by Christian Alexander

The scourge of corruption in urban development has corrosive and far-reaching effects that can hardwire injustice into the fabric of cities and undermine social cohesion and trust within communities. Staggering figures reflecting the prevalence and impact of corruption in urban development demonstrate that tackling this issue is a key policy challenge of our time. Globally, between 10% and 40% of public budgets are estimated to be regularly lost due to various forms of corruption, while an average of one in three service users in countries such as Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria report facing requests for bribes when accessing basic public services. The “elephant in the room” constituting a threat to cities “harder to fight than guerrillas”, corruption is present in all aspects of urban development globally, but has proven particularly devastating in the context of Africa’s rapidly growing cities.

These insights are revealed in a working paper authored by Dr Dieter Zinnbauer, and released this week to introduce the African Centre for Cities research project, Cities of Integrity: Urban Planning and Corruption in Africa. The Cities of Integrity project, supported by the UK’s Department for International Development under its GI-ACE Programme, is investigating the relationship between the professional integrity of urban planning communities in Africa and the prevalence of corruption within those professions.

The research is premised on the fact that planners are central players in many of the urban decision-making processes—from zoning variances to infrastructure budgeting—that are targeted by and susceptible to corrupt influences. Despite this vulnerability, relatively little attention has been paid to the planning profession’s role in combatting corruption. This oversight constitutes a rich opportunity to leverage the potential influence of professional communities in terms of shaping members’ norms and identities, and thus regulating their conduct. Recent anti-corruption research and policy work suggests that proactively strengthening processes of integrity among professionals may prove to be more effective in battling corruption than the conventionally proscriptive and punitive anti-corruption measures historically taken. The prospects for applying this innovative approach within professional planning communities in Africa are promising and demand further exploration.

To better understand the current ‘integrity landscape’ within professional planning communities, the Cities of Integrity team under the leadership of Prof Vanessa Watson (University of Cape Town), will be carrying out research through 2020 in two African countries, Zambia and South Africa. In cooperation with local statutory bodies, researchers will assess the existing institutional support structures for professional integrity in these two countries. Through survey research, they will also map planning professionals’ experiences with corruption and the ethical challenges encountered in their daily work. The project additionally includes an exploratory qualitative action experiment involving the design and implementation of an innovative integrity training programme for planning professionals in Zambia, conducted together with the University of Zambia’s Centre for Urban Research and Planning.

In addition to addressing the deficit of research on the role of planners in combatting corruption in Africa, ACC’s Cities of Integrity project promises to shed light on how professional planning communities might be harnessed to combat corruption through the construction of a distinctive professional identity grounded in a robust commitment to society and public integrity.