Africa: escaping the slums

exploding cities, new suburbs

Published on Le Monde Diplo, by Jean-Christophe Servant, April 2010.
(See also: Guinea, down but not out, April 2010, with Tom Rowe’s photographs of daily life in Guinea).

Africa, the least urbanised continent, still has the highest urban growth rate, nearly 7% per year; 40% of Africans now live in towns, compared with 3% in 1900. By 2030 there will be 760 million Africans, and if current trends continue, more than 70% will live in slums or shanty housing on the outskirts of old colonial foundations (Kinshasa or Nairobi) or ancestral cities (Ibadan or Kano in Nigeria). Half of today’s urban population – most of them under 25 – lives on less than $2 a day. 

According to a 2008 UN Habitat report, this urban population has shown remarkable resilience despite living conditions that are frequently very difficult (1). The most dynamic proofs are the new music subcultures that have sprung up over the past 10 years, mostly in low-income communities in the main cities. Ivorian coupé-décalé, South African kwaito, Ghanaian hiplife and Angolan kuduro rework tradition using electronics and a 21st-century street attitude. But the hunger riots of the winter of 2008-9 were a reminder that this captive population, at the mercy of price rises in food and petrol, has felt neglected by central governments. Those governments have greatly contributed to the leap in property prices, helping to intensify urban gentrification … //

… International organisations, focusing their efforts on the countryside, have only recently become aware of this. In the past their actions (through concentrating on the countryside) often helped accelerate the exodus to the cities. This weakened municipal resources: only 20% of city-dwellers have access to drinking water and only 10% to a sewage system. With central funding for development drying up, the pressure is on local authorities to provide. Yet on average they only have 2% of total public resources at their disposal.

The Kibera slum in Nairobi is home to between 500,000 and 800,000, living in cramped conditions of almost 3,000 per hectare. In September 2009 the UN-supported relocation of its first inhabitants finally got going – several years late. At this rate the programme (projected cost $1.2bn) will take 1,170 years to complete. (full text).

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