The COVID-19 pandemic and the current shock to the system from the war in Ukraine have left African economies hanging by a thread.
National debt has reached distressed levels across the continent, with even formerly high-performing economies such as Ghana, Egypt, and Tunisia on the verge of defaults, bailouts, or both.
Next week’s 9th Africities Summit, in Kisumu, Kenya, will therefore be taking place against a particularly gloomy macroeconomic backdrop.
Yet Kisumu itself – a vibrant, upcoming city which has become a hub for international trade – should give delegates real cause for optimism.
Indeed, Kenya has benefited from being an early adherent of the New Urban Agenda: UN-Habitat’s armoury of solutions for helping states, city planners and communities to manage urban challenges and needs, whether that’s planning, financing, waste management and housing.
These solutions have evidently been of value to Kisumu, and I believe the Agenda could not be more relevant for African policymakers navigating such perilous economic headwinds.
Why? Because while urban areas constitute 55% of the global population, they account for more than 80% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP).
In other words, our cities are an engine of economic growth – growth that Africa needs badly and needs now.
However, while the most must be made of the undeniable dynamism of our urban areas, choosing to live in a city cannot be a zero-sum game. No African should ever have to expose themselves to environmental and social strife to climb the economic ladder.
Put simply, our mission must be the resilience and the sustainable economic growth of our cities: the key that can unlock a more prosperous, equal and secure future for all Africans.
Our team at UN-Habitat have never underestimated the challenge at hand.
The world’s urban centres are veritable hotspots of vulnerability, with more than 1 billion people now living in informal settlements, placing themselves at the mercy of extreme weather events.
While new cities are emerging in Africa, we need to learn to ensure challenges are well anticipated with proper planning and provision of basic services. The best approach might be by finding a balance between big city and secondary cities. Secondary cities are under less pressure and can develop sustainable urban solutions faster.
Quick fix and often exclusionary solutions like slum clearance and community relocation have proven redundant in the face of such a challenge.
UN-Habitat’s advocates an inclusive and participatory approach, with our staff getting out into the field to assist stakeholders with anything from building the climate resilience of city centres to setting up employment schemes and vocational training.
RISE-UP: Resilient Settlements for the Urban Poor – one of UN-Habitat’s flagship programmes – exemplifies this research-driven, holistic approach to generating sustainable socio-economic progress in African cities.
Since 2019, the RISE-UP team have built up a database of locations under severe threat from extreme weather events, whether that be an informal settlement in West Africa or a coastal city in South-East Asia.
With this data in hand, UN-Habitat has lobbied for and then leveraged large scale investments to build, augment, and reinforce the climate resilience of each vulnerable community. This is an essential step in the cementing their economic viability.
As an example of RISE-UP at its best, UN-Habitatflagged the grave threat of flash floods and strong winds to schools in Mozambique in 2020. Our field operatives then worked day and night to ensure that classrooms from Maputo to Beira could withstand them.
Given the global political and economic upheavals, it is important that we stay firmly on the course of sustainable urban development and ensure support is available for the development of secondary cities in Africa. And this is what I will be focusing on in Kisumu next week.
‘With these communities in mind, it is imperative that organisations operating at the supranational level like UN-Habitat stay the course. While the focus of governments on sustainable economic growth might waver, ours will not and we have the expertise to keep them moving forward, despite the undeniable obstacles they face.