bolstered by a 1999/2000 development report from the World Bank, which concluded that African cities “are part of the cause and a major symptom of the economic and social crisis that have enveloped the continent.” More recent academic research—including from the bank itself—debunks this assertion, concluding that many aspects of urban poverty are caused by limited political and institutional capacity. Urban areas are “underutilized resources that concentrate much of the country’s physical, financial, and intellectual capital and will inevitably continue to do so,” argues a 2006 World Bank report (PDF) on urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa.  

Jumpstarting Economic Growth

Today, most economists agree that urbanization can precipitate economic development in the region. “If there is any hope for development in Africa, urbanization must be part of it,” says Blessing Mberu, a Nigerian sociologist who studies rural to urban migration. The countries with the fastest rate of urbanization are those with the best economic performance, says Satterthwaite. But urban economies in sub-Saharan Africa are not well-integrated into the global economy, and they depend on the export of natural resources and agriculture in order to import manufactured goods.

Poor public services, infrastructure, and city management all obstruct economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa’s cities. “Africans need their cities to allow the economy to transform, but they also need to transform their cities,” argues the 2006 World Bank report. Experts say the region’s cities need to improve public transportation, access to services such as water and electricity, and the government’s management capacity. Though any efforts in these areas will require significant funds, sub-Saharan Africa suffers from poor tax administration. Roughly 60 percent of urban employment is estimated to be in the informal economy, which further limits tax revenues.

As cities seek to foster economic growth, they often want to use land that is occupied by slum dwellers for either infrastructure development or business. But some economists suggest that making that land available to those urban residents would stimulate the economy by giving them incentive to improve their housing. Satterthwaite says this process is starting to happen in South Africa, Malawi, Namibia, and Kenya. In cities already experiencing economic growth, however, there is strong pressure to evict slum dwellers.

An Information Crisis

A major obstruction to effective urban policymaking in sub-Saharan Africa is the lack of recent, reliable data on the region’s urban populations, poverty levels, and growth rates. Most data is collected at the national level, not the city level, and much of the region’s census data is from the late 1980s or early 1990s. Some countries, such as Angola, haven’t had a census since 1970. Because resource allocation is often based on the definition of an area as rural or urban, these classifications are sometimes manipulated for political purposes. For all of these reasons, economists caution against generalizing about the region’s cities, and emphasize that data on urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa is not accurate enough to advise individual cities on policy.  

Many of Africa’s urban residents live in illegal settlements, most of which are unmapped and lack legal addresses. Improving access to this data can produce substantive economic results. In countries such as Burkina Faso and Senegal, establishing a street-address system has boosted tax collection. Kessides says the World Bank has a multiyear initiative in progress to collect data on Africa’s infrastructure. Most urban research on the region is collected by nongovernmental organizations, not university-based or government-sponsored institutions. As a result, ongoing research does not reach many of the cities that most need it.

Denial, Subtle Shifts, or Both?

National governments and international aid organizations continue to privilege rural development. At the national level, many governments are loath to allocate resources to urban development and prefer to ignore growing urban areas. “African governments and city officials need to step up to the plate,” says Mberu. “They need to articulate that there are problems.” A few countries—including Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda—are working to address urban growth. Burkina Faso, for instance, is working to improve transportation in its capital city, as well as strengthen the water and sewer system. Experts say local governments can now play a stronger role in the policy process due to the continent’s broad movement toward political decentralization. In South Africa, for instance, a network of nine cities has developed to share information and develop strategies for good governance and city management.

While some international organizations such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have urban initiatives, most also remained focused on rural areas. Nongovernmental groups don’t have an organized presence in urban areas, and “many of the bilaterals remain philosophically wedded to the notion that poverty is a rural phenomenon and they must focus on rural development,” says Christine Kessides. Some researchers see signs that this mentality may be changing. Most multilateral institutions have joined the Cities Alliance, a coalition of cities and development groups that provides grants to urban poverty reduction measures. Two major population reports in 2007—the UN’s State of World Population and the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World—focused on the need for cities in the developing world to plan for urban expansion. But the UN report highlights the overall dearth of progress among local, national, and international actors. “Given the economic, social and environmental implications of the inevitable explosive growth of urban populations in developing countries,” it writes, “the absence of a coordinated proactive approach is astounding.”