Local government success stories from across Africa – city to city learning, with some surprise star performers

Smaller but even more inspiring urban areas tending to fall through the cracks

WHEN the Addis Metro started operations in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in September to immense worldwide attention, it was another big stride for the continent’s efforts to make life for its citizens easier, and a nod to the role of cities in growing their national economies.

From Nairobi to Lagos and Johannesburg, there are exciting stories of significant difference being made by local authorities, from infrastructure to housing, and how to finance them. The South African financial capital of Johannesburg was in June for example the first local government to offer a green bond to fund among others renewable energy projects.

But the focus of success stories has been transfixed on metropolises, with smaller but even more inspiring urban areas tending to fall through the cracks. But success stories from them are perhaps even more significant giving the limited budgets they work with, providing robust lessons for city-to-city learning.

The eastern Kenyan town of Machakos has for example attracted national attention after it set up a recreation park that is regularly thronged by Nairobians previously starved of open public spaces and which are seen as conducive to wellbeing.

Tanzania’s second-largest city of Mwanza is among a raft of such African cities that are increasingly noteworthy, is solid urban planning leaving the large Dar es Salaam in the shade, and which are well poised to benefit from the shrinking space in bigger cities.

It is not only infrastructural—Robert E. Park in 1925 referred to a city among other things as as a ‘state of mind, a body of customs and traditions’. The annual Calabar festival that takes place in Calabar in December and is branded ‘Africa’s biggest street party” has had the effect of attracting normall hard-to-come-by tourists to Cross River State.

Morocco has also started work on a new “green” city—the King Mohammed VI Green City, as a ‘people-centric’ city boom begins to shape up, while a new city in Senegal is expected to take the pressure off Dakar, highlighting just how urbanisation can also be a challenge if growth is not anticipated.

Africa’s fast economic expansion has caught the world’s attention in recent years, with a clutch of countries posting among the highest growth rates in the world, and providing a lifting tailwind for their peers that has help change the fortunes of millions.

But lost in this is how urbanisation has played a major role—the continent has a higher average urbanisation rate—at 3.5% to the world’s average of 2%, measured over the five years to 2015, according to the UN Population Fund, while nearly one of every two Africans lives in an urban area.

Indeed the continent has 22 of the 30 countries with the highest average annual percentage change in urban population in the world, and 33 of the world’s top 50. Projections are that by the late 2030s, Africa will become a continent with more of its population living in urban than in rural areas, and by 2050, nearly 60%, or 1.34 billion, of the population will live in cities, up from 40% currently.

It is happening: the West African nation of Gabon for example has an urbanisation rate of 80%!

Urbanisation is thus not your ordinary phenomenon—in many African countries the main cities generate the bulk of the country’s GDP—such as an estimate of 14% for Johannesburg. And no country has ever achieved middle-income status without a growing urban population.

The World Bank has termed urbanisation “the single most important transformation” for the continent in the 21st century, the African Union ensconces it in its Agenda 2063, seeking to make Africa a “continent where the institutions are at the services of its people” and are hubs of economic and cultural activities.

The UN also positioned urbanisation in its recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As such, if more success stories such as Mwanza and Machakos are to become the norm, how the continent’s cities are run becomes important, bringing the role of local governments into sharp focus.

The trend has been to look at their failure to deliver services and opportunities. To change this narrative, the pan-African organisation of local authorities, United Cities and Local Governments of Africa, together with the Cities Alliance, published for the first time an assessment of which countries have provided the best environment for local governments to operate.

Providing the opportunity is one thing, the local government making use of it is another, but because of the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the central government and the periphery, those countries that are ranked highest provide worthy success stories for those lagging.

In its groundbreaking report, UCLG Africa and Cities Alliance set out ten indicators, ranging from the constitutional—and self-governance—space accorded to local governments to the management of its human skills and the existence of a clear urban strategy.

It then gave each country a score on the indicators, before aggregating this to a final score. Of interest is how the countries perform on each indicator, as it gives a guide to who has, at the current moment, looked to decentralise more sustainably.

The report acknowledges that there will always be debate around the methodology, but says it is more focused on stoking conversation around substantive issues.

This would help push for reform to make urban areas even better contributors to the overall economy and in lifting their inhabitants.

The review reveals some gems. The majority of African countries have explicitly provided for local governments in their constitutions, while such bodies are also in most states elected, highlighting strong democratic bents.

This is true of countries from Algeria and Angola to Eritrea and Lesotho. But there are also a few standout countries where local governments can perform well, according to the report’s sliding scale.

Cameroon is an unlikely star in ensuring the transfer and transparent distribution of resources to local governments. The West African country has one of the most advanced systems of financial transfers in Africa, and which crucially, is predictable. The report however notes that local governments can do better with their own collection.

Ghana has one of the highest overall scores, and notably, does well in ensuring that its local governments employ qualified staff, and train and promote them.

Kenya also has one of the continent’s top five scores, built on consistency among the ten indicators, and as the counties created by the new constitution strengthen their structures, will definitely get better.

Another high performer, Morocco, is notably strong on among others ensuring the transparent transfer of resources. It also is one of the few countries that have a clear national urban strategy, in addition also to Swaziland.

Nigeria, a highly populous country that is known for its large cities such as Lagos and Kano, also has a clear system of redistributing resources.

The island nation of Seychelles is an absolute leader in transparency around the running of local governments, while continental leader South Africa, like Kenya is a consistent performer in most categories. Notable is the total autonomy granted to its local governments, with Tanzania featuring in this rare category.

Another strong performer is Uganda, and second in Africa, which has high scores across many indicators. African countries are thus urged to follow the lead of these countries and create the space for all cities—and not just the big ones—to thrive and become strong success stories, carrying all of Africa up with them.

Article from our “Insida Urban Africa” ebook, a comprehensive look at Africa’s urbanisation story

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