Africa leads with urban agenda for Habitat III

2 December 2015, Johannesburg — Yesterday, Africa became the first region to present a common urban agenda ahead of next year’s major United Nations (UN) gathering on housing and sustainable urban development, Habitat III.

The draft plan, proposed at the Johannesburg 2015 Africities summit before submission to the African Union (AU), coheres a continental position around eight main pillars. The idea is to author an African narrative taking heed of continental specificities, including how best to involve so-called intermediary cities and empower local governance.

“Africa needs to shape its own narrative going forward. The African urban agenda does not just relate the narrative but explains it,” said Banji Oyelaran-Oyeyinka, director of the regional office for Africa at UN-Habitat.

The continent has defied conventional wisdom, said Oyelaran-Oyeyinka. It has transitioned from agriculture to services rather than increased manufacturing, in turn hinged to structural unemployment. “We need to create dynamic industrial processes and services with high productivity,” he added. A session discussion around the pros and cons of informality subsequently brought such challenges to the fore.

Other regions will in time present their own positions for Habitat III, a forum that convenes once every 20 years, but Africa is the first continent to define politically what it wants, according to Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, deputy executive director and assistant secretary-general for UN-Habitat. “I see a commonality of purpose,” she added, referring also to the Africities summit generally.

Friday Okai, the deputy permanent representative of Nigeria to UN-Habitat, who chairs the AU* working group of the proposed ‘Africa Common Position’, noted it was also the first time Africa was presenting a common front on these issues. “Previously, [these processes] were owned and designed by other global players taking their cue from their own peculiarities and vision. Today, things have changed,” he said.

The draft urban agenda comes at a pertinent time, according to Johannesburg’s mayor Parks Tau. He told delegates: “We are at a point in the global system where critical decision are being made.”

Urbanisation is particularly important because it is an underlying enabler that defines the spatial aspects of the socio-economic transformation required, added Edlam Yemeru, chief of the urbanisation section of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.


Mathare Valley slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Claudio Allia.

Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town, supported the significance of a common position but called for bolder thinking on what the urban transition might comprise. This meant considering the unique conditions of the African urban context, topped by slum prevalence for the urban majority and vulnerable employment.

“Because we don’t have the structural mechanisms in place to produce the high productivity industrial base we desperately need, we have an income deficit that means the reproductive cost of living in a formal house is a major structural question,” said Pieterse.

Further, Africa is marginal in the global story despite its large population, with an asymmetrical insertion into the global economy. “That makes it very difficult to foster regional integration in Africa, which is the key to [the AU’s] Agenda 2063,” he added.

Looking ahead, Pieterse suggested dealing with structural realities. “We cannot detour via an exclusionary growth path and expect we are somehow going to land into an inclusionary [one]. It doesn’t work that way.” He said mechanical mechanisms should be sought that connect between informal, formal, social, solidarity and other economies in Africa to build a theory from day-to-day realities — one that is “anchored in space”.

That theory, he said, does not exist in mainstream economics. Alternative approaches could, for instance, take account of the ICT-based technological revolution structurally transforming the global economy, Pieterse added. That did not equate to an uncritical adoption of the ‘smart city’ trope but could include low-cost, low-tech solutions and open-source technologies.

“When we begin to connect these dots in relation to intermediary cities, city regions, interface zones between rural and urban, we can begin to build the paradigm rooted in the soil of the continent,” said Pieterse. “Let’s allow the African conversation to specify and adapt a working document to really begin to embrace the opportunity of a low-carbon, resource-efficient, socially inclusive and spatially integrated African urbanism.”

How best to finance infrastructure was a repeated concern from the floor. Pieterse said there was “massive market failure” and existing institutions were not going to solve the problem. That was reiterated by a subsequent Africities session on financing local government: access, high borrowing rates, credibility issues and insufficient decentralisation were all cited as limitations.

In the interim, however, households in lower-income neighbourhoods are sorting out services for themselves albeit inefficiently and expensively, Pieterse pointed out. “What are the institutional, technological and fiscal mechanisms that underpin the autonomous systems of imperfect, inadequate attempts of service delivery in these neighbourhoods? … We can transpose new opportunities to systematise these systems and create a more effective frame,” Pieterse said. Real co-production at the neighbourhood scale and enabling bilateral agreements between city-regions would be required.

Geci Karuri-Sabina, executive manager of programmes at the South African Cities Network, suggested that secondary cities were also part of the answer. They offered the opportunity to do something unique and different, “the possibility of a different way,” owing to the roles they played.


Kim Gurney is since 2011 affiliated to African Centre for Cities (ACC) as a Research Associate. Kim’s qualifications and experience span international journalism, economics and fine art and her interests traverse similar domains. At ACC she is primarily enrolled in arts-based research surfacing links between space and imagination, exploring new methodologies and narrative forms.

Photo: Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: South African Tourism (flickr).

*Article updated to clarify that the working group on the ‘Africa Common Position’ is an AU working group. 2/12/2015, 4:53 p.m.

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