Re-imagining cities in the COVID-19 era

By Robert Muggah, Principal, SecDev Group & Co-founder, Igarape Institute

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

Empty streets in Lima, Peru, during the Coronavirus outbreak, March 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic is quietly and radically reconfiguring cities around the world. It has already brought several of the world’s global cities to their knees. In addition to the billions of people forced to work remotely are another billion living in slums who depend on the informal economy, have few safety nets and are seeing their incomes and livelihoods upended. With the COVID-19 pandemic now rapidly intensifying in lower- and middle-income cities and neighbourhoods, it is overwhelming under-resourced hospitals, demolishing commerce, shredding remittances, straining digital infrastructure, increasing vulnerability to cyberattacks and intensifying mental health illnesses. Many cities were already facing massive liabilities and revenue shortfalls before the outbreak of the pandemic – yet these are set to intensify dramatically around the world. Continue reading

Urban Management in Africa Observed

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By Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza, Director, Regional Office for Africa, UN-Habitat; and
Marco Kamiya, Head, Urban Economy and Finance Branch, UN-Habitat, Global Headquarters in Keny

This blog is part of a series marking the 
19th International Economic Forum on Africa 

Downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Photo:

Africa is at a defining moment in its developmental journey. After experiencing 5% growth from 2001 to 2014, and a slowdown in between, the continent is projected to grow by over 3.5% in 2020 (UN, 2019). Continued economic progress presents opportunities for further accelerated, sustained, and inclusive growth provided that the right policies are put in place.

However, low productivity levels in manufacturing, services and the agricultural sector pose a major threat of economic stagnation with effects on African cities. Africa’s Development Dynamics 2019 by the OECD and the African Union Commission shows that Africa has a labour productivity ratio that is 50% lower than Asia’s and only 12% that of the United States. We believe that low productivity correlates with the quality of urbanisation. We define the quality of urbanisation as human settlements and communities that are able to capture the benefits of urban growth and expansion, quantified by more local and foreign investment, increased regional and international trade, enhanced revenues for local governments, better services for citizens and the activation of a virtuous circle where economic growth and welfare become self-reinforcing (UN-Habitat, 2017).

So, what are the most pressing needs of African cities to improve their quality of urbanisation? Below, we would like to share some general observations from our field projects that could serve to support policy design.[i] Continue reading

Data: The first step to improving finance in African cities

By Astrid R.N. Haas, Manager of Cities that Work, International Growth Centre

This blog is part of an ongoing series exploring the intersection between intermediary cities in developing countries and sustainable development

Hargeisa, Somalia. Photo:

Many African cities are urbanising rapidly. Yet, they are unable to adequately service their growing populations with the necessary infrastructure and amenities due to a lack of finance. Furthermore, retrofitting infrastructure on a city that has already grown is significantly more expensive. Improving local government finance is therefore very high on these cities’ agendas.

Cities can improve their finances in various ways. Perhaps one of the most underutilised yet high potential methods is property tax. Why? Rapid population growth is generally accompanied by a construction boom, increasing the number of properties. Furthermore, if demand for properties rises faster than supply, this will also increase property values. And such values will further benefit once public investments in infrastructure as well as improvements in service delivery are made. All these factors have a positive impact on property tax collection, and thus have the potential to unleash a virtuous cycle for local government revenue.
Continue reading

Disentangling urban and rural food security issues in West Africa

By Richard Clarke, Consultant, Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat

The rapid growth of cities in West Africa poses significant challenges across development dimensions. In particular, as the location of poverty spreads from rural to urban areas so have issues of food insecurity and malnutrition. Indeed, the potential impact of growing food insecurity in urban areas was highlighted by the widespread rioting over food prices in 2008.

The West African region is set to experience a further doubling of its urban population over the next 20 years, having grown from 6 million to 170 million between 1950 and 2015. This growth will place greater demands on regional food systems, which themselves are increasingly exposed to adverse global climatic and economic conditions, to provide cities with their nutritional needs.   Continue reading

The value of sharing experiences in urban redevelopment


By Dr. Koki Hirota, Chief Economist, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)

Learn more about this timely topic at the upcoming
1st International Economic Forum on Asia
Register today to attend on 14 April 2017!

Koki Hirota2
A future image of the Cebu metropolitan area

Catastrophic floods and earthquakes have hit Asian cities such as Manila, Bangkok or Kathmandu in recent years more than ever before. Air pollution in Delhi, Dhaka or Beijing has turned more and more dangerous, threatening the lives of residents. All this as the international community agreed on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Responding to this call, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) decided to allocate 35% of its financial co-operation programme last year to urban development.

Why? Urbanisation in developing countries is happening fast. Ten mega cities of over 10 million people existed in 1990; that number increased to 28 in 2014 and is projected to reach 41 in 2025 (UN [2014]). Urban areas in Shanghai expanded by 8.1% annually between 2000 and 2010 and by 4.0% in Jakarta. Tokyo, in comparison, expanded by 0.2% (World Bank [2015]). Dhaka became a mega city in just 40 years from a population of 1 million. Many other Asian mega cities took only 50 to 70 years to reach that level, which is a much shorter time than what advanced economies experienced.

Continue reading

A 4th level of government in Africa? Multi-level governance and metropolitan urbanisation

By Nicolas Ronderos, Economic Development Consultant

BWO_038In Togo, Lomé’s growth beyond its administrative borders makes delivering services and coordinating with adjacent localities difficult. A new metropolitan urban planning framework is being developed to address this issue. In April of this year the central government approved a plan for Grand Lomé that seeks to address urban, housing, transport and social services issues at the agglomeration level. The Grand Lomé plan seeks to coordinate among local urbanisation plans by providing an overall governance framework that enables coherence among local policies within the agglomeration and with other actors. [1]  Continue reading

Habitat III decisions crucial for the future of Africa’s cities

By Greg Foster, Area Vice-President, Habitat for Humanity, Europe, Middle East and Africa

habitat-3Africa will have some of the fastest growing cities in the world over the next 50 years. Unless something is done, and done soon, millions more will flood into unplanned cities and live in already overcrowded informal settlements and slums. It would appear as if the United Nation’s Habitat III conference, which happens every 20 years, and New Urban Agenda couldn’t come at a better time.

Habitat III’s goals sound simple — develop well-planned and sustainable cities, eradicate poverty and reach full employment, and respect human rights. Being able to leverage the key role of cities and human settlements as drivers of sustainable development in an increasingly urbanised world, the meeting will seek political commitment to promote and realise sustainable urban development. This could be a watershed moment for Africa’s cities. But critical challenges stand in the way of making Africa’s cities economic powerhouses, centres for exchanging ideas, and places that meld cultures and peoples. Three actions are needed. Continue reading

Integrating the local and global urban agendas

By David Simon, Director, Mistra Urban Futures, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden

In October, world leaders will gather in Quito for the Habitat III summit to launch the New Urban Agenda. This is on top of the start this year of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is odd that to date these two vitally important global urban initiatives led by the United Nations have been kept separate. It would be far more logical and extremely valuable, however, to link them by using SDG 11, the urban goal, as a monitoring and evaluation framework for the New Urban Agenda. A specific comparative urban experiment conducted last year could serve as a model for achieving just such a link.

Continue reading

A 21st century vision for urbanisation

By Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director, UN-Habitat

UrbanRuralWorldIf urbanisation is one of the most important global trends of the 21st century, with some 70% of the world’s population forecasted to live in cities by 2050, then urbanisation in Africa – and the ways in which that growth occurs – marks one of the most significant opportunities for achieving global sustainable development.

By 2050, cities in the developing world will absorb more than two billion new urban residents, representing 95% of global urban growth. African cities will take the lion’s share, in some cases increasing twice as fast as any other urban population worldwide. By mid-century, the urban population in sub-Saharan Africa alone is expected to quadruple, ushering in 1.15 billion new urban residents. How Africa prepares for its urban future will have far-reaching social, economic and environmental impacts – not only for the continent, but also for the world.  Continue reading

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.