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Challenging the urbanization myths

Roof tops in the Kibera slum, Nairobi. For Generic use
Roof tops in the Kibera slum, Nairobi (IRIN)

Africa's cities are growing at a frightening rate, as people flood from the countryside to the towns... It is a commonly held view, but a London-based academic, Deborah Potts, has been challenging this received wisdom, asserting that it is based on flawed data, and the rate of urbanization is much lower than people assume.

Potts, a reader in human geography at King's College London, says she first began to have doubts in the mid-1980s, when she was working in Zimbabwe. "We interviewed 1,000 migrants," she told IRIN, "and the majority said they would stay in town for a time, but they would leave at some point in the future because they wouldn't be able to afford to stay. There's no security net in town. If they got sick, got old, lost their job, they would have to go back to the rural areas."

Then came the 1990 census data from Zambia - admittedly an extreme case - where the slump in copper prices meant the number of people living in towns had actually shrunk, and fell again in 2000. Meanwhile, French researchers working in the Ivory Coast were finding the same pattern there. Potts says: "Real urban incomes were dropping like a stone because of the oil crisis and structural adjustment programmes. It's like what is happening now in Greece, but that's a picnic compared with what was happening in Africa."

But people were slow to spot the changing trend because of problems with the data. The UN collects and publishes population data, but the economic crisis also affected the expensive business of conducting and publishing national censuses. Where census data was not available, the UN used projections, and based its model on the early decades after independence when urban populations in Africa were indeed growing very fast. By the time good data did become available, some of the urban population figures were found to be way too high.

In a paper for the Africa Research Institute, Potts cites figures for the level of urbanization given by the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). In 2001, it estimated that Kenya was 34 percent urban; by 2010 that estimate had been revised downward to 22 percent. She says that the urbanization levels were cut in 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with Tanzania, Mauritania and Senegal also showing particularly significant falls.

Nobody is suggesting that Africa's towns and cities are actually shrinking. The urban population continues to grow, but so does the population in the countryside. There is still an overall move towards urban life, but it is a slow drift, not a tidal wave.

Potts' complaint is that even though the figures are now available, analysts - even in UN-Habitat - are slow to change their assumptions. That message is not always well received. "People sometimes get quite cross," she says. "They say it can't be so, that the city authorities have told them. But in my experience city authorities don't usually have good statistics and in nine cases out of 10 they grossly overestimate their populations for political reasons."

Vital statistics

Claire Melamed, who heads the Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme at the UK Overseas Development Institute, told IRIN: "Somehow investing in data is never the highest priority. But it's not a luxury - it's the absolute bedrock of making good policy. There are concrete implications about how you deliver the services people need and want. If the majority is urban, how you deliver those services will look very different from when the majority is rural and very spread out."

Eduardo Moreno, head of the Cities Programme at UN-Habitat, says revisiting and, if necessary, revising earlier projections is part of its work. But he makes the point that Africa is still becoming more urban. "If we take only Africa," he told IRIN, "It is very clear that urbanization is slowing down, and African cities are not growing as fast as they were 10 or 15 years ago. But when you compare it with Asia or Latin America, Africa is still experiencing the highest rate of urbanization of all the developing world."

Melamed agrees that the revision is only a change of degree, though she makes the point that in either case, Africa is still a predominantly rural society. But it does challenge assumptions about how society is changing, when these had been based on the idea of very rapid urbanization. That includes political assumptions. "As we have seen in North Africa and the Middle East, young, better educated urban populations behave very differently from rural populations. When people become more urban, the political consequences of not giving them what they want are potentially much more serious."

Moreno says a more gradual rate of urbanization is not necessarily the blessing that governments may assume. "Several African countries have not yet understood that urbanization is a very positive thing," he says. "Some may like to keep their populations in the rural areas because they associate urbanization with poverty and other negative aspects. But no country in history has been lifted out of poverty by remaining rural.

"We asked African governments if they wanted to stop urbanization and the majority of them said yes. But if you think of China, [its] five-year plans say that urbanization is the driver of development. So if some countries are deliberately trying to reduce their rate of urbanization, they are adopting the wrong policies."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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