The central districts of many of Africa's major cities now boast numerous skyscrapers of cement, glass and steel. But far into the distance spread Africa's real urban conglomerations: unplanned, chaotic settlements built of wood, corrugated metal sheeting, mud bricks and whatever other materials may be at hand. They have only dirt roads and open sewer ditches. They lack piped water, refuse collection, electricity and most other basic municipal services.
These shantytowns are home to tens of millions -- and they are growing rapidly. "Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where urbanization is associated with negative economic growth," says former South African President Nelson Mandela. "This adds to the enormity of the problems of urbanization in a region that is exactly most in need of growth and development to end and reverse its marginalization on the world stage."
Many of the recent arrivals in Africa's slums migrate from the countryside. Although the conditions are miserable and most urban Africans see little escape from poverty, more newcomers are constantly coming.
Africa's cities are being "overwhelmed by the sheer rate of change," Ms. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, executive director of the Nairobi-based UN Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS, or Habitat), told Africa Recovery. She cites as an example Dar es Salaam, in her own country, Tanzania, which is expanding at a remarkable rate of 10 per cent a year. At that pace, the city's total population will double in seven years. "You can imagine what that will do for water services, electricity, telephones, traffic, schools."
Homelessness does not mean that there are no homes. It exists because people don't have employment to have access to homes.
-- Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Executive Director, UN Centre for Human Settlements
The continent's urban problems do not revolve only around insufficient resources and services. They also include severe social dislocations, high levels of crime and insecurity, corrupt and inefficient local government institutions, striking inequalities in wealth and especially the pervasive poverty that blights most urban settlements.
A half decade ago, some of the unique urban problems of Africa were recognized at the Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat-II), held in June 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey. It adopted a global "Habitat Agenda," affirming that adequate shelter is a human right and acknowledging "the critical situation and needs of Africa and the least developed countries." Participants cited Africa's high rate of rural-to-urban migration, wars that have spurred massive population displacements and the severe decay of urban infrastructure. In June 2001, the UN General Assembly held a special session in New York called "Istanbul + 5." It looked again at the particular challenges facing urban centres in Africa and other parts of the world and reviewed the various programmes that have been initiated so far.
There has been some progress in implementing the Habitat Agenda in Africa, noted African ministers responsible for housing and urban settlements at a November 2000 meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. But at the same time, the ministers recognized that ineffective management, poor infrastructure and rising crime and violence have had "negative impacts . . . on the quality of life and working environment in many African cities and towns."
Urbanization and poverty
The African ministers also forecast that the continent will experience unprecedented urbanization over the next quarter century. Since most African cities simply are unprepared to accommodate the additional population, this will lead to a further "mushrooming of squatter settlements of high densities and inadequate or no services."
Already, Africa's urban population is growing at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, the highest of any world region. For some individual cities, it is significantly higher. Currently, Africa is still the most rural continent, with only about 38 per cent of its population living in cities and towns. But within the next three decades, more than half of all Africans will be in urban centres.
Some of this urban growth is a result of natural population increase, but most comes from rural-to-urban migration. Drought, environmental degradation, rural poverty and wars continue to push many young villagers toward the cities in search of jobs and other economic and social opportunities. But with the economic crises of the past two decades, few regular jobs are to be had.
According to some analysts, Africa's urban problems have been worsened by the economic policies adopted by many governments during the 1980s and 1990s, largely at the urging of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The initial privatization programmes often led to reduced formal sector employment, as did trade liberalization, which contributed to the failure of many local businesses unable to compete with cheap imports. Without steady jobs, many residents have been unable to afford adequate shelter. "Homelessness does not mean that there are no homes," notes Ms. Tibaijuka. It exists because people "don't have employment to have access to homes."
On top of this, the budgetary stringency that came with structural adjustment programmes further eroded the capacities of municipal authorities to maintain and finance essential services, such as roads, waste collection, and electricity and water systems.
Two sides of a coin
Agricultural policies also have had an impact, notes Prof. Abdou Salam Fall, an urban sociologist at Chiekh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal. Since market liberalization and the reduction of government support services in the 1980s, there has been an "accelerated process of pauperization" among Senegalese farmers, especially in the groundnut sector. This has pushed even more rural youth to seek income opportunities in the main cities or in Europe and the US.
For such reasons, Mr. Mandela emphasized, "We have to overcome the mindset which counterposes rural and urban development. Poverty knows no boundaries. Rural and urban development are two sides of the same coin."
In Africa overall, poverty is still largely rural. But with increased concentrations of people in the cities, poverty has been growing more markedly in the urban centres, even as rural conditions have improved slightly in some African countries. The November 2000 meeting of African housing and urban ministers observed that there has been a trend toward both an "urbanization and feminization of poverty" in many African countries. (Estimates of the number of households headed by women in African capital cities range between 10 and 25 per cent.)
Conditions in some of the largest cities have deteriorated to such an extent that the patterns of migration from the countryside are starting to shift. Historically, most migrants have flocked to one or two main cities in a given country: Abidjan, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Dakar, Brazzaville, Luanda. In 1999, according to estimates by the UN's Population Division, more than half the total urban population lived in the single largest city in 16 African countries.
Over the past decade, however, as conditions in these big cities have worsened, the urbanization process has become less lopsided. In Tanzania, for example, medium-sized towns of about 20-30,000 people have proliferated. According to research by Prof. Fall, Dakar's rate of growth has slowed noticeably, while four or five secondary towns now absorb a greater share of rural migrants, marking the beginning of a "diversification" of Senegal's urban centres.
Even before the 1996 Habitat conference, programmes and projects were launched in a number of African countries to help residents of urban slums build better housing and to improve essential services. In Ghana, for example, a series of urban upgrading projects have been under way since 1985, in one of the most extensive efforts anywhere in Africa. By 2000, these had improved infrastructure and services for nearly half a million people in five cities, out of a total of 2 million urban residents classified as poor.
According to Mr. Chris Banes, a World Bank municipal engineer who has worked with the Ghana project, one key to its progress has been "political commitment" at the national level. Other factors were decentralization of responsibility and authority to local governments, active involvement by community groups, and an emphasis on basic, achievable services, such as main access routes, drainage networks, water supply, sanitation and refuse collection.
The Istanbul conference led to a greater emphasis, across Africa and in other parts of the world, on building stronger partnerships among all those actively concerned with urban improvement: national governments, municipalities, external donor agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and local communities themselves, including private sector contractors and businesses.
To strengthen coordination among aid agencies, Habitat and the World Bank launched the Cities Alliance in 1999, which has been spearheading the Cities Without Slums initiative, for which Mr. Mandela is the "patron." It works with other UN agencies, regional development banks, bilateral donors, local associations of municipal authorities, NGOs and private companies to identify and prepare citywide and countrywide slum upgrading programmes. Many of the initial ones have been in Asia, but programmes also are being prepared in some African countries, such as Mauritania and South Africa. The grant facility's total target for the first three-year period (1999-2001) is $40 mn.
While external financing can play an essential role, many urban development experts, drawing on experiences like those in Ghana, argue that active involvement by local communities is equally, if not more, important. Because urban poverty in Africa is extremely complex, sustainable solutions to the problems of the most destitute will require an "integrated approach, based on community participation," argue Mr. Mohamed Soumaré and Mr. Jérôme Gérard, both of Environment and Development Action-Third World (ENDA), a regional NGO headquartered in Dakar.
In Malawi, Habitat for Humanity, another NGO, works with local and district governments, the national authorities, community groups and traditional chiefs to build low-cost houses and latrines. Locally elected committees choose low-income applicants who are willing to provide voluntary labour and ready to repay input costs (payments which go into a revolving fund for further construction). The project has involved more than 460 communities and has built nearly 4,000 houses and latrines.
In Luanda Sul, a poor shantytown area of the Angolan capital, an urban programme launched in 1995 has benefited some 2,700 families displaced by that country's civil war. It has built 2,210 houses and laid in drainage, piped water and electricity lines, with financing from taxes and tariffs, the sale of land concessions and investments by private businesses. Community representatives participated in the design and planning of the programme, and local residents have first option to buy land.
One notable feature of the Luanda Sul programme was the creation of 4,000 local jobs through its construction projects, which was particularly welcome in an area of high unemployment. Similarly, in nearly a dozen West African countries, most of them francophone, job-creation through public works projects in poor urban neighbourhoods has been an explicit goal of the Agence de travaux d'intêret public pour l'emploi (AGETIP) programme, supported by the World Bank. Many of the construction projects undertaken through AGETIP were proposed by municipal authorities, but in Chad, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal a number also were proposed by community leaders or NGOs.
(% of countries reporting)
|Latin America & Caribbean|
|Source: UNCHS (Habitat), The State of the World's Cities, 2001|
Community involvement has not always ensured that the benefits of such projects reach everyone. In Voi, Kenya, the government agreed that local residents could acquire access to land through traditional communal tenure arrangements, and NGOs provided technical and legal support for securing titles. However, according to one of the NGOs, Kituo Cha Sheria (Legal Aid Centre), women were marginalized in the process, since customary practices kept men as the main decision-makers. One of the lessons that Habitat has drawn from such cases is that urban improvement projects should have a special focus on women.
One of the greatest dilemmas facing many African cities is how to finance the development and maintenance of essential services, such as waste removal and the provision of clean water. Despite some financial support from national governments or donor agencies -- usually only for the initial construction of facilities, not their on-going operations -- municipal authorities must rely overwhelmingly on local taxes, fees and tariffs.
A Habitat study of municipal taxation in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda found that many big cities draw most of their revenue from property taxes. These account for 60 per cent of total revenue in Nairobi and 56 per cent in Dar es Salaam. In Uganda's capital, Kampala, it is only 6 per cent, but reaches 43 per cent in Jinja, another Ugandan city. Through such taxes, the better-off sectors of society -- those able to own taxable property -- help pay for services that benefit a broader layer of the population, including some of the poor.
But actually collecting all the taxes that could be paid, let alone expanding the tax base, is not easy. Property valuations often are incomplete and out of date, while it is very difficult to value property in unplanned residential areas, since legal ownership is poorly documented. Many taxpayers also are reluctant to pay what they owe, especially where corruption is widespread and they do not see their taxes being put to good use. Moreover, in Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, central government institutions are among the largest property owners, but do not pay anything into the municipal coffers.
Given such financing constraints, there is a growing trend among city authorities to privatize or contract out the provision of services. In East Africa, the privatization of waste removal has been most prevalent. Nairobi privatized garbage collection in the central business district in 1997, while some 100 small firms operate in other neighbourhoods, many of which never had much public refuse collection. In Dar es Salaam, five private companies have been awarded contracts to collect solid waste in specific parts of the city.
Although efficiency generally has improved, there are shortcomings. Private contractors usually operate mainly in middle- and higher-income areas, where residents can afford to pay, leaving many of the poor without such services. In a number of countries, including Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, the Republic of Congo and Senegal, public municipal bus companies are disappearing with the privatization of transport sectors. Private taxis and bus companies often are more expensive, and only serve the more lucrative routes, obliging many urban residents to bicycle or walk longer distances.
Ms. Tibaijuka sees a role for privatization of water services, but also raises concerns about equity and access. "It is a myth that the poor at the moment are accessing water free," she argues. Because of a "total failure of public provision, the water is not reaching these people." As a result, they must buy water from informal sector vendors, and often end up paying more than the rich do.
"The notion of privatization of water services is, in itself, not a bad thing." But then, she adds, "How will people access the privatized water?" Policies are needed to ensure that the poor are not excluded simply because they cannot afford to pay. "It is not a matter of either/or. It is a question of finding clear answers, without losing sight of the end objective, which is to improve people's access to water."
In Uganda, for example, the government's long-term goal is to ensure full "cost recovery" for municipal services. But it also recognizes that public subsidies may be necessary to ensure that low-income groups have access to clean water services.
Solutions to many of the problems of African cities depend critically on the capacities, competence and legitimacy of municipal governments and institutions. As Habitat points out, efforts to achieve secure tenure for poor residents and to include as many urban actors as possible in upgrading programmes require local government institutions that are efficient, open and transparent. To focus more attention on such issues, it has launched a Global Campaign for Good Urban Governance. Negotiations currently are under way on a proposed World Charter of Local Self-Government, which would emphasize the need for national governments to decentralize more responsibilities and authority to the local level.
In most African countries, "political and administrative power is highly centralized," observed Mr. K.Y. Amoako, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, at the November meeting in Addis Ababa. "Cities neither have the political nor financial clout, let alone the administrative and technical capacity, to make decisions critical to the way people live."
He added that while more African countries have moved toward decentralization over the past decade, this has "often not been accompanied by the necessary fiscal power to enable local governments and communities to raise revenues to finance investments and the operational costs essential for the sound management of cities."
Similarly, with the dramatic shift in the 1990s toward multiparty democracy in much of Africa, more municipal governments now have elected city councils and mayors. Democratization is important, emphasizes Prof. Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, a prominent French historian of Africa, otherwise urban governance would have little real meaning, except to manage the cities "more efficiently on behalf of the elites and transnational corporations."
Even where formal democratization has been introduced, corruption and other shortcomings in municipal administration have not necessarily dissipated. In Burkina Faso, for example, municipal councils have been elected since 1995, but there have been numerous cases of embezzlement, bribe-taking and other malpractices by elected councillors and appointed administrators alike. Since late 1999, residents of Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, Tenkodogo, Houndé, Koudougou and other towns have been protesting that titles to urban land have been distributed unfairly to officials' wives, relatives and friends or to wealthy individuals willing to pay hefty bribes.
Perhaps the greatest factor in pushing for improved urban governance is the increased assertiveness of civil society organizations. In two neighbourhoods of Nairobi, for instance, residents went to court and won an order suspending payments of rates and service charges to the city council until roads, water and sanitation services improve.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, some of the biggest challenges to structural adjustment and other problems of the cities have come from urban youth, notes Mr. Kadmiel Wekwete, who has worked on urban programmes in Zimbabwe and is now a senior technical advisor at the UN Capital Development Fund. As more and more Africans are concentrated in urban areas and view the cities as their primary home, the more likely they are to press vocally for improvements. Increasingly, he says, "local governments are having to grapple with an urban population that is demanding things.