UN-HABITAT’s Executive Director, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, last week told a special panel of the United States Senate that 72 percent of the urban populations in Africa still live in slums and informal settlements.
In her remarks on Thursday 4 May to a hearing on "Urbanization and Housing in Africa," Mrs. Tibaijuka told Senators Mel Martinez, Russ Feingold and Baraka Obama: "Cities in Africa contribute over 60 percent of the gross domestic product but fail to provide adequate housing and basic services with the result of 72 percent of the urban population living in informal settlements and slums."
Citing the new efforts of the African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development (AMCHUD) and other initiatives underway in the continent, Mrs. Tibaijuka said that "if the international community does not act now to support African initiatives, we will pay dearly in the future in terms of the social upheaval that rapid, chaotic urbanization is bound to unleash, both in Africa and beyond."
The chairman of the Senate African Affairs subcommittee, Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, said massive population shift in Africa over the past decade raised serious policy issues for African Governments.
"Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest urbanizing region in the world," said Mr. Martinez. "In 1994, the urban population in Africa was approximately 172 million, by 2004, it had grown to 264 million. The rapid rate of urbanization has serious economic, social and health implications. Urban poor living in densely populated slums and informal settlements constitute a significant portion of this population. In these areas, social disorder simmers because of overcrowding and economic despair."
The ranking member of the Senate subcommittee, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin acknowledged the need for US policy makers to take seriously the challenge of urbanization in Africa. “Where do we begin?” he asked Mrs. Tibaijuka.
The Executive Director outlined three areas of engagement: policy reform, institutional development and appropriate finance mechanisms. She said that the African private sector had the capital to invest in housing and basic services but lacked incentives. African governments also needed to reform policy and legal frameworks to make this happen, with the focus on tenure security as collateral for investment, foreclosure laws, and due process. Africans required relevant housing institutions to facilitate community participation and private sector investment.
“This will take time, Mrs. Tibaijuka said, "to move from small projects and go to scale." She cited a need for appropriate finance that builds on community savings and credit. Otherwise, all housing finance would be up-market. Private banks would be unlikely to lend directly to slum dwellers, and therefore had to be linked to community-based mortgage finance systems.
James Smith, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade who represented the US Agency for International Development also briefed the panel. He emphasized the important role of the USAID Development Credit Authority in supporting private investment with loan guarantees.
Also offering testimony on behalf of the US Administration was Darlene Williams, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research, representing the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. She said that the Department and UN-HABITAT were working with African governments and the private sector to promote private lending for affordable housing in East and West Africa.
Johnathan Reckford, the President of Habitat for Humanity, one of the largest international housing NGOs, also briefed the Senate panel. He said that investment in housing reduces poverty because it results in better health outcomes, social stability, and provides people with an asset they can leverage to start small businesses.
Mrs. Tibaijuka concluded her presentation by urging Senators to attend the World Urban Forum in Vancouver, Canada. Senators Martinez and Feingold expressed interest in attending the Forum and indicated that they planned to travel to Africa this year to see first hand the challenges and opportunities of rapid urbanization.