IN THE PRESS: Two experts reveal the importance of African cities for our future

Programme Type: Public Discourse Programme:

In this article, Gemma Soles interviews ACC’s Liza Rose Cirolia and Sylvia Croese on the social, political and institutional dimensions of urban infrastructure.

How to make cities healthy, cohesive, peaceful or work-generating spaces with equal opportunities for men and women?

The challenges of having more habitable, inclusive and fair metropolises are deep and complex, in addition to structural problems, especially for Africa, which is home to three quarters of the world’s poorest countries. The recent and heartbreaking UN report on the persistent inequalities and climate change is not encouraging and does little to dissuade the pessimistic outlook that derives from it. We went in search for some light at the end of the tunnel and talked to researchers Liza Rose Cirolia and Sylvia Croese, experts from the African Centre for Cities, in Cape Town, which study the social, political and institutional dimensions of urban infrastructure, development governance or decentralisation in human settlements in African cities.

These two young researchers have agreed to respond jointly by email to a battery of questions about why the cities of the African continent will be crucial in the coming years, especially if the Sustainable Development Goals are to be more than just a piece of paper. 

Question: Why do you think that cities, and in particular African cities, are becoming fundamental axes for world development agendas?

Answer: On the one hand, global development agendas cannot move away from cities, since most people will live there in the coming decades. By 2025, most of the world’s urban population will live in Asian and African cities , with an urban growth rate in Africa, which is currently almost 11 times faster than in Europe, according to UN Habitat. Therefore, there is no way that the objectives of global development agendas, such as the 2030 Agenda or the Paris Agreement on the climate, can be reached without taking into account the cities. On the other hand, the cities themselves have become increasingly present on the world stage to defend their role as actors of sustainable development through international organisations such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), which was crucial to achieve the inclusion of an independent urban objective ( SDG 11 ) as part of the 17 SDGs .

In the United States, cities have organised and committed to meet the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement despite the withdrawal of the federal government. However, in Africa, cities have not had a similar space to assert themselves vis-à-vis national governments, since decentralisation levels are still relatively low compared to other parts of the world. This means that, although the urban areas of Africa are important sites for the achievement of the objectives, more efforts are needed to ensure that the governments of the cities and urban authorities of the continent can play a role in this process.

Q: What African cities are the ones that currently best fund the SDGs?

A. It is important to think what is meant when talking about “SDG financing” by cities. Is it about financing the different objectives that are part of the urban SDGs, such as housing, transport and waste collection, financing of urban areas and the infrastructure of the city (which could involve other levels and government actors beyond cities) … Is it necessary for the urban local government and city authorities to do the work required to achieve the SDGs? In this sense, it is difficult to have a definitive answer.

“To obtain SDG financing at the city level, local (urban) governments require strong fiscal systems”

What our research finds is that in order to obtain financing from the SDGs at the city level, local (urban) governments require strong fiscal systems that allow them to generate and increase revenues and expenditures and channel this to their local priorities. In this sense, it is really about achieving a correct fiscal decentralisation, as a precursor to align the city’s finances with the SDG priorities. This requires, among other steps, a clear decentralisation framework that allows the generation of local income, as well as the ability to apply for loans for long-term development.

Unfortunately, however, most African cities and countries do not yet have such systems. For example, many cities still rely on transfers from the national government to finance their operations or the decision-making or interference of the national government in terms of how local funds are spent. The exceptions are represented by metropolitan municipalities in South Africa such as Cape Town, which enjoy high levels of political and fiscal decentralisations. These cities are moving towards the fulfilment of the SDGs. However, much of their efforts are not within a framework of “SDG financing”, but rather reflect existing local development planning and priorities.

Q: But there must be a coordination framework to achieve these goals, right? How are urban development agendas being coordinated in Africa? Are National Urban Policies (PNU) working in this regard?

A: The importance of national urban development agendas is increasingly recognised in Africa and several efforts are being made to adopt and implement PNUs across the continent, with at least 18 countries that have already adopted them. However, a recent study by our colleagues at the African Center for Cities(ACC) concludes that few countries have the financial and technical capacity to implement these policies. In addition, most African countries have not yet aligned their PNU with global agendas such as the SDGs.

Q: And in the absence of sufficiently established national and urban policies, what role would NGOs, traditional leaders or civil society play in implementing the SDGs in the cities of Africa?

A: Non-state actors play a very important role in the cities of Africa by contributing to the provision of services to the most local level. In many cities, for example, bosses remain involved in the allocation, control and management of land. NGOs and community organisations, in turn, play an important role in different areas, from education to health or safety. However, often the role of these actors is not recognised, supported or regulated. It is very important that this change. Given the importance of the informal sector in African cities, it is necessary to recognise the role and contributions of all stakeholders and optimise them through partnerships so that they can contribute to development.

Q: So, much of the solution lies in the capabilities of society itself rather than in institutions… It seems like rapidly growing secondary cities provide easier opportunities to improve efficient infrastructure and invest for quality of life of its inhabitants … rather than megacities such as Lagos or the future mega-city of Dar Es Salam, with several million residents, where challenges make it difficult to envision a hopeful future.

A: Many of Africa’s secondary cities are, in fact, between 25,000 and 500,000 inhabitants and are growing rapidly. These smaller urban centres are important, and are places where experimentation is very possible. It is often easier to work with the communities and officials of these municipalities. However, these cities also often present challenges, such as lack of capacity, limited finances and provincial bureaucracies. Megacities and metropolitan regions, on the other hand, have the opportunity to climb. It is here where work, knowledge and capital are grouped, so, in theory, everything is there to contribute to a better life. It is also there that the most globalised and progressive ideas are rooted, which makes them a fertile ground for change and progress. The reason why this progress remains a challenge is often related to political and governance issues. However, there are small-scale examples of participatory development within large cities that can be replicated.

“Even in the West, economic growth and urbanisation have been accompanied by growing inequalities, and in cities like New York or London, homelessness, poverty and unemployment are increasing”

Q: Data predict that by 2035 (a relatively close date), half of Africans will live in cities. The predictions also say that the inequalities will worsen and that the challenges will be more significant than the opportunities… What fundamental aspects must be improved to reverse these predictions? Or, simply, do we have to abandon the Western conceptions that urbanisation and economic growth?

A. Since the emergence of the market-led growth model in the 1990s, there has been a direct relationship between development and inequality. We see that even in the West, economic growth and urbanisation have been accompanied by growing inequalities, and in cities like New York or London, homelessness, poverty and unemployment are increasing. This is why the 2030 Agenda applies universally to all countries: both developed and developing, and why a special SDG (SDG 10) on inequality was included. By reducing inequalities in the next decade, we will all have to learn from each other.

However, the complex relationship between urbanisation, economic growth and inequality requires an additional interrogation in the African context where urbanisation has not been accompanied by industrialisation. While urbanisation in Africa has contributed to growth, it has also created new (and poorly understood) types of inequality as people struggle for precarious jobs and the housing market.

“Urbanisation in Africa has contributed to growth, it has also created new (and poorly understood) types of inequality as people struggle for precarious jobs and the housing market.”

To face this challenge, we need a new paradigm on inclusive growth. At the African Centre for Cities, we have been thinking about how, for example, infrastructure and service delivery could be a space for inclusive growth by developing systems that require a lot of labour, are greener and are more responsive to people. There are other important areas where new ideas could be tried, especially at the city level.

P. In Spain we have had a transformative example with the so-called ‘Town Halls of change’ , with Manuela Carmena, mayor of Madrid until a few weeks ago, or Ada Colau, recently re-elected in Barcelona. Which African city governments are also notable in terms of urban improvements?

A. In Africa, this type of local leadership is not as widespread, but it can generally be found in countries where there are significant levels of decentralisation, such as South Africa, Senegal, Kenya or Ghana. In these cities we see the emergence of municipal leaders who are developing innovative policies and partnerships with local actors and stakeholders for local development and service delivery.

Two experts reveal the importance of African cities for our future, by Gemma Solés for El Pais and published on 30 July 2019 in Spanish.