Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, spoke in London last week on the discourses of optimism circulating in private sector and institutional circles outside the continent. The past year saw a number of flagship reports from the likes of McKinsey, Monitor and BCG, striking a bullish tone on the African economy, and the role cities will play in driving its growth. This is complemented by a bullishness in the international development sector towards cities in general, with the World Bank's World Development Report 2009 Reshaping Economic Geography leading the charge. But both kinds of bullishness risk creating a sense of blind faith in cities leading to the neglect of their problems if misunderstood.
McKinsey's Lions on the Move reports that the African economy will grow from 1.6 trillion US dollars to 2.6 trillion between 2008 and 2020, with Africans' spending capacity rising from 860 billion USD to 1.4 trillion over the same period. It calculates that the number of African households with disposable income will grow from 59 million to 128 million, and this is a key component of the expanding local market.
Yet UN-HABITAT reports that the number of urban slum dwellers in Sub-Saharan Africa has been growing at an increasing rate over the past two decades, from 103 million in 1990, to 145 million in 2000, to 200 million in 2010. With so much of the private sector reports based merely on the extrapolation of recent positive trends, do we have any reason to expect that future growth will have any impact on these numbers?
Pieterse underlines the fact that what the consultancies are so bullish about is predicated on middle class expansion, that is, the same kind of consumption-fuelled, resource-demanding growth causing energy, water and food crises in many parts of the world.
There is something more subtle going on as well. Pieterse points to World Bank/Agence Française de Développement research led by Vivien Foster and Cecilia Briceño-Garmendia which demonstrates that Africa is running at an infrastructure investment shortfall of at least 31 billion USD per year, with annual needs of 93 billion.
That means Africa's governments will have to prioritise, and chances are that they will dedicate a lot of funds to high-capital projects designed to enable this middle class expansion. These will include arterial roads into new "global city" districts, water and energy infrastructure to support their high consumption needs, and new airports to connect business hubs to their foreign partners. Foreign and local investors will be making heavy demands on government to assure the stability of these services — no more brownouts or other interruptions — while those living in long-neglected parts of the city will have little power to talk over them.
The master plans and infrastructure proposals that shape these new growth areas will require the displacement of several thousand residents from key inner-city corridors to peripheral areas where infrastructure provision will have to wait a little longer … This is a classic Schumpeterian line of thinking, but it is one possible future that can be read between the lines of these reports.
Amongst some international development organisations, especially those raised in a professional culture of assistance to rural areas, the teeming activity of cities signifies places where people are looking after themselves. True, average earnings may be higher in cities than in the countryside, but does that mean that the poor are wealthier there, or that the wealthy are more numerous?
In research on Sudan's cities commissioned by the UK Department for International Development, the Overseas Development Institute writes that apart from those seeking refuge from conflict,
"there appears to have been a pervading assumption [in the international community] that those who are residing in the cities are 'alright'; that they have greater access to basic services, are benefiting from economic development and increased livelihood opportunities and enjoy greater security than those who have remained in rural areas. … Given the high concentration of international actors in Juba and Khartoum in particular, this lack of attention to the desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in Sudan is extraordinary."
The team leader Sara Pantuliano presented this research in the Houses of Parliament last week, providing a systematic overview of findings as distressing as they were predictable. Until the 1970s, urbanisation was dominated by pull factors as Khartoum and other regional centres steadily industrialised. Since then, there has been a complex of push factors — not only people fleeing conflicts in Darfur and the south, but also movement in response to a series of droughts, the gradual collapse of social services and security in rural areas, or simple economic shifts between one set of cities and another.
Yet the common perception amongst authorities are that these are all rural people displaced by conflict who need ultimately to be sent back into the countryside. The policy focus is on rural development, to create jobs and services away from the cities to decongest them. At the same time, as one of the largest cities in Africa, Khartoum is "trying to establish a global presence" based on a service-oriented economy, a vision which is apparently mutually exclusive with the future of thousands of its current residents. This is policy "in denial" of urban realities, in Pantuliano's words.
So those in the periphery are left to "look after themselves" in the most precarious fashion. Chronic water scarcity is the biggest problem in Khartoum and Juba, the price in poor districts being twice as high as for wealthy residents, and four times the price of water in Europe. One locality in Khartoum State has one doctor for 26,000 residents. An estimated 665,000 internally displaced persons forcibly relocated between 1998 and 2008, some two, three or four times, typically as a result of living in areas earmarked for redevelopment. Children paying gatekeepers for the right to enter dumpsites to scavenge for food, and the emergence of survival prostitution, with a trick earning little more than the equivalent of one British Pound, or a portion of food. The militarisation of the region means that weapons are cheap, and a gun culture has arisen amongst Khartoum's youths.
Even some of the policies intended to help are counter productive. Procedures for informal dwellers to gain the title to their own land cost upwards of 2000 US dollars to complete, and there are so few trained surveyors in Juba that the cadastre can take two years to establish. Several thousand IDPs have been allocated new land, but around fifty percent go uninhabited, since the new owners have no money to build a house.
It is hard to be bullish about African cities after hearing this kind of account, but it is necessary to imagine an alternative. Wealth may not trickle down automatically from the growing middle class to the urban poor, but it can in the right policy environment. For people to grow out of poverty requires long-term stability, and that means no displacement, not even the threat of displacement. Stability that encourages residents to save, not in case of eviction or health shocks, but for entrepreneurial projects. Stability that allows residents to imagine wealth-creating initiatives themselves.
I asked Sara Pantuliano whether the middle classes themselves hew to the policy line of sending people "back where they came from", or whether there was some diversity in their thinking. She responded that while the former may be true in Juba, in the Sudanese capital she sees "much more inclusive attitudes. Many recognise the eonomic importance of the urban poor as a source of labour in Khartoum". There are now "a few national NGOs and civil society networks led by elite who champion the urban poor and have developed programmes of assistance and protection in the peripheries. In some cases we can definitely talk of alliances, especially between elite women in Khartoum and some of the community-based women's groups."
These are the kinds of initiatives that international development organisations can support. Ultimately it is the voice of the local urban middle class that government elites hear loudest when reconsidering policy, not the arguments of international actors. Encouraging vertical communication and connections between different strata throughout a city is an important step towards vertical flows of wealth from the growing middle class to the poor. It will also be crucial in creating a middle class that does not simply demand infrastructure for its own needs, but clamours for investment in all sectors of society.