For the last several decades, cities in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have been growing at historic rates. At the same time, since most of them are very poor, they have not been able to keep up with the need to provide the most essential services to the bulk of their people. Partially as a result, they have called upon international institutions, (both multilateral and bilateral), for project and programme support. By many measures, this assistance has been very considerable since the 1970s. But, what are the essential features of this pattern of international intervention, and how successful has it been?
This study aims to address these questions. As the paper will show, international urban assistance in Africa has gone through a number of distinct phases, each of which relates to development ideas important during that time period. But in the end, African cities have become much more connected to forward-looking ideas—and with each other— than they were at the beginning of this journey.
According to the 2011 revision of the World Urbanization Prospects, 309 million sub-Saharan Africans out of a total estimated population of 843 million live in urban areas. At 36.7 per cent, this represents the lowest urban proportion of all major world regions (UN 2012: file 1). By contrast, Europe is 72.9 per cent urban, North America is 82.2 per cent urban and Latin America and the Caribbean are 79.1 per cent urban in the same year (UN 2012: file 1).
While the proportion living in cities is relatively low, African cities have been growing rapidly for some time. In SSA in particular, the average annual rate of urban growth from 2005-10, across over 40 countries, is estimated at 3.71 per cent, which is one of the highest levels of urban growth in the world. By comparison, the equivalent rate for China during the same period was estimated at 2.62 per cent. Latin American, European, and North American cities were growing at 1.60, 0.40, and 1.31 per cent per year, respectively (UN 2010, File 6).
The low level of urbanization of SSA, combined with a high rate of urban growth, typically correlate with low levels of gross national income (GNI) per capita. This is indeed the case for SSA where, at US$885.3 per capita annually, GNI figures are among the lowest of any world region (World Bank 2010a: 379). While there is no clearly delineated causal relationship between levels of urbanization and economic growth, the two measures are positively related, as Figure 1 illustrates.
Other studies show that higher national income and economic growth correlate with higher levels of urbanization. Although these studies do not establish the direction of causation, ‘they do show that the association between urban and national economic growth is robust and worthy of attention’ (Montgomery et al. 2003: 304). Nevertheless, high levels of urbanization or the presence of very large metropolitan areas do not necessarily lead to economic benefits. As Polèse (2009) demonstrates in detail, while urbanization takes place as per capita wealth increases, many countries—including many in the developing world—can sustain a very high level of urbanization without levels of wealth corresponding to what might be expected in northern, more ‘developed’ countries. Aside from oil rich, desert countries, most wealthy countries are also highly urbanized.
The beginnings of serious donor assistance to African urbanization were in the early 1970s with the advent of the World Bank’s urban programme. From sites and services, through support for improved urban services (sometimes called the ‘urban management’ approach), to the current emphasis on selective slum upgrading through participatory projects along with capacity building for both national and local government institutions, the Bank has employed a wide variety of approaches to give assistance to African cities. Other agencies, such as UN-HABITAT, Cities Alliance, and the bilaterals have also developed urban projects - albeit at a much smaller level of scale - in Africa.
While these projects and approaches have been gestating, African cities have been simultaneously affected by three major trends.
The first is the overall high rate of growth that especially the poorest cities have experienced.
The second is political and administrative decentralization which, in most cases, has not been accompanied by an equal level of fiscal decentralization.
The third is democratization. Compared with the early 1970s, when African cities were just emerging from late colonialism, they are much larger—with generally much larger slum populations than they had earlier.
Yet, they have more formal powers, and their local officials and mayors are more generally elected in a regular manner. While there has been a lot of experimenting with new methods of delivering essential services, such as water, sanitation, health services, education, public transport, and waste disposal, these methods have been applied differentially in individual countries, with help and support from both donor agencies and from the NGO community. Local government staff has become more professional, and both elected and professional staff are much more in touch with developments in other parts of the urban world than they were in the past.
In the light of all these changes pulsating through African cities, has international assistance made a major difference? The answer must be both yes and no.
To take the negative answer first, it is very difficult to see, on the ground, major improvements in service delivery in many countries, when slum populations are growing almost exponentially, most citizens do not have piped water available in their dwellings, and— at least in some southern African countries—the level of HIV/AIDS approaches 25 per cent of the total adult population. On the positive side, as cities grow, countries become more productive, and the proportion of the urban population living in slums and experiencing poor access to services gradually declines. In countries like Tanzania new and continuing urban projects are having a decidedly beneficial effect in some parts of the urban informal city. In other countries, new institutional configurations for delivering water, or for removing waste, are improving the quality of life for many people. As agencies work more collaboratively (through the Cities Alliance, or along with the larger projects which the World Bank is able to mount) their collective ability to connect with local people in a new demand-driven approach seems to be having a positive effect.
Given that SSA received about 31 per cent of all committed urban assistance over the period 1995-2007, one might hope for greater impacts on the ground. But of course one must remember that the needs of African cities are far greater than that which the collective assistance of the international community can possibly satisfy on a continual basis.
What is clear is that African cities, their local populations, and their local governments, are much more connected to a wide range of solutions to their service and administrative challenges than they were before, and as a result much more ready to engage in creative efforts to respond to their own needs. The international community has played an important role in the opening of these possibilities. Improvement will be slow, but there are visible changes.
- Introduction and Conclusions to: Donor assistance and urban service delivery in Africa. The 24 page paper, written by Richard Stren, can be accessed here.