UN-HABITAT on Monday called on experts from some 53 African countries to promote a better understanding of urbanisation and its implications on the continent.
A new housing project in Malawi
“Unfortunately the response from politicians is sometimes at variance. Urbanisation from their viewpoint manages itself. Why is there this gulf between the urban experts and the politicians, the decision-makers?” asked Mr. Daniel Biau, Director of UN-HABITAT Regional and Technical Cooperation Division.
“We do not know how to make our case properly,” he said in an opening speech to urban experts gathered for the third African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development (AMCHUD).
According to UN-HABITAT figures nearly 1 billion people live in informal, irregular and unplanned settlements in cities of the South, with slum populations growing by 25 million annually - representing 70,000 daily. He said this situation was particularly worrying in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In Africa south of the Sahara two thirds of the total urban population of 304 million live in informal or irregular settlements. “In percentage terms, this is a world record,” Mr. Biau said.
He cited three underlying causes: rapid urbanisation in the developing world, a lack of decent employment opportunities, and shortfalls in urban planning and management.
The urban population of developing countries had grown from 680 million in 1970 to 1,450 million in 1990, and 2.6 billion today. It would reach 3.9 billion in 2030, according to UN-HABITAT projections.
“This growth, potentially positive because it helps reduce rural over-population, is not accompanied by economic development sufficient to create needed work and revenues, especially in Africa,” he said. “In many countries it has been poorly managed because the political will is lacking and because of wrong technical choices.”
He said international cooperation had focussed on rural development for 50 years. Recently, urban poverty had declined in east Asia and Latin America, even though the divide between rich and poor had grown. In Africa this urban poverty is characterized by two factors: monetary poverty with people earning less than two dollars a day, and human poverty , as defined by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and reflected in the growth of slums, be it from Lagos to Kinshasa or Conakry to Niamey.
Getting to the heart of the matter, Mr. Biau, said, there were four fundamental requirements for African urbanisation to succeed. Firstly, he cited the role of infrastructure as pillar of economic development borne out by the experience in Asian countries like China, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, or Thailand.
“We have to take note here of the direct correlation between the rate of urbanisation and per capita GDP. This economic growth ishould bring decent and productive employment,” he said calling it a necessary, but by no means complete condition of social development.
This led to the second element - basic services such as health care, primary education, drinking water, sanitation, public transport and security. These were areas where African governments had to redouble their efforts, he said.
He reminded the audience of urban experts that UN-HABITAT’s Governing Council had unanimously adopted a set of guidelines in 2009 covering five dimensions: 1/ the promotion of participatory urban governance; 2/ the decentralisation of public responsibilities; 3/ the development of partnerships between local authorities and service providers; 4/ the guarantee of pro-poor financing and tariffs; and 5/ managing the environmental impact of basic services provision.
The third key element at stake is to define realistic urban strategies, he said, adding that most African cities did not have urban development plans. UN-HABITAT and its partners in the Cities Alliance had for a decade promoted the idea of City Development Strategies which had been adopted in a number of European cities, but by only a few in Africa: ”An enormous cooperation effort is thus necessary to prepare and place urban development strategies in a position to reinforce governance and local capacity.”
Mr. Biau said the fourth key element at stake in urbanisation was helping the urban poor get themselves better shelter, and thus easier access to land and financing so necessary for the construction of decent housing.
Indeed, the theme of the conference, Land in the context of sustainable urbanisation, will enable African ministers to make fresh commitments to improve access to affordable housing across the continent when they meet for the high-level segment on Tuesday.
Taking note of the Bamako deliberations, Amnesty International called on African governments to agree on concrete actions guaranteeing security of tenure to all people living in slums and informal settlements and to protect them from unlawful evictions.
“Across Africa, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children living in slums and informal settlements can be evicted at any moment without sufficient notice or being offered alternate accommodation,” an Amnesty statement said.
It appealed to the governments to ensure further that people living in informal settlements are provided basic services and to end discrimination against women on access to shelter and land.
UN-HABITAT's Executive Director, Joan Clos, was scheduled to address the AMCHUD ministerial session opening Tuesday.