Africa cities

African cities can learn from EU experience – spoke to Somik Vinaj Lall, lead author of the World Bank’s flagship report African cities: opening up to the world. Meeting with his EU counterparts, Lall identified areas where the EU’s experience could be of value in the urbanization of the African continent.

The 162-page report finds that unlike other parts of the world, cities in sub-Saharan Africa are closed to the world. At the same time, 472 million people already live in urban areas in Africa and that number will double over the next 25 years as more people are pushed from the countryside to the cities.

Lall, who is the Senior Economist for Territorial and Spatial Development at the World Bank, was in Brussels at the invitation of the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the EU, which convened a group of development experts on Tuesday (June 13). for a meeting to focus on the development of Africa.

The overall story of the report, as he described it, is that cities grow as economies grow. With increased productivity in agriculture, people are moving from rural areas to cities. Manufacturing in cities creates links with the world, but in the case of Africa, that link has been very weak. Rather than producing tradable goods and services, African cities produce goods and services consumed in the cities themselves, Lall explained.

“Lack of investment is a challenge, but that doesn’t change the basic premise is that moving to cities is a good thing,” Lall said, adding that the real question was whether governments are doing the right thing. to match the urbanization of people with the urbanization of capital.

Asked about positive examples of African cities that have managed to ‘grow’, Lall began by giving two examples outside of Africa: Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where the growing number of residents is growing. is accompanied by a growing infrastructure.

“Investments in infrastructure have gone hand in hand with this, in a coordinated way,” he said, adding that these cities have become household names for products made there, such as the textile industry and clothing. clothing for example.

“In Africa, this story has been very limited, paradoxically because African countries have discovered national resources,” he said, explaining that the commodity boom had created the phenomenon of “Dutch disease”. “Dutch Disease” is the negative impact on an economy of anything that gives rise to a large inflow of foreign currency, such as the discovery of large oil reserves. Foreign currency inflows cause the currency to appreciate, making the country’s other products less price-competitive in the export market.

As a good African example, Lall named the capital of Rwanda Kigali.

Rwanda is small and landlocked, with a recent dramatic history. At first glance, there’s not much of a chance that a success story will happen there. But the authorities have done a lot of upstream work, made land available and obtained property rights, he said.

“And the way they do it is not piecemeal, but in a coordinated fashion,” he said, adding that the result has been remarkable economic growth over the past few years.

Another example given by the head of the World Bank is Ethiopia, where the country has developed an industrial sector following good urbanization policies.

When asked if success is more likely in countries where state authority is centralized, such as China, Vietnam or Ethiopia, Lall said it was more about whether the ‘State was doing the right things.

“In Kigali, the big thing the state wanted to do was create the environment for urban development, that was the role of the state. But that was not going to create big state enterprises. It is not the role of the state, ”he said. asked the head of the World Bank what his impression was of his talks with his colleagues and counterparts in the EU. He said the first idea was that the private sector and the informal sector should be encouraged as important partners in urban development in Africa.

“Job creation is obviously not a government thing,” he said, adding that the role of the public sector was rather to create incentives for the private sector.

“As policymakers try to come up with a strategy for urbanization in Africa, this may be worth thinking about,” he said.

A second idea he identified with his EU counterparts was that there was a need for a ‘horse race’ between institution building and infrastructure investment.

“Our report talks about it, unless the land management institutions are properly put in place, the returns to infrastructure will not be that high, especially social returns. And this is something that I have found in many discussions that we have had today, ”he said.

A third point that he felt struck him was to provide good examples from other parts of the world and to suggest how they could be translated into the African context.

“Our colleagues in the EU could help distill success stories, for example in Latin America and other parts of the world, to strengthen this conversation,” he said.

Asked what European cities and communities could do, the World Bank official said there was a lot of opportunity in twinning partnership programs, in the area of ​​service delivery issues, such as the water supply.

“It could be of great value in Africa right now,” he said.