African cities risk becoming big villages – experts at ACET/World Bank conference caution, offer options

What is the vision for Accra? Luanda? Dakar? Addis Ababa? How are they absorbing the influx of migrants? How are they managing sanitation? How are they dealing with floods? Urbanization experts gathered in Accra to discuss the trends, promises, and challenges of Africa’s urbanization warned that most African cities need to change course urgently if they are to become modern, livable, inclusive settlements.

The share of Africans living in urban areas is projected to grow from 36 percent in 2010 to 50 percent by 2030. The continent’s urbanization rate, the highest in the world, can lead to economic growth, transformation and poverty reduction. Alternatively, it can lead to increased inequality, urban poverty, and the proliferation of slums. The latter seems to be current path. The laws, policies, and actions needed to reap positive dividends from Africa’s urbanization are therefore critical in the continent’s transformation.

“Urbanization is a two-edged sword,” Ghana’s Deputy Minister for Finance Mona Quartey said in opening the conference.” In his keynote address, Sir Paul Collier, the renowned Oxford University economist said, “Africa is the last continent to urbanize. It’s your big opportunity to get it right.” Sir Collier emphasized the need for governments to demonstrate that taxes are prudently invested in infrastructure. To that point, he added that African countries should invest in investing, that is to build the capacity for managing investments. He cited Kigali and Lagos as two cities that have made significant improvements through transparency and accountability.

The two-day conference included discussions on case studies from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and around the continent. In his presentation, Issa Faye, Manager of the Research Division of the African Development Bank, showed that the lack of affordable housing supply has contributed to growth of informal settlements. Factors worsening the situation include lack of access to finance, weak land governance, and insecure land tenure, rising cost of construction, and inability by government to provide infrastructure.

The Conference was jointly produced by the World Bank and the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET). Beatrix Attah-Mensah, Acting Country Director for Ghana articulated the bank’s interest in urbanization:  “Well-designed urban policies and strategic investments at this point of urbanization can produce significant difference in in making African cities efficient, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable.”

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