NEW PAPER: The Potential for Sustainable Urbanisation in Africa

“…from a political, economic, military, and cultural point of view, […] Africa has to become its own center. It has to become its own force. Not as a way of separating itself from the rest of the world, but as a precondition for it to exercise its weight among other forces in the world.”

It is incontrovertible that Africa is finally coming into its own a half a century since the beginning of the end of colonial exploitation. This confidence, finding its voice, is most eloquently expressed in the pan-African manifesto, Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want. It asserts:

The aspirations reflect our desire for shared prosperity and well-being, for unity and integration, for a continent of free citizens and expanded horizons, where the full potential of women and youth, boys and girls are realized, and with freedom from fear, disease and want. Africa is self-confident in its identity, heritage, culture and shared values and as a strong, united and influential partner on the global stage making its contribution to peace, human progress, peaceful co-existence and welfare. In short, a different and better Africa.”

Though, it does seem as if Africa’s timing is a little off. The continent is finding a shared purpose and the political appetite for large-scale reform at the very moment that the world seems to be retreating from multilateralism, liberal democracy, human rights, cosmopolitanism and openness. In the 2018 Munich Security Papers this time was characterised as being “out-of-joint”; manifested by the phenomenon that long held beliefs and painstakingly crafted institutions are fraying. This makes it virtually impossible to address shared problems such as climate change, rising xenophobia, tax evasion, off-shoring, forced migration and extremism.

There is an unmistakable backlash against the so-called rules-of-the-game that has produced unthinkable levels of inequality and a deep sense of cynicism in part because elites deploy the rhetoric of liberal democracy to mask unjust enrichment and large-scale social stagnation or exclusion. The breathless exposure of corporate corruption since the financial crisis of a decade ago reveal the myriad of ways in which public institutions at various levels have been “captured” by vested interests at the expense of the commons and foundational principles. There is clearly a need to pause, take stock and figure out collectively how best to reboot our economic, political and social protection systems. In an interdependent world, this cannot simply be a local, or national or regional task; it is fundamentally a collective global responsibility, but one that can be energised through effective strategic action between Europe and Africa. The ethos of the Sustainable Development Goals – leave no one behind – has to inspire efforts. This paper offers a perspective on what such cooperative action could be with a focus on one mega trend: urbanisation.

Taking Africa seriously as an equal and ally is about recognising that over the course of this century, the world will effectively become “Africanised” in demographic and cultural terms. It is projected by the United Nations that 40% of the global population will be African by the end of the century, up from the 17% in 2017; this is very substantial given that the global population is projected to exceed 10 billion by then. One sobering implication of this trend is that Africa will have the largest labour force, even greater than that of China and India combined, by the end of the century. (Figure 1) Most African countries have turned a corner away from authoritarian rule, kleptocracy and blatant oppression of “undesirable” sections of populations. However, it is only a start. Many African countries have an incredibly long and difficult road to travel to institutionalise constitutional democratic rule, effective social protections and viable economic pathways out of poverty. For example, the share of the population below the US $1.90 per day poverty line has dropped from 45% to 35% between 1990 and 2013, but in absolute terms, there has been an increase in the number of people trapped in poverty, from 280 million to 395 million over the same period.

Fortunately, there is a recognition at a Pan-African level that the fortunes and fates of African nations are profoundly intertwined, and it is important that both support and oversight should be strengthened through various pan-African institutions. More detail on these developments will be provided below. For now, it is important to recognise that there are numerous initiatives and processes that have been defined by Africans themselves that can be enhanced and strengthened by international partners, especially members of the European Union. These African initiatives are all infused by, and consistent with, international norms as expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement and the New Urban Agenda. In this paper we will argue that this expansive international agenda can best be operationalised through a careful consideration of urbanisation and its potentialities. To make our case, we will next provide some more context to appreciate the contemporary challenges facing Africa as the world contends with out-of-joint times. This sets the stage for a summative discussion in section 3 of the plan of action Africans have developed and are seeking to implement. These plans are comprehensive, ambitious and riddled with risks and threats. European and other partners can make an enormous contribution by understanding these risks and fortifying African efforts to implement their ambitious goals. Section 4 extrapolates from established macro development plans a refreshed paradigm to advance sustainable urbanisation whilst identifying emerging initiatives to drive implementation. The paper concludes in section 5 with a series of recommendations for action in the short- to medium-term. The recommendations are based on a set of assumptions about how best to focus and deepen policy dialogues on advancing sustainable urbanisation in Africa.