Political implications of African urbanisation

Edgar Pieterse contributed an expert perspective to the Africa’s Urbanisation Dynamics 2022: The Economic Power of Africa’s Cities published by Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) hosted at the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development.

It is well established that the African region demonstrates the highest rate of urbanisation. It is equally well-known that 90% of all urban growth will be concentrated in Africa and Asia between 2021-2050. Urbanisation over the next two decades will coincide with numerous challenging trends. They include rapid digital technological change that will shape the relative competitiveness of national and regional economies; more intense and more frequent climate-related disasters and pressures; the changing nature of work and occupational categories; and further bifurcation of polities as people gravitate towards various forms of extremism, combined with populism. All in all, it is a recipe for deep uncertainty and conflict.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given a foretaste of what these convulsions might mean in terms of everyday life, economic dislocation, political unrest and strains on precarious public infrastructure and institutions. 1 These exogenous stresses are likely to increase in frequency and impact, raising questions about the political-institutional reforms that should be considered to anticipate and respond proactively. In most African countries, given the long-term policy delay in advancing democratic decentralisation and the need to give National Urban Policies some teeth, several urgent institutional innovations could help equip governments prepare for what lies ahead.

Perpetually delayed reforms
Richard Stren, one of the longstanding observers of urban policy and governance, made the following observation 50 years ago:

One of the most widely held criticisms of urban policies in Africa is that they are inconsistent, haphazard, and not coherently articulated. … Physical planners rarely work with economists, there are no ministries of urban affairs, and even well-defined problems such as housing and urban transportation run the gamut of intra-governmental negotiations before anything serious can be attempted. The division of function and jurisdiction between local and central government also leaves a great deal of room for manoeuvre, conflict, and overlap in urban policy.

(Stren, 1972[39])

This assessment preceded the concerted policy push in the 1990s by various international development agencies for greater political and functional devolution of power from central governments to the local level. In the early 1990s, the push for decentralisation coincided with the proliferation of two discourses: environmental sustainability, which was to be reflected in Local Agenda 21 plans, and participatory development, which had to be embedded in institutional mechanisms at the municipal level, to give voice to civil society and citizens. Increasingly, in the late 1990s and 2000s, donor agencies in the multilateral system insisted on evidence of such reforms to access loan finance or debt relief. Amidst a larger wave of political reform to introduce multiparty electoral systems across Africa, various experiments in decentralisation were pursued, with uneven results (Pieterse and Smit, 2014[40]).

The literature on decentralisation concurs that decentralisation was often more hollow than substantial. Local governments were created in law, but these tiers of government were seldom awarded the requisite powers, functions and fiscal capacities to take control of their territories. Instead, they would be administrative extensions of national ministries, and most urban infrastructure and services would be planned, implemented and managed by national utility companies that bypassed local political processes. These institutional mismatches are allowed to persist, in part, because many national governments realised that their political foes would find their greatest electoral support in cities. This phenomenon creates a political incentive to keep local governments, especially in cities, weak and under-resourced.

National urban policies: A political game changer?
Against this historical backdrop, it is important to pay attention to the significant uptake of National Urban Policies (NUPs) in many African countries. According to the most recent data available, 23 African countries have NUPs, and a number of others are in the process of developing them (UN-Habitat, 2021[41]).

Since NUPs emerged as an institutional innovation, after the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, they have been seen as mechanisms to facilitate inter-governmental alignment around critical development, climate and economic development goals. In this sense, NUPs can become the policy arena that addresses how infrastructure investment for long-term and low-carbon growth is calibrated to respond to the territorial conditions of a given country. Put differently, a large-scale renewable energy strategy must respond to where the greatest economic needs are— key regional hubs in a national hierarchy of places — and sequence investments to address capacity constraints in places with the greatest economic impact, whilst simultaneously promoting mini-grid, renewable energy technologies at a relatively low cost that can be operated by communities themselves.

The National Urban Policy can guide how best to implement such a spatially differentiated infrastructure investment agenda, whilst defining what it means for intergovernmental relations and fiscal policy. Furthermore, a NUP will present a view on how to optimise the alignment of critical infrastructure investments, and to ensure synergy and cost-effective alignment, within the larger perspective of addressing structural transformation of the economy through the promotion of green industrialisation (Lopes, 2019[42]). To be clear, this is the potential role that NUPs could fulfil in Africa. Whether they do so or not, remains unclear. It is too soon to draw conclusions.

New scales of co-ordination
An important dimension of the emerging new era is a recalibration of the scales at which economies and various forms of collective action are organised. The vulnerability of globalised value chains has been exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. This realisation chimes with the environmental critique of long-distance supply chains. In response, the longstanding argument for a greater focus on regional scales of logistical organisation has come back onto the policy table, with important environmental and infrastructural dimensions. It is easier to optimise low-carbon mobility systems if the territorial scale of securing raw materials, conducting beneficiation, packaging and distribution are more contained in terms of physical extent. It is also easier to manage and co-ordinate scarce natural resources such as water when its planning and operational management is based on the regional water basins. New forms of energy provision, through renewable mini-grid systems, also lend themselves to smaller scales of organisation and distribution, rather than relying on national grids.

Regional economic competitiveness will increasingly rely on a deep understanding of the unique endogenous offerings of a given territory. It will also require building out the supportive infrastructure and labour market intermediation to enhance regional assets. Given the centrality of city-region economic hubs, especially in Asia and Europe, the new forms of city-region diplomacy and economic engagement are becoming increasingly important. African city-regions will have to come to terms with these imperatives and create the political and institutional scaffolding for formal forms of political organisation and networking to support moves in this direction. It is precisely these new imperatives for sub-national regional co-ordination and networking that should be addressed in contextual NUPs.

Another scale – the hyperlocal – will become increasingly important as urban service delivery and the underlying infrastructure shift towards technological approaches that enable low/zero carbon performance, material efficiency and labour intensity. This is particularly important in most African cities. Infrastructure systems and associated service delivery can be reimagined at the intersection of circular economy principles, digital technology, place-making imperatives and job-creation, through the strengthening of social enterprises within the affected communities. These opportunities are especially relevant in the poorest neighbourhoods of African cities, where various kinds of makeshift systems have been responding to the inability of the local state to provide affordable and consistent services. The challenge is to create new frameworks of engagement and negotiation, to rethink and redesign basic service delivery systems (e.g. electricity, water, sanitation, waste removal and housing provision), as well as services that structure common spaces through public space, green infrastructure and breathable air.

Source (Akinsete et al., 2019, p. 8[43]), The Sanitation Economy Opportunity for South Africa, https://www.susana.org/_resources/documents/default/3-3692-7-1568622624.pdf

It is instructive to consider one illustration of how sanitation services can be reimagined not only to fulfil basic needs but also to comply with circular economy principles and enhance public health outcomes. It is based on research conducted by the Water Research Commission (of South Africa) and the Toilet Board Coalition. Figure 6.4 summarises the potential for reorganising the technological underpinning of sanitation in poor households, embedding digital sensors into the systems to generate vital preventative health data. The outputs from household and public toilets can feed into biological waste streams that can be processed to support agricultural economies. Not reflected in this is the need to strengthen social enterprises within such communities to maintain and operate these systems. This will reduce the cost for participating households and create opportunities for forms of work in a context where formal employment opportunities are scarce. Similar design logics can also be applied to other infrastructure sectors.

Bringing new politics to life through innovation
These new scales of development co-ordination must navigate an urban world that must contend with profound environmental risks and deep socio-economic inequalities. It is not a given that incumbent political actors will see an alignment between their own interests and experimenting with new forms of planning and co-ordination. It will be important for organised local government, in concert with civil society organisations, academia and the private sector, to establish forums where these new political and development opportunities can be discussed. National governments will be working to align SDGs commitments with their National Determined Contributions, in terms of carbon reduction targets and green industrialisation strategies that align with the imperatives of the African Continental Free Trade Area. This may offer an opportunity for inclusive growth, jobs, reducing inequality and enhancing environmental sustainability. The difference from earlier perspectives on these inter-dependencies is that it is now understood that such an approach has profound spatial implications, especially in a context of rapid urbanisation.

It is for this reason that the importance of innovation systems must be appreciated. Innovation systems can be deployed to figure out how to adapt new technological and regulatory systems to the unique political and material challenges of African cities. Put differently, as intimated above, we have a reasonable sharp policy understanding of what needs to change, but the perennial question remains: How best to upend the status quo?

The dominant ways of doing things are held in place by powerful vested interests, entrenched behavioural patterns and preferences and institutional norms and sanctions that are difficult to shift because they have a basis in law and political power.2

Apart from figuring out how to expose and shift the status quo, generic “solutions” will need to be adapted and tailored to specific contexts marked by unique socio-cultural and ecological dynamics and histories. New approaches and technologies must be adapted to local dynamics to have any hope of achieving traction, impact and durability. This raises the question: Who will do the work of matching innovative urban development ideas with local dynamics? City-level Experimentation Labs (CELs) can play this role.

Ideally, a local university-based urban research centre or think tank should take the lead to establish research and discussion platforms on pressing urban challenges in the local context. Such a nodal point will have to take on a variety of functions that include:

  • Foundational research (collecting and analysing various datasets) to establish a credible evidence base on the various urban systems that underpin the urban- or city-region. Where resources allow, such incremental work should manifest as observatories with appropriate geospatial capacities and public interfaces.
  • Action research on topics identified by key local actors in the public sector, civil society and the private sector, to ground and advance a medium- to long-term strategic plan co-produced in a participatory fashion. This can dovetail with formal, statutorily required, territorial and environmental plans.
  • Translational research that requires review and analysis of global (e.g. SDGs, New Urban Agenda), continental (Agenda 2063) and national development goals for application at the local scale. This task will help to reinforce the importance of local priorities and to refine the assumptions of implementation frameworks that stem from these larger policy imperatives.
  • Experimentation and prototyping to uncover the practical mechanics of carrying out policy imperatives that stem from various generic frameworks in the areas of resilience, climate change adaptation, conflict resolution and so on. It is impossible to overstate the importance of testing new ideas, because most promising policy ideas run aground on regulatory and institutional mainstreaming.
  • Knowledge intermediation through curated processes of co-production and exchange between diverse stakeholders in a city, or a specific area where action research or experimentation is being carried out. These processes are crucial to generate genuine innovation in relation to identifying solutions that can work effectively in the local context, appropriately adapted to reflect cultural sensibilities and unique conditions. (Parnell and Pieterse, 2015[44]).­­­­­­

These functions imply that such urban research centres must incorporate diverse academic and professional skills to work within an open-systems frame that is fundamentally interdisciplinary. They also require a capacity for transdisciplinary practices, which involve the articulation and synthesis of academic, tacit, professional and intuitive knowledge. Transdisciplinary research is problem-driven interdisciplinarity conducted with, not for, societal actors.

Africa is undergoing a period of profound social, political, technological and demographic change that manifest most acutely in African cities and towns. The entrenched forms of political organisation and their logic of command and control are simply no longer appropriate, and new spatial dynamics are needed to define policies and strategies to contend with the challenges. A new generation of innovation capacity at the urban scale is needed, with the resources and trust to facilitate the necessary tough conversations on how best to transition to a more integrated, sustainable and just urban future.