African cities can be actors of structural transformation

By Arthur Minsat, Economist, OECD Development Centre

African nations are exploring how best to harness the potential of cities as agents of change to achieve progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. The current African Economic Outlook (AEO), jointly produced by the African Development Bank, the OECD Development Centre and the United Nations Development Programme, warns that policy makers and donors too often are blind to the territorial realities of the economies they are trying to help develop. Economies are seen as sectors rather than places. And thus sectoral lenses tend to limit policy action to a few specific tools, regardless of the complexity of problems that demand a place-based, multi-sectoral and participatory approach.

Cities are a case in point. Most African countries structure their Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) around governance, economic growth and infrastructure but disregard regions or places. The Agence française de développement found that out of 30 African countries with PRSPs, only three – Djibouti, Guinea and Senegal – have urban strategies with relatively well-defined budgets.[1]

And yet the pace of urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa is among the fastest in history. Africa took 50 years to urbanise from 15% to 40%, whereas Europe took 110 years to achieve the same rate of urbanisation between 1800 and 1910.[2] The rapid diffusion of urban lifestyles, together with increasing access to new technologies, is changing African societies.[3]

Consequently, while we are generally aware that urbanisation profoundly transforms African societies, too little attention is paid to cities as actors of development and structural transformation. This is all the more important in Africa’s case since what we think we know about the link between industrialisation and urbanisation is challenged both by the diversity and uniqueness of the continent’s experiences. How?

First, many sub-Saharan countries in particular have been experiencing urbanisation without industrialisation. In those cases, cities play a major role as places of consumption but often not as places of production of tradable goods. Sub-Saharan African countries have not reduced urban poverty as rapidly as East Asian ones that are going through structural transformation: about 43% of African city dwellers live below USD 1 per day, and 62% live in slums.[4] The informal economy’s workforce is estimated to account for 61% of urban employment and 93% of all new jobs created. Some categories of population are particularly vulnerable: for women in Africa, the informal economy is estimated to represent 92% of all job opportunities outside of agriculture, overwhelmingly as self-employment or own-account work.[5] This raises several questions. How can we put in place policies that help accelerate the pace of industrialisation? What should such transformation look like in cases where industry will play a lesser role than it did in the European, American or East Asian transitions?

Second, urbanisation in Africa is not coinciding with a decrease in rural population in all countries. Northern Africa, South Africa and a number of small island states like Mauritius or Cabo Verde are more advanced in their demographic transitions. They have experienced strong urbanisation rates, with declines in rural populations. But in most countries, both urban and rural populations are increasing fast in absolute terms. This is a different dynamic from the rural exodus experience that many developed economies experienced. The majority of Africa’s population is likely to remain rural until the mid-2030s, while the majority of the world’s population has lived in urban areas since 2007. Even beyond the mid-2030s, the rural population will continue to grow in absolute terms.

Third, and related, the largest part of the population growth in sub-Saharan African cities is natural. In other words, the increase is due to high fertility rates rather than migration from rural areas. So, unlike OECD and East Asian experiences of urbanisation associated with fast declining fertility rates, in sub-Saharan Africa you have fast urbanisation with slowly declining fertility rates. To illustrate, at current natural growth rates, a family of 4 rural migrants in 1960 becomes a family of fifty urbanites in Africa in 2010, compared to a family of thirty urban dwellers in Asia. This means the needs for urban investment are higher in Africa than in Asia, although African cities are less wealthy than Asian ones.[6]

So what should proactive urbanisation policies look like in such differing contexts? What is the optimal size of mega cities before the costs of congestion exceed the benefits of agglomeration? How can multi-level governance be improved? How can the power of mayors be enhanced to deal with increasingly complex challenges on the ground? These are some of the issues that we explore in the forthcoming African Economic Outlook 2016.

We want to explore these questions by comparing Africa’s experiences with country experiences from Asia, Latin America and Europe. Nurturing sustainable cities in Africa to facilitate structural transformation will be the centrepiece of several international discussions. The subject will be front and centre in achieving the pan-African vision of Agenda 2063; in continuing the momentum gained with the African Common Position on the post-2015 development agenda regarding, in particular, SDG11 on cities and human settlements; and in furthering a deeper understanding of the opportunities and challenges of Africa’s urbanisation at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development scheduled for October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador. Indeed, now is the time to prepare for Africa’s unprecedented urban transition.

[1] Paulais, T. (2012), Financer les villes d’Afrique : l’enjeu de l’investissement local, World Bank and AFD, Washington DC, and Paris.

[2] Jedwab, R., L. Christiaensen, and M. Gindelsky (2015), “Urbanization, demography and development: Rural Push, Urban Pull and … Urban Push?”, Journal of Urban Economics, forthcoming.

[3] Losch, B., G. Magrin and J. Imbernon (2013), “A new emerging rural world: An overview of rural change in Africa”, in Atlas for the NEPAD Rural Futures Programme,Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), Montpellier.

[4] Paulais, T. (2012), Financer les villes d’Afrique : l’enjeu de l’investissement local, World Bank and AFD, Washington DC, and Paris. World Bank (2013), Global Monitoring Report 2013: Rural-urban Dynamics and the Millennium Development Goals, Washington DC: World Bank, (accessed 31 August 2015).

[5] Kessides, C. (2005), The Urban Transition in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications for Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction, Working Paper Series, No. 97, World Bank, Washington DC.

[6] Jedwab, R., L. Christiaensen, and M. Gindelsky (2015), “Urbanization, demography and development: Rural Push, Urban Pull and … Urban Push?”, Journal of Urban Economics, forthcoming.


This article should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD, the OECD Development Centre or of their member countries. The opinions expressed and arguments employed are those of the author.

The Narrative of Development Has Changed

This interview, with Mario Pezzini, Director of the OECD Development Centre, first appeared in “Digital Development Debates” on October 14, 2015. Click here to read it anew

Interview by Frederik Caselitz and Prisca L. Watko


The OECD Development Centre serves as forum where policymakers can find solutions to pressing development questions. We met Director Mario Pezzini on the occasion of the Africa Forum held in Berlin this year, where Africa’s future role in the world economy was discussed. DDD had a chance to talk to Pezzini about the challenges facing Africa’s agriculture and how these are being analysed at the OECD Development Centre. Pezzini stresses the importance of considering overall rural development, not just agricultural development for rural communities. He sees the increase in population as a huge opportunity for Africa that could either help solve other problems or become a curse.

The OECD Development Centre brings together many different perspectives from the North and South. What are the most controversial issues and trends currently being discussed? Is agriculture a topic of discussion in the forum as well?

Mario Pezzini: If we go back in time, the North and the South didn’t share a common understanding of what was going on in emerging markets: In the 90s, 13 non-OECD countrieshad a growth rate more than the double that of OECD countries. Between 2000 and 2010, a total of 83, not just 13, countries enjoyed a growth rate more than double that of OECD countries. This resulted in a geographical shift. The geographical absolute centre of the economy, as stressed by the London School of Economics, was between Europe and North America in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean 40 years ago. The same exercise now locates the  very centre between Turkey and Iran. It is moving further east towards China and the South. A shift in wealth is taking place ex normal. Today, the picture is little bit more blurry, but the geography of the world has definitely changed.

A second important point is: What does being a developing country mean today? Are developing countries demanding cooperation and resources in order to follow the same path as developed countries have undertaken in the past? Today we are witnessing a wide range of development paths. There is no doubt that similarities in development do exist, but there are also differences in how development has taken place. We cannot just look back at our own history and say to developing countries: “Copy us and you will be successful”. Ideas and best practices come from everywhere, from developing and developed countries alike. This is the major point we focus on at the OECD Development Centre: The narrative of development has changed, and so has the agricultural sector in development.

Economic partnership agreements (EPA) between the European Union and several African countries are currently facing harsh critique. Many African economies are still monocultures that only sell primary products. Are EPA going to make it even harder for African countries to progress?

Most of these agreements are still under discussion, so the outcomes are not finalised. African countries often lack a local level of services and inputs to develop other types of production.

In many cases, agriculture continues to be based on the family model where a variety of products are grown, but not sold to the national and international markets. The capacity to improve productivity is still weak. How can this mode of production coexist with large-scale farming? How will Africa be capable of further developing rural societies and providing rural support for a different type of agriculture?

This is currently one of the big debates: On the one hand, we have people like Vandana Shiva who support small-scale farming and on the other hand people demanding more investment into modernizing rural economies. Is it possible to modernize small-scale farming as well?

I think that we have to focus on rural development in Africa in general. Agriculture is one important component of rural development, but not the only one. One of the major challenges for Africa, and also a huge opportunity, is the enormous population growth. The population is set to double by 2050. We have seen that China and India benefited from a strong increase in population, which allowed them to enlarge their employment base and improve their societies.In Africa today, there is only one young person for every old person. Population growth will mean there are several young people to support every old person. This will free important energy for growth and development. But what if these young people cannot find jobs, and especially jobs they perceive as decent? Social tensions will intensify. Increase in population is taking place throughout the continent, though more strongly in the centre of Africa, which is exactly the part of Africa where industrial development and the diversification of the economy have been the weakest. It is taking place in urban and in rural areas alike. So the bottom line for rural areas will not just be what to do about agriculture but first and foremost: What will happen to people in general, and youth and women in particular, as agriculture industrializes, as it becomes more and more productive and capable of generating exports? It is likely that its capacity to absorb young people and population in general, will drop in the medium and long term after an initial adjustment. This will likely drive a rural exodus with people leaving for the cities.

If this takes place at the same time and in parallel to manufacturing industrialisation, the population in the cities will increase, but not the number of jobs. We are currently observing jobless growth in Africa. This generates serious social problems in urban areas.  The solution to this problem lies back in the countryside, at least in part. We need to come up with development ideas for rural areas where agriculture is crucial. It is not the only sector though, and therefore other types of employment besides agriculture are needed. So is a different type of agriculture besides large-scale intensive production conceivable? The answer is yes, obviously, because there are different types of agriculture that depend on what is produced, the way it is produced, and the market in which it is sold. Strengthening local markets will be crucial so that more sophisticated products can be sold. Producing sophisticated agricultural products does not necessarily require a large scale and the use of chemicals and pesticides. The big picture is still the transformation of rural areas as a whole and not just of agriculture.

We have talked a lot about conflicts, challenges and differences. But in the evaluations the OECD Development Centre undertakes, what practices do North and South agree upon that can help eradicate hunger?

There is a wide capacity for creating dialogue and exchanging experience – despite how it may seem. When Korea held the Presidency of the G20, it introduced a point called “knowledge sharing” to the agenda of the G20 Working Group on Development.

For a long time we thought that the only factor missing was financing for development. We thought that by investing money we could temporarily compensate the poor and then reduce poverty on a permanent basis. The idea that we could also share some of our success stories only came up later. There is one important condition: Coming together at tables where participants have equal voices. We need to build trust among the actors in order for this to happen. I mentioned some areas in rural development, in regional development, but there are many more policy fields in which this exchange could take place.

One point must be clear though: The learning curve does not just run from North to South. It can also go from South to North. I have a good example: conditional cash transfer programmes (CCT), a very well-known social policy for the poor in which the government gives money to the poor. Funds are given to women instead of men and the requirements are that they send their children to school and to see a doctor. The first three countries to implement it were Brazil with the Bolsa Família program, Mexico with Progresa, and Bangladesh with the Female Secondary School Assistance Program II. Today there are more than 83 countries that have applied this scheme, most recently the US in New York City. So you can easily see that you can learn from all sides.



This article should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD, the OECD Development Centre or of their member countries. The opinions expressed and arguments employed are those of the author.

The Milan Charter: What’s in it for West Africa?

By Donatella GnisciSahel and West Africa Club Advisor – Expo Milano 2015

The Milan Charter

If you agree that a lack of access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, clean water and energy goes against human dignity, will you join Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in signing the Milan Charter? The Charter, which is available in 19 languages, emphasises that one of the greatest ongoing challenges for humanity is feeding an ever-growing population, and doing so in participatory and inclusive ways, without harming the environment. To tackle this challenge, citizens, members of civil society, businesses, and local, national and international institutions, are invited to commit to safeguarding everyone’s right to food as a fundamental human right.

The Milan Charter is Expo Milano’s contribution to the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Through it, the Expo aspires to establish its central legacy. The Charter summarises a process of reflection that involved global experts and leaders. Together, they examined the linkages between development, equity and sustainability, urbanisation and agriculture, natural resources and biodiversity, health, waste and energy, and stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities. On the Charter’s website this complexity is broken down by topic, and by actor, so that readers can filter content and visualise the issues at hand, the rights that they refer to and the changes that the Charter argues are needed. These changes relate to prevailing production and consumption models, economic activities, political and citizen engagement and individual behaviours.

But what does the Milan Charter mean for West Africa? In my view, the Charter stresses three useful points.

1. In an increasingly urbanised world, agriculture is still of paramount importance.

The Charter reminds us that agriculture goes far beyond food production, involving landscape design, environmental and territorial protection, the sound management of natural resources and biodiversity conservation. As the West African regional agricultural policy adopted by ECOWAS in 2005 recognises, the transformation of agriculture in West Africa has important regional dimensions. This regional approach to agriculture is based on the complementarities between agro-ecological zones, the importance of intra-regional trade, the interest in creating larger markets for agricultural products and the desire to stabilise prices in a context of demographic and socioeconomic change. According to an OECD/SWAC study, agricultural producers accounted for 90% of the region’s population in 1950. By 2010, they made up only 50% of the population. Meanwhile, total agricultural production has increased fourfold over the last 30 years, while the importance of urban and peri-urban agriculture have both risen. For the Climate & Development Knowledge Network, urban and peri-urban agriculture have had positive effects on food security and resilience to climate shocks in West African cities, although their environmental impacts need more analysis. The production of primary commodities (e.g. cocoa, cotton, groundnuts and fishery products) coexists with a vibrant horticultural sector, reaching from Mauritania to Chad. However, challenges, capacities, market connectivity and opportunities vary across countries. So, signing the Charter will remind regional actors and partners that agriculture is crucial to West Africa’s sustainable development and food security, and that this makes the regional/national co-ordination of agriculture-related strategies, policies and programmes all the more important. The Charter rightly considers these within a broader context, where interventions in agriculture need to be linked to efforts to promote rural and urban development, improved natural resource management, and environmental protection.

2. Women’s empowerment and gender equality, and food and nutrition security are two sides of the same coin.

The Charter notes the lack of universal recognition of the fundamental role of women, especially in agricultural production and nutrition, and the unjustifiable inequalities in the possibilities, capabilities and opportunities of women and men in many spheres of life. West African countries rank poorly in the Gender Inequality Index calculated by the United Nations Development Programme: ranging from 119th for Ghana to 151st for Chad, out of 187 countries. Regional reduction of maternal mortality only reached 46% in 2014, meaning that the Millennium Development Goal 5’s target of  a 75% reduction by 2015 is beyond reach. Women’s empowerment is often a hot topic. It is presently high on the political agenda at the international level (2015 European Year for Development, the Sustainable Development Goals), on the continent (African Women’s Decade 2010-2020) and in West African countries (Beijing Platform for Action +20 implementation monitoring process). By signing the Charter, regional actors and partners will make their engagement in this complex agenda visible once more. What specific aspects should be prioritised in the West African context? How do we step up efforts to learn from experiences elsewhere?

3. Who is responsible, who is accountable?

The Charter gives a straightforward answer: We all have distinct but shared responsibilities to adopt sustainable behaviours, models of production and consumption, ways of using resources and approaches to waste disposal. Actions are proposed for individuals, economic actors and community members. The Charter points out that we are collectively responsible for holding political institutions that represent us accountable for inclusive decision-making, which must both benefit people and the planet. Institutions should commit to the adequate co-ordination of policies, programmes and efforts for resource mobilisation. This approach resonates well with the Global Alliance for Resilience (AGIR) – Sahel and West Africa. Under the political leadership of ECOWAS and UEMOA, AGIR has nurtured multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral and multi-level approaches and partnerships, strengthening the resilience of West African people.

Amartya Sen signing the Milan CharterIn adding his signature to the Charter, Professor Sen reminded us that hunger “is above all an economic, political, cultural and health care problem”. That raises a compelling question: What is each and every one of us doing to solve it?

Donatella Gnisci, SWAC Advisor – Expo Milano 2015

26 May 2015