The writer Mark Weston has just published a fascinating and very readable book on West Africa, The Ringtone and The Drum: Travels in the world’s poorest countries. Mark has very kindly written the post below for Uncounted, taking a look at the new World Development Report on jobs and using insights from his travels to consider the apparently broken links between urbanisation and growth.
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Urbanisation, so the conventional wisdom has it, is good for economies. Across the world the growth of towns and cities has gone hand in hand with economic development. People moved to cities because cities were where the opportunities were. When they got there they found and created jobs, and increased their own and their nations’ wealth. The Industrial Revolution in Europe and the twentieth century rise of the East Asian tigers were two of the most striking examples of this urbanisation-growth nexus.
But what if there are no jobs? What if instead of milk and honey those moving to the cities find only stagnation and alienation, that they have left behind the companionship of the village for the harsh loneliness of a destitute slum?
In Africa, we are finding out. The latest World Development Report, published by the World Bank in October, includes a chart which shows that in Africa, the urbanisation-growth link has broken. In many African countries the rapid growth of cities between 1985 and 2010 saw no concomitant growth in incomes; even where small benefits have accrued, they occurred only after much larger increases in the urbanisation rate than were required to spark growth in East Asia.
It is easy to understand cities’ attraction. With farming made ever more difficult by the population boom and the changing climate, the city offers relief from backbreaking work in the fields. It offers, too, a slice of modernity. A young coffee seller named Basheru, who I met in Freetown, Sierra Leone, while researching The Ringtone and the Drum, described the excitement of the move to the city: ‘I came from a village in northern Guinea, where there wasn’t much to do. Having all these people around, and all these cars and all this bustle was fun.’
Africans have moved to the cities in droves. In 1950 only 15% lived in urban areas; by 2015 this proportion will have tripled. The urban growth rate in the continent is almost double the world average.
Too often, however, when they arrive, there is nothing for hopeful migrants to do. There are no jobs, no housing, few amenities and, because the lack of space means you have to set up home not among family or friends but wherever you can find room, no familiar faces. Nearly three-quarters of urban Africans live in slums. For Basheru, the novelty of city life quickly wore off. ‘The excitement has gone now,’ he told me. ‘I feel lonely. I miss my family and friends. Here nobody knows you.’
Disappointment often turns to anger. For not everyone in the city is poor – a few have grown wealthy, and many of them flaunt their riches. The new arrivals see what is possible, but soon realise it is unattainable. ‘Any city, however small,’ wrote Plato, ‘is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich. These are at war with one another.’
The African city is failing to deliver on its promise. It brandishes wealth, comfort and the appurtenances of the West, but then withholds them from those it lures in. ‘The only people who can find jobs here are the family and friends of politicians. They live in big houses and drive big cars. Nobody else has a chance.’ The words of an unemployed young man in Bissau are typical of the resentment felt by many of his peers. ‘People in the country think conditions are good here,’ said another, ‘but they are wrong. There is nothing here.’
In a discussion of the World Bank’s urbanisation chart, the Economist tells readers to ignore the “extreme case” of Liberia because it had a civil war during the study period. But Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Nigeria – the other three countries where the urbanisation-wealth link appears to be working in reverse – have also experienced serious violence, much of it urban, in recent years. The “extreme cases” appear to be becoming the norm. A new vicious spiral is emerging, where urbanisation’s failure to deliver wealth triggers violent unrest, which renders economic growth ever more elusive.
So what to do? It is obvious that those moving to African cities need more jobs, better sanitation, and other improvements that are much easier to list than to put into action. But none of these measures will have a lasting impact without a radical change in the attitudes of the powerful towards slums and the migrant families that live in them. Instead of viewing them as a threat to safety – the poor, after all, are the principal sufferers of urban violence – policy-makers and business leaders (and advocates of urban regeneration) should recognise that the primary danger posed to them by dysfunctional cities is economic. Urban unrest deters investment, scares off tourists, cuts off the enormous potential market of slum dwellers from the mainstream economy, and diverts public finances towards unproductive activities such as policing and epidemic containment. Allowing millions of ambitious migrants to languish in unemployment, moreover, wastes human capital, constraining whole nations’ economic growth.
Two small episodes from Freetown – both involving the police – illustrate the difference between the two possible approaches. The first happened to the coffee seller Basheru. When he arrived from Guinea he set up as a petty trader, selling second-hand radios from a table in the street. One morning the police destroyed all his stock because he did not have a licence and could not afford to bribe them to ignore him. Basheru had to start again from scratch, but the actions of the police left him fearful and upset, and are an example of the kind of wantonly disrespectful behaviour that creates willing recruits for future revolts.
The second example is more positive. Freetown’s illegal moneychangers, known as Dollar Boys, sought police help a few years back after one of their number was murdered by a customer. The chief of police advised them to set up a committee to protect themselves. The committee has implemented a surveillance system to warn members across the city when a con artist is doing the rounds, and an insurance pool which gives members a cushion in the event of being cheated. There have been no attacks since it was formed, and the Dollar Boys’ business (including with the police) is thriving.
Treating those living in slums as the enemy is likely to reinforce vicious economic spirals. An attitude of respect, on the other hand, born out of the realisation that the true danger posed by volatile cities to the powerful is not so much to their bodies as their bank accounts, will render the new urbanites’ successful integration more likely, and allow African cities to become catalysts rather than barriers to development.