The urban challenge in Africa: decentralization and beyond

With Africa’s increasing urbanization, governments and local authorities - supported by donors - are under pressure to provide better urban services such as water and sanitation. The scale of the transformation tells a story of grand political and social change - in the way people are going to live their lives as they move from the rural areas to cities and towns.

Africa is urbanizing quite late compared with the rest of the South, but the trend is strong: by 2030 Africa will be an urban continent. Already in 2020 cities such as Lagos, Kinshasa, Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam will almost have doubled in size as compared with 2005.

In the ReCom research project ‘Decentralization and Urban Service Delivery: Implications for Foreign Aid’ the lessons learned from different types of interventions have been evaluated in different social and political settings. The project is now into is final stage of publishing after two research meetings last year in Naples and Cape Town.

Why decentralization?

Decentralization in its various forms has at least been rhetorically embraced as a priority for Africa’s development agenda. It is listed as a key objective by more than two dozen countries on the continent, often categorized as part of a strategy of achieving ‘good governance’. There is talk of bringing decisions closer to the people, thus empowering citizens. Decentralization is also seen as a way to improve service delivery by giving local government responsibility to tailor services to local preferences and needs.

Still, politics can just as easily explain decentralization - or lack of it - as a way of strengthening the ruling party’s hold on the local level. An illuminating example of this is Uganda where a parliament dominated by President Museveni’s NRM party passed the Kampala City Act in 2009 which in practice took the management of the city out of the hands of the political opposition. In a fresh working paper Gina Lambright looks into how this affects urban service delivery in Kampala.

Other papers are summarizing case studies carried out in Nairobi and Mombasa, as well as Dakar, and Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Until the 1970s urban policy was largely neglected and Northern donors are still reluctant to provide foreign assistance for urban development and poverty reduction - despite the fact that urban poverty is increasing rapidly. During these years there have been several shifts in the way this challenge has been addressed and policy makers are still struggling to come to terms with the right mix of policies.

Tackling urban poverty

This December 2012 issue of the ReCom newsletter also contains two highly useful reviews on how donor agencies and multilateral organizations have approached urban poverty.

The World Bank, the most active donor in the urban sector, has shifted its modes of engagement significantly through the years. In two working papers, the first focusing on South Asia by Nicola Banks and the second dealing with Africa by Richard Stren, these changes are analysed up to the most recent shift towards local participation in urban service delivery projects.

Still, compared with other forms of foreign assistance donors are putting a very small proportion into urban poverty reduction and it seems likely that financial flows into slums are decreasing rather than growing. Fortunately, some practices have evolved that seem to work well and they all put the tools for poverty reduction in the hands of the urban poor. These people might not have any heavy theories but base their interventions on practical experiences. The responsibility of researchers and policy makers should be, as Nicola Banks notes, to provide financial support and to study the driving forces of urban poverty for aid to deal more effectively with the urban challenge in the poor world.

Next results meeting in Stockholm

This is the last of the ReCom newsletters for 2012 and the communications team is looking forward to a quite busy 2013 with a steady flow of working papers, commissioned articles as well as events.

On 13 March a ReCom results meeting on Social Sectors will be held at Sida in Stockholm which we hope will attract policy makers, practitioners, academics and students of issues such as health, education, clean water, and sanitation. We will soon open the event web site.

On 4 June the next results meeting will be held, again at Sida, on Environment and Climate Change. During the latter half of the year two more will be arranged, both in Copenhagen.

We wish our readers a very successful 2013 and we will soon be back with more evidence-based insights on the impact of foreign aid. Meanwhile, please check our website for regular additions of working papers and information about our events.

Carl-Gustav Lindén is Senior Communications Specialist, UNU-WIDER