Research Brief
Urban Service Delivery in Africa and the World Bank

Various studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between urban population levels and gross national income. As such the growth of the urban population in sub-Saharan Africa may have a positive impact on the region’s economic development. However, this growth also presents a challenge when it comes to delivering services to an expanded population in urban centers. In the WIDER Working Paper 'Donor Assistance and Urban Service Delivery in Africa' Richard Stren looks at the demographic and political trends that have affected African cities over the years, and assesses various different approaches to the provision of international assistance of the World Bank (WB) throughout the decades.

Three trends in urban Africa: Growth, decentralization, and democratization
Traffic and pollution, Cairo, Egypt. © Kim Eun Yeul / World Bank
Traffic and pollution, Cairo, Egypt. © Kim Eun Yeul / World Bank

The first major trend Stren identifies as affecting urban Africa is population growth. The actual proportion of sub-Saharan Africans that live in urban areas is relatively low. At 36.7 per cent of the population, the urban population of the region is one of the lowest in the world. However, African cities are growing rapidly, and have been for some time. The average annual rate of urban growth between 2005 and 2010 was estimated to be 3.7 per cent. This figure is high in comparison to other regions, in China the rate was 2.62 per cent, in Latin America 1.60 per cent, and in Europe 0.40 per cent. Whilst urban growth can have a positive effect on a country’s economic development, at the same time it places a huge strain on the services available in cities.

Decentralization and democratization, the other two trends that have affected African cities, are in many ways interconnected. Stren points out that prior to the 1990s most urban services were provided either by the agencies of the central government or by local agencies supported by multi-national corporations. Today, however, the decentralization policies pursued by most African governments mean that since the 1980s an increasing amount of power has been placed in the hands of local authorities. This shift occurred at the same time as many African countries were undergoing the process of democratization. The combination of democratic elections and local governments meant that urban services were increasingly being run by institutions that had been elected by the users of those services.

With these trends in mind, Stren turns to look at how the WB, the institution with the largest urban assistance programme, has adapted its approach over the years.

Pushing for housing – the 1970s

Inspired by successful projects in Chile, the WB introduced a number of projects in Senegal, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya designed to improve local infrastructure, train people to work on their own homes, and provide financial support to encourage them to complete their home construction. However, while these projects were initially evaluated as a success, in the long term they did little to deal with the housing problem in African cities.

Buildings, Morocco © Curt Carnemark / World Bank
Buildings, Morocco © Curt Carnemark / World Bank

This failure was due to a wide variety of problems. Many people who had been allocated land to build on simply sold their land on to wealthier buyers. Others kept their plot, but did not engage in any building work. In many areas the intended improvements to infrastructure and services stalled or never began at all. The WB took this as a learning experience and, as Stren points out, the importance of this lesson this should not be underestimated. He argues that while the projects were ultimately unsuccessful, they provided a stimulus that lead to improvements in urban policy in Africa.

The eventual failure of these projects combined with the impossibility of keeping up with the ever-increasing demand for urban housing led the WB to shift its focus. In the 1980s the WB began to put the emphasis on 'urban-management'.

Urban management – the 1980s and 90s

Stren suggests that it is tricky to define exactly what urban management refers to, but he argues that the essence of the idea was that a more businesslike approach to urban development should be adopted. This new businesslike approach involved supporting, and working through, decentralized institutions to create competition in service delivery, and to promote new institutions more capable of delivering services effectively. Stren points out that the WB also aimed to generally strengthen the economic development of cities through improving regulatory frameworks, promoting private sector involvement in housing and infrastructure supply, and strengthening financial services such as tax collection. The hope was that developing cities managed by effective institutions would lead to greatly improved living conditions for the urban poor.

Unfortunately this approach failed to produce significant progress due to the financial difficulties faced by African cities. Stren suggests that while the overall level of municipal resources has risen somewhat, it is still too low for municipalities to be able to manage their local administration and services, however effective they may be. These limitations led the Bank shift their focus going into the 2000s.

Governance and local participation – the 2000s

Over the last decade the WB has increasingly concentrated on governance and local participation as key dimensions of urbanization and service delivery. Previously WB projects were almost completely 'supply-driven', that is, aimed at supporting and creating institutions designed to provide urban development in a top-down manner. These elements are still included in WB projects, but increasingly 'demand-driven' elements are also present. Demand-driven elements include things such as providing the public with access to information, consultation through public forums, participatory budgeting, and public oversight of government expenditure. Stren argues that responding to the challenge of incorporating local participation is the international community's most important task going forward.

A key indicator of the WB's commitment to this new approach is its analysis of the requirements for effective service delivery. Stren points out that the Bank now recognizes that consumers can play an important role in improving services. In particular the WB now recognizes that local residents are in a unique position to monitor and discipline service providers, and to strengthen the incentive for service providers to cater to the poor. This approach has so far proven more effective than its predecessors and a number of successful projects have been completed across the region.

Stren finishes by questioning whether assistance has actually made any difference to urban development in Africa. He argues that the answer is both yes and no. On the positive side, continued growth in cities leads to countries becoming more productive, and as city populations grow the proportion of people living in slums declines. Furthermore new institutional configurations for providing services such as water and waste removal are improving the quality of life for many urban residents. However on the negative side slum populations are growing in absolute terms, and most citizens still do not have water piped into their houses. Stren suggests that overall the international community, and in particular the WB, have played an important role in improving both local government capacity, and in connecting local populations to those who provide their services.

A family living in an urban slum © UN Photo/Kibae Park
A family living in an urban slum © UN Photo/Kibae Park