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Urbanization and the quality of life in large cities

Disproportionate attention - both academic and in terms of policy and resources - is still conventionally lavished on the primate and other largest cities in national settlement systems. This reflects the concentration of political and economic power there, their generally far more complex economic and physical structures, and the sheer scale of urban growth and its attendant resource requirements. There is almost universally a severe inadequacy of public resources relative to need, while in Africa the rate of growth in formal economic employment opportunities has never kept pace with population increase. For reasons of scale, intensity, and visibility, phenomena such as urban unemployment, shelter deficiency, increasing pollution, and inadequate infrastructure, social facilities, and management capacity in large cities still tend to displace concern with smaller urban centres to a significant extent (e.g. Stren and White, 1989; Gilbert and Gugler, 1992; Harris, 1992; Simon, 1992; Devas and Rakodi, 1993; Drakakis-Smith, 1993; Kasarda and Parnell, 1993).

Table 3.6 Rural-urban disparities in access to basic services

HDI rank

Population with access to services (%)
















Medium human development - 81 90 59 90 72
56 Mauritius 100 100 100 100 100 96
85 South Africa - - - - - -
87 Libyan Arab Jamahiriya 100 100 100 80 100 85
93 Tunisia 100 80 95 31 72 15
104 Botswana - - 98 46 98 20
107 Algeria 100 80 85 55 80 40
109 Gabon - - 90 50 - -
Low human development 98 - 78 56 47 11
Excluding India 94 59 77 40 54 18
114 Cape Verde - - 87 65 35 9
117 Swaziland - - 100 7 100 10
119 Morocco 100 30 100 50 100 19
120 Lesotho - - - 59 45 - -
121 Zimbabwe - - - 14 100 22
124 Egypt 100 99 96 82 100 34
125 São Tomé and Príncipe - - - - - -
126 Congo - - 42 7 - -
127 Kenya - - 61 21 75 39
128 Madagascar - - 81 10 12 -
130 Zambia 100 50 76 43 77 34
131 Ghana - - 93 39 63 15
133 Cameroon - - 47 27 35 16
135 Namibia - - - - - -
136 Côte d'Ivoire - - 100 75 69 20
138 Tanzania, U. Rep of 94 73 75 46 76 77
140 Zaire - - 59 17 14 14
143 Nigeria 87 62 100 20 30 5
144 Liberia - - 93 22 24 8
145 Togo 60 60 100 61 42 16
146 Uganda - - 45 12 40 10
149 Rwanda - - 66 64 - -
150 Senegal - - 79 38 - -
151 Ethiopia - - 70 11 97 7
153 Malawi - - 82 50 - -
154 Burundi - - 100 34 80 -
155 Equatorial Guinea - - -- - - -
156 Central African Rep. - - 14 11 36 9
157 Mozambique - - 44 17 61 11
158 Sudan - - - - 40 5
160 Angola - - 75 19 25 20
161 Mauritania - - 67 65 34 -
162 Benin -   79 35 60 31
163 Djibouti - - 50 21 94 20
164 Guinea-Bissau - - - - 30 18
165 Chad - - - - - -
166 Somalia 50 15 58 55 41 5
167 Gambia - - 92 73 - -
168 Mali - - 100 36 94 5
169 Niger - 17 100 52 39 3
170 Burkina Faso - - - - 35 6
172 Sierra Leone 88 - 83 22 59 35
173 Guinea - - 56 25 - -
AR developing countries 90 - 85 60 76 40
Least developed countries 85 - 61 45 45 15
Sub-Saharan Africa 87 - 79 28 47 18

Source: UNDP (1993).

Although these phenomena are conventionally constructed as "problems', by national élites and professionals, it is far from clear that all urban residents, especially some of the urban poor, would share such sentiments. After all, if migrants found conditions significantly worse than in their (rural or other urban) areas of origin, many would return there. This is not to say that people are necessarily happy with their lot, or that they do not suffer hardship and very real threats to their health and well-being, or to argue for official inaction instead of seeking to improve conditions. Rather, I am merely reminding us that people in different positions and from different backgrounds may have very different world-views, sets of ambitions and options, and scales of measuring good versus bad, acceptable versus unacceptable. "Substandard" dwellings, labelled a "slum" by officials and planners intent on demolition and rebuilding in the image of imported and often inappropriate urban layouts and building standards, may nevertheless represent a significant improvement over what the inhabitants lived in previously, not least in terms of their access to certain urban facilities. On the other hand, the rational choice thesis so dear to the neo-liberal orthodoxy that directs structural adjustment and economic recovery programmes will be a totally alien concept to most urban dwellers in Africa and elsewhere. Politico-economic forces often act to preclude or constrain individual choice and even world-views. For example, urban unemployment and poverty have risen markedly as a result of recession and the implementation of structural adjustment and economic recovery programmes since the early 1980s. This has had a substantial impact on the quality of life of many urban residents.

It has become commonplace to label all large cities "mega-cities." This is a very imprecise term, used with different meanings. Literally it refers to great size: the UN adopts a definition of a population of 8 million or more in some cases, but the recent UNEP/WHO (1992) study of urban pollution in mega-cities adopted a minimum population threshold of 10 million. Clearly, however, pure size does not serve as an adequate proxy for economic sophistication, urban wellbeing, or even a supranational role as in a continental or world city. Not all mega-cities are such key global control points and, conversely, some genuine world cities have far smaller populations. I shall return to this point below. If we adopt the 10 million population threshold, Africa has no more than two mega-cities: Greater Cairo (see chap. 4) and the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging (PWV) metropolitan region centred on Johannesburg (chap. 5). Thereafter the largest cities include Lagos, Kinshasa, Algiers, Greater Durban, Alexandria, Tripoli, Tunis, Casablanca, Greater Cape Town, Kano, Khartoum, Abidjan, and Ibadan, with estimated 1995 populations of between 2 and 8 million each.² Most African capital cities are under 2 million in size, although several, including Addis Ababa and Khartoum, are fast approaching that threshold. Conversely, the smallest cities (e.g. Mbabane, Maseru, Lilongwe, Gaborone, Windhoek) still have under 200,000 inhabitants.

In absolute terms, therefore, the sheer scale of so-called "mega-city problems" is not as severe as in Latin America and parts of Asia. In relative terms, however, given the state of most African economies, the problems may be extreme. The UNEP/WHO (1992) study of air pollution in mega-cities with populations of over 10 million did not include any African cities, but this does not give cause for complacency. Already the most industrial cities and those with high numbers of motor vehicles - the two principal sources of such pollutants - such as Lagos, the PWV, Durban, and Cape Town, suffer significant problems. Cairo and the PWV, whose pollution problems are referred to by Yousry and Aboul Atta (chap. 4) and Beavon (chap. 5), would now qualify for inclusion in any updated study. The 1992 report found that, in broad terms, the mega-cities of the South now suffer from poorer air quality and the associated problems than those of the increasingly post-industrial North. Rapid urban growth in the South is certain to widen this gap unless and until serious pollution abatement measures are enforced (see also Hardoy et al., 1992; World Bank, 1992). We should also not overlook the substantial contribution of wood and charcoal burning by the urban poor, both to overall air pollution levels in winter and to these people's health problems.

As a measure of basic needs fulfilment in the primate city of one of the poorest countries, recent survey data from Maputo, Mozambique, make useful reading. In late 1991, fully 82 per cent of families considered themselves to be poor, and 61 per cent were living in absolute poverty (estado de indigência), i.e. their per capita incomes did not cover their minimum nutritional requirements. A mere 18 per cent of families did not consider themselves to be poor. Just over 53 per cent of the city's total population were of economically active age (15 and over), but only 58 per cent of these were economically active (60 per cent of whom were men and only 40 per cent women). The overall labour force participation rate was 32 per cent of the total population. Among the absolute poor the rate was 29 per cent, among the relative poor 35 per cent, and among those not in poverty 37 per cent - a surprisingly modest difference (Commissão Nacional de Plano et al., 1993, pp. 6, 18). This depressing situation reflects the state of economic collapse in Mozambique as a result of the extremely destructive civil war, which has also brought large numbers of displaced people (deslocados) into Maputo and other cities. Today, as has been noted in chapter 2, Mozambique is the world's most aid-dependent country, deriving two-thirds of its GNP from aid (Simon, 1995).

In terms of physical living conditions, 67 per cent of residents have their own homes, principally dwellings built of reed (caniço) or other relatively temporary materials in the poor areas. Rental (including lodging and similar arrangements) accounts for only 33 per cent of residents, the most important landlord being the state housing agency, APIE, which assumed responsibility for second homes and other residential properties nationalized after the Portuguese flight at independence. Only 39 per cent of homes in Maputo have electricity, 33 per cent have piped water, and 21 per cent an internal toilet. Given these figures and those on poverty levels cited earlier, it is hardly surprising that per capita availability of domestic electrical appliances is extremely low or that firewood and charcoal constitute the most widely used domestic fuel. Over 71 per cent of households rely on these for cooking, compared with only 17 per cent using electricity and 8 per cent gas (Mozambique Information Agency, 1993). Globally, an estimated 170 million urban residents did not have potable water in or near their homes in 1990, while 400 million lacked adequate sanitation - an increase of almost 100 million since 1980 (World Bank, 1992).

The figures for Maputo are undoubtedly more extreme than would have been the case just before independence, for example, because the condition of much of the colonial cement city (cidade cimento) has now deteriorated through lack of maintenance and overcrowding, economic conditions are dire, and output capacity utilization remains low. At the same time, the urban population has been swollen by large numbers of deslocados who would arguably not have migrated in the absence of war. The city literally doubled its population in the eight years after independence in 1975 (Simon, 1992). Its population today must be approaching 2 million. Although Maputo, and other large African cities such as Luanda, Mogadishu, Monrovia, and now also Kigali, which have been dramatically affected by war, are extreme cases, they do serve to illustrate well just how marginally they, and the national economies that they control, articulate with the world economy, except as the conduits for channelling official and NGO aid. This vulnerability and the economic liberalizations implemented under structural adjustment have also, in the case of Maputo, led to foreign purchase of the most viable investment opportunities (especially in tourist facilities) in a manner that will probably enhance the country's long-run external dependence. The most visible form of globalization here is the consequent resurrection of foreign tourism (principally from South Africa) amid the sea of poverty. However, even at the height of the war, it was possible to buy Coca Cola and beer - freighted in from South Africa - for hard currency. The future challenges of urbanization in Africa are as profound in these cities as in the metropolises of Cairo, the PWV, Lagos, or Kinshasa. It is doubtful whether many or even most deslocados will return to their home areas, while the prospects for reconstruction and more equitable development will depend greatly on the outcome of political negotiations and subsequent elections, the attractiveness of investment opportunities for foreigners and expatriates, and the ability to overcome the loss of a high proportion of skilled nationals through war or emigration. In Mozambique, at least, the situation appeared to be improving by late 1995.


This chapter has sought to explore some basic but vitally important issues with respect to urbanization in Africa and its relationships both with other components of the world system and with economic performance. We need to remind ourselves, however, that there are no universally agreed definitions, concepts, and agendas. The views from the respective ends of the kaleidoscope are very different. Globalization is often taken rather simplistically to mean convergence usually along Western norms and on the basis of Western values. However much there may be evidence of such convergence, processes of divergence and hybridization are also occurring. In Africa, the outer periphery of the world system, the extent and rate of convergence have thus far arguably been markedly less than on many other continents. That said, there are often great differences in conditions, dominant processes, and influence over outcomes within individual cities and countries. Peripheralization, which has been clearly demonstrated, also does not mean unidirectional dependence. Interaction, albeit often unequal, is a bidirectional process. Nevertheless, the fact that London and Paris are two of the (if not the) most vibrant centres of African music, art, literature, and even politics is sad testimony not only to the state of the continent but also to the continued intensity and relevance of (neo-)colonial ties.

The large number of countries, with very different characteristics and experiences, makes generalization about urbanization processes and their relationships to economic conditions difficult. The problem is exacerbated by data deficiencies and inconsistencies, coupled with the fact that so much economic activity in Africa remains unrecorded. Overall, there is now a growing body of evidence that, in a significant number of countries, rates of urban growth slowed - in at least some large centres - during the 1980s in comparison with earlier periods. This does also appear to be due, in significant measure, to the economic crisis, which dramatically altered the balance between urban and rural living standards and survival opportunities in the worst-hit countries and cities. On the other hand, a number of countries apparently showed an increase, despite economic conditions. This is certainly the case in South Africa, where apartheid previously reduced rural-urban migration through statutory fiat. It should also be stressed that by no means everyone is worse off as a result of structural adjustment and economic recovery programmes. Certain groups of agricultural producers, merchants, big businesspeople, and service providers have gained significantly.

Overall, however, the data remain far too sketchy and incomplete to offer any firm conclusions on the precise nature of the relationships between urban and economic growth, which are undoubtedly complex. Importantly, similar conditions may give rise to different responses in countries where other politico-economic situations prevail. In most cases for which some information is available, economic crisis and rising relative urban living costs seem to have resulted in reduced in-migration and even net out-migration. However, the opposite can also occur. The extent to which armed conflicts are perceived to threaten particular cities or rural areas is also important, as the very different recent experiences of Maputo and Mogadishu illustrate.

Although Africa does not possess a true world city, there are at least two mega-cities and several others with over 2 million inhabitants. Global peripherality varies in extent and nature. Urbanization is certainly continuing, albeit sometimes more slowly at present, and, given the resource constraints, it will pose no less a challenge than in other regions of the world.


1. These data drawn from the UNDP Human Development Report are presented here, in addition to the data given in chapter 2, to illustrate both the difficulties in arriving at agreed figures for the urban population in Africa and the discrepancies that occur between different sources.

2. The lack of reliable figures and the discrepancies between sources for data on urban growth rates also extend to population figures for individual cities, complicated by the failure of boundary revisions in some cases to keep pace with the growth of the built-up area and/or the functional integration of a city with its surrounding settlements. While the population of cities such as Durban, Kano, and Ibadan is thought by some to be less than 2 million, alternative estimates for Addis Ababa and Khartoum consider that their populations have already exceeded 2 million.


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