Mayors and local government officials from across Africa at the weekend concluded the Third Africities Summit in Yaoundé, Cameroon, with a pledge to work harder and cooperate more closely to provide better urban services to millions of citizens living in slums and informal settlements.
They elected Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, Mayor of the South African capital, Tshwane (Pretoria), President of a new African organization of local governments. A name for the organization will be chosen by the time a new world organization of local authorities holds its first congress in Paris, in May 2004.
In a statement at the end of the 2-6 December meeting, the mayors said their new organization was considering an offer by the Moroccan city of Rabat to house the headquarters of the new pan-African local government organization.
"We, mayors attending Africities 3 in Yaoundé, Cameroon, note that despite various efforts undertaken by governments and partners to improve the quality of life of citizens, many challenges still remain," the statement said.
Topping a list of 32 recommendations on issues ranging from health, water, education, financing, governance, culture, and energy to waste management, was the recommendation that local authorities in Africa be devolved into financially autonomous bodies administered by elected leaders with full powers to run their own affairs. Transfer of responsibility to local authorities had to be accompanied by equitable transfer of human and fiscal resources. Central governments, they said should, however, retain only supervisory powers to ensure compliance with the law and national policy.
"We have observed that far from weakening the State, decentralisation is a catalyst for local democracy and governance and has proven a determining factor in stimulating local development by involving men and women, and enabling them to increase their participation in management and decision making processes in cities. This makes it possible for them to identify appropriate means for solving their problems," the joint statement by more than 700 mayors from across the continent said.
The third item on the list was a recommendation that the approach of the charter of essential urban services proposed at the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002, "opens the debate on the adaptation and organization of the local authorities to the mission of provision and distribution of essential services".
They noted that because many countries and cities in Africa were so short of financial resources, it was imperative to seek assistance from the private sector as well as exploit opportunities provided under Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiatives.
Reacting to the latest pan- African initiative, Pierre-Andre Wiltzer, the French Minister Delegate for Cooperation, who attended the week’s deliberations said: "This is a major a breakthrough, a wonderful new step for Africa, for urban Africa. It shows that Africa is now taking matters into its own hands and I have no doubt that the year 2003 will go down as the year of a new beginning for Africa. This meeting shows that the mayors are ready to exercise their full responsibilities."
The mayors’ recommendations followed a series of meetings during the week that covered four key themes - access to basic urban services, funding basic services, governance of basic services, and partnerships and participation in the delivery of services and local development.
"Although two thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s citizens still live in rural areas 200 years after the industrial revolution, and although most of us seem to think that this will never change, Africa is currently experiencing the world’s fastest rate of urbanisation," Alioune Badiane, UN-HABITAT’s Regional Director for African and Arab States, said in a closing address to the conference.
With 37 per cent of Africans currently living in towns and cities across the continent, Mr. Badiane said this figure was expected to reach an estimated 53 per cent by the year 2035. In Cameroon, the host country, already 47 per cent of the population was urbanised.
"We are only too keenly aware that in African cities, poverty is characterised by a growing lack of basic services as increasing demand outstrips supply, and as municipalities find themselves institutionally and financially limited," Mr. Badiane said.
With 72 per cent of people in urban Africa living in slums and informal settlements, he said it was more important than ever that Africa keeps the Millennium Development Goals in mind by bringing in better urban development capacity, good governance, transparency and decentralisation through active subsidiarity between the state and local communities.
In another new initiative at the conference, a group of African mayors signed a letter of intent with Latin American mayors to start introducing the home-grown Brazilian municipal administrative system of participatory budgeting whereby local communities have a direct say in how municipal budgets are spent.
Yves Cabannes, a UN-HABITAT regional coordinator in Latin America, travelled to Yaoundé, Cameroon, with Eduardo Brenta, the Mayor of Montevideo in Uruguay, and Gilberto Vargas, Mayor of the southern Brazilian city of Caxias, to explain at a workshop how since 1989 participatory budgeting had now spread to 250 towns and cities in Latin America with major development improvements in many poverty stricken urban zones.
The letter of intent was signed by Mr. Badiane, Mr. Cabannes, mayors from both continents, and Jean-Pierre Elong-Mbassi, Coordinator of the Municipal Development Partnership (PDM), the driving force behind the Africities concept.
The Latin American group also explained the new system at a lively local residents meeting in a poverty stricken Yaoundé suburb that lasted beyond midnight.
"This is not something imported from Europe or North America that we are seeking to impose on Africa," Mr. Cabannes explained. "It is a system of municipal management that developed in the poorest urban districts of Brazil and has now spread with great success. It is a best practice worth emulating in Africa and this is an important start."
He said arrangements would be made so that mayors and municipal activists from Africa could visit towns in Latin America to study participatory budgeting and its in-built safeguards against corruption and exploitation.
UN-HABITAT representatives also presided at a series of other workshops at the Africities Summit with mayors and other local government representatives on water and sanitation, safer cities and good urban governance.
Delegates, who attended many of these sessions, recognised that UN-HABITAT, in its role as the UN agency for cities and other human settlements, was playing a leading role as the UN system’s point of contact for local governments in promoting good governance.
They also recognized that the agency’s two Global Campaigns for Secure Tenure and Urban Governance as important mechanisms for building capacity for better local governance, and thus improved basic urban services. The Global Campaign for Urban Governance has already been launched in several African nations - Burkina Faso, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda.
During a special session on urban safety and security arranged by UN-HABITAT, participants agreed that urban safety is essential to development. And they cited a list of constraints. These included a lack of institutional and legal frameworks, the negative impact of weak governance, difficulties in measuring results and realising inclusive participation and partnerships, and limited capacity at the local level.
At the same time, they agreed that UN-HABITAT’s Global Campaign on Urban Governance and the agency’s Safer Cities Programme, initiatives of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), decentralisation policies, the alleviation of slum conditions and initiatives of other UN agencies helping youth at risk could help reduce crime and redress the situation.
"This conference has been very helpful to us as mayors in Africa," said Duma Nkosi, Mayor of the sprawling industrialised East Rand adjoining Johannesburg, South Africa. "It was important because all of us have slums, and we need to learn best practices from one another because it is too expensive to start reinventing the wheel here."