Addressing Urban Poverty in Africa
Point of View by Wilson Center program associate Allison Garland, Centerpoint, November 2007
In recent years, pressure has mounted to address the persistence of poverty in Africa. Most of this attention has focused on rural economic development even though Africa has the fastest rate of urbanization and the highest incidence of slums in the world. In fact, 72 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's urban population live in slums, where most urban residents survive on less than $2 a day.
National and even metropolitan statistics mask the severity of conditions for the region's slum dwellers. Disaggregated data reveal sharp inequalities in health, mortality rates, and access to basic services. Why then are international donors and national governments continuing to view poverty as only a rural problem?
At a September 24 Comparative Urban Studies Project (CUSP) conference, Mila Freire of the World Bank attributed this rural bias to the absence of quality urban research. The legacy of intellectual work on agriculture and rural development continues to shape policy but analysis of poverty does not consider the urban poor.
A better understanding of the complex relationship between cities, growth, and poverty will give us the tools we need to address urban challenges in a comprehensive way. Assistance to sectors—such as health, water, and housing—is important but not sufficient. Successful urban development requires a comprehensive approach based on solid analytical work that encompasses infrastructure, housing, social programs, health, education, the physical environment, income generation, microfinance, credit, safety nets, and inclusion.
Most urban literature has focused on cities of the north, offering models that are not appropriate or useful in the context of informality and weak states. Knowledge about local conditions is necessary to improve our understanding of the causes and characteristics of urban poverty. Solutions generated by local community groups and academics in cooperation with local authorities and the private sector are better equipped to target needs and produce results.
By bringing the latest in research and activity from the field to Washington, CUSP has worked to raise awareness about global urbanization and make the case for increased urban assistance. Donors and national governments need to get ahead of the curve and prepare for the urban future by integrating urban priorities into the development agenda.