Africa, a rural continent? ‘Far from it’

A delegate from Africa displays a placard at World Urban Forum 6, held in Naples, Italy, in 2012. (Julius Mwelu/UN-Habitat)

NAIROBI — The location of major Habitat III preparatory talks here in Kenya this week offered a prime opportunity for an unusually nuanced discussion of African cities and urbanization.

At a 16 April meeting of urban journalists on the sidelines of the “PrepCom 2” talks, Axumite Gebre-Egziabher, UN-Habitat’s regional director for Africa, expressed her frustration with a longstanding characterization. “Everyone says that Africa is a rural continent,” she said. “Far from it.”

This was a point that resonated throughout PrepCom’s plenary halls and side events. Africa is poised to become majority urban by 2025 and is currently the fastest-urbanizing region in the world. That makes the issues around sustainable urbanization and urban development being discussed in the context of the Habitat III process especially vital for the continent.

At another event on the sidelines of the PrepCom 2 talks on 16 April, researchers from the University of Montreal made a forceful case that African cities and metropolitan areas should be at the center of the New Urban Agenda, the intended outcome document from Habitat III. The university’s Strategic Exchange Network for a Sustainable Urban Africa made an official statement during the third day of the PrepCom 2 plenary, stating in French, “Universities are knowledge, imagination and creativity. They innovate in research and development training.”

One issue related to African urbanization that will require particular attention is that of linkages between urban and rural areas, a subject that is starting to receive major focus in the Habitat III process. In countries that are still urbanizing, after all, migrants from rural areas are the driving force behind the growth of cities. Ghana is a leading example of this phenomenon, having already crossed the 50 percent threshold.

“The challenge of weak urban-rural linkage is one that deserves special attention,” Ghana declared in its official statement at PrepCom 2. “In less-developed countries and transition economies, including Ghana, the absence of a decisive intervention for the lack of cross-regenerative linkage between urban and rural areas continues to fuel uncontrolled rural-urban migration at unsustainable proportions.”

Urban-rural linkages were thus a key thematic issue during the PrepCom 2 side events, with devolution proposed as one possible approach to dealing with the issue.

“The decentralized model of governance currently being practiced in Ghana is an attempt at dealing with the challenges with rural-urban migration,” the Ghanaian statement continued. “Ghana has a number of local government enclaves created to move development to rural areas. The New Urban Agenda should therefore encourage member countries to initiate processes towards providing amenities to rural areas.”

This issue will prove to be an ongoing tension, as Africa makes the inexorable march toward urbanization even while its national governments seek to balance the development needs of urban and rural constituencies.

In late March, African leaders pledged to put urbanization front and centre at two upcoming meetings of the African Union. African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said the summits would aim to arrive at a common African position on urbanization ahead of next year’s Habitat III conference.

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