Seeking city champions

Across the continent, national governments, generally, are not doing enough to deal with urbanisation in Africa. African cities need champions, says William Cobbett, director of Cities Alliance, a global partnership for urban poverty reduction and the promotion of the role of cities in sustainable development. spoke to Cobbett at the Africities Summit in Johannesburg about the ‘case for African cities.’

William Cobbett, director of Cities Alliance. Credit: Brendon Bosworth.

William Cobbett, director of Cities Alliance. Credit: Brendon Bosworth.

UA: At the State of Cities in Africa panel held earlier this week, you said that champions for the case of African cities have been absent for quite a while. What do you mean by the ‘case’ for African cities?

WC: As Africa urbanizes — which is a very asymmetrical demography [since] West Africa and East Africa are very different — and more and more Africans live in cities of all sizes, mainly small and secondary cities, it’s been very apparent that at a national level where policy is made there has been an absence of thinking.

First, the response to urbanization, I would say, has vacillated between benign and hostile. But very few African governments have embraced urbanization in the way that they need to. That’s a framework issue. Even as Africa urbanizes (I don’t put any value on it as to whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing but it’s a predictable thing), the lack of planning and lack of response has, I think, created a significant set of problems at the local level. And it is ultimately local governments that have to manage this on a day-to-day basis.

The second generalization, and of course there are exceptions to this but there are not many, would be to say that for the most part most national governments view local governments as an inferior form of government. This is a very common perception and I think until we change the perception of city management and turn, eventually, city administration into a noble career for professionals we’re not going to empower cities to achieve everything we’re saying they have to achieve when we talk about SDG frameworks, etc. In this context, in this policy vacuum, often, there is no champion that is articulating very clearly at the national level the importance of getting cities right in Africa. Until we have powerful champions, not only at the city level but at the national level, we’re not going to make the kind of progress we need to make.

UA: Are the issues in African cities different to those in cities in other places Cities Alliance works?

WC: Very similar. There are very few regions, or countries, in the world that have taken steps in advance of urbanization to anticipate urbanization and accommodate it. This response of being hostile to urbanization [and] the demographic realities: most planning takes place with facts on the ground, most cities are planned on where people settle by default. And then sometimes social conflict around access to the city, which was certainly the case in Latin America and countries like Brazil. You have whole social movements fighting for the right to the city. And then the government, particularly when you move away from authoritarian governments to democratic governments, which is what we saw in Latin America…you then see significant capital investment going in to retrofit the city, the provisional services, after the event. This is historically the default mode of how urbanisation is managed and it is the most inefficient and expensive way of doing it.

…There are very few exceptions to this. The most obvious and visible have been events in China over the last 30 years, where the government has harnessed, or attempted to harness, urbanisation as one of the contributors to the economic transformation that we’ve seen in China, particularly since the 1990s. This has been fundamentally an urban phenomenon centered on the cities of the eastern seaboard. You have in China, an example in their particular style, of one form of urbanization, which has been turned into a positive force as opposed to attempting to divert it, prevent it and delay it. I’m not saying that everyone should copy China but they should sure as hell understand it….

Africa is absolutely not unique: The sets of challenges its cities face are the same sets of challenges that Latin America saw. It’s just a time lag of two or three decades between the two. There’s a lot to learn from Latin America, particularly what not to do. Unfortunately, it seems with few exceptions, in Africa most of the mistakes of Latin America are in the process of being replicated. But there are some notable exceptions.

UA: What’s a good example of an African state that is not going down the path you just described?

WC: In the period since 2005, the government of Ethiopia has played very careful attention to its demography. It fully understands now that increasingly its economic security is going to rely on how well its cities are doing. This is not just about Addis; it’s about a network of cities all over the country. They have introduced a set of policies and practices, including the training of urban professionals to manage their cities, which shows the kind of thinking we think other African governments could benefit from.

UA: In the State of African Cities talk earlier this week, some audience members criticized the idea of ‘new visions’ for Africa raised in the UN-Habitat presentation. They said Africa doesn’t need anymore vision plans; there are enough of these already. Do you think there is space for more grand visions for African cities?

WC: I’d like to see a vision. I don’t think there is one. I go back to the champion of cities argument: most national governments don’t have cities adequately on the national agenda. It’s the absence of a vision for what African cities could achieve and how they could be run – that’s what we’re missing. In the case of African cities, I don’t think there are too many visions. I see an absence of a vision for African cities among national policymakers.

Clearly, you have a number of African mayors and organisations like UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) which do articulate very clearly a vision for African cities. And champions of African cities like Khalifa Sall (mayor of Dakar) are very clear and articulate about their visions and I’d like to hear more of those.


Brendon Bosworth is the editor of

Main photo: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, via flickr user imke.stahlmann.

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