Addis shows Ethiopia's impressive growth trend, but it’s leaving its weak and poor behind

City set to become one of Africa's largest, but like many development stories before it, there will be winners...and big losers.

EVEN as the plane comes in to land, you can see that Addis Ababa is a city in flux. Dotted across the landscape, brightly coloured new roofs, adorning high-rise buildings, stare up at the sky in a sea of brick and shanty housing. 

When you get to the ground level the story is similar. Big new roads lead you into the city and underneath impressive, newly constructed fly-overs only to then end up in a haze of orderly confusion as cars weave in all directions.

This is the real-time experience of the “Africa rising” narrative. An African city, and the people who live within it, demonstrating the actual consequences of booming growth and the face-paced development that comes along with it. 

Ethiopia is ranked by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as among the five fastest growing economies in the world. This after a decade of continuous expansion, during which real GDP growth averaged 10.8% per annum.

As a result Addis is showing the big changes associated with this. This includes the city’s first light rail network that is part of a plan to make the Ethiopian capital city’s public transport system more sustainable, by shifting it away from the current dependence on an informal network of minivan taxis and buses.

The construction sector is also clearly booming with office blocks, residential housing and hotels are coming up everywhere, cranes dot the horizon and old buildings are being ripped down every day.

All of these will become useful as the city moves expands, becoming one of the ten largest cities in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2007, the population census put the city’s population at 3.38million. It was expected to grow at a rate of 3.8% per year – which would put the total population today at 4.5million. This may not seem so far-fetched considering there were estimates that said that by 2020 it would have a population of 8 million.

But this fast and vast growth has come at a high price.

First, it is creating divisions between the government and already marginalised population groups. Addis has always been a sprawling city, from when it originated in 1886 as a military settlement, part of Emperor Menelik II’s campaign in taking over Oromo territory. Throughout its history it continued to sprawl due to its spontaneous and unplanned nature.

As the city expanded from 1994 – 2007, research showed that many farmers on the peripheries lost their livelihoods and were forced instead to turn to other forms of casual labour within the city. This spurred the development of the Oromia Special zone that was created in 2008 in order to ease the co-operation and development of the surrounding areas of Addis Ababa and to control the urban sprawl of this city on the lands of the Oromia people.

However, more recently, there were further calls that the government was perpetuating inequality along ethnic lines when it announced a master plan titled “the Addis Ababa and the Surrounding Oromia Integrated Development Plan”. This area structure plan was intended to create special zones surrounding Addis that were divided into industry, service and settlement zones, based on their existing potential, economic base and geography. 

But it has become a contentious issue, met with opposition by Oromo residents who would lose an additional 36 towns and cities to Addis Ababa. According to researchers, the city’s expansion in the past has led to forced evictions and displacement of local Oromo residents and protesters of this new master plan fear that ceding Oromo lands to Addis Ababa would lead to more losses in Oromo identity and culture.

The fast rate of urbanisation has also perpetuated levels of inequality and fragility which are highly visible on some of the streets and areas of Addis and, intentionally or not, this seems to have been moved to specific areas.

One example is in the neighbourhood of Mercato – named so because it is home to the largest market areas in the city. 

Everything can be found here from steel pipes to spices and kitchenware. It is also where the hidden face of poverty of the city becomes most apparent. Here people are struggling to survive, making a living by whatever means possible – as this is the time of year when the rains come heavy and fast almost every afternoon, there are countless young men taking advantage of it. They will clean shoes, the bottoms of trousers or sit on old buckets fixing broken umbrellas. 

Government is trying?

The government does believe it is trying. In a recent statement it said that more than half a million citizens have benefited from housing schemes over the past 10 years.

One of these is the ambitious government-led low-and middle-income housing programme launched in 2005: The Integrated Housing Development Programme (IHDP). The initial goal of the programme was to construct 400,000 condominium units, create 200,000 jobs, promote the development of 10,000 micro - and small - enterprises, enhance the capacity of the construction sector, regenerate inner-city slum areas, and promote homeownership for low-income households.

However, this programme may have inadvertently perpetuated inequality.

A major challenge has become the affordability of the units for low-income households, with the cost increases in the price of condominium houses deeming them no longer an option for many low-income households. Furthermore, the inability to pay the monthly mortgage and service payments forces many households to move out of their unit and rent it.

Also, many of the condominium sites are located on the periphery of the city and do not acknowledge the need for employment opportunities for residents, despite there living up to 10,000 households in some sites. This places further financial strain on beneficiaries in the form of daily transport costs.

Yes, Addis is on the move, though, like so many development stories before it, it looks set to happen unequally


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