African governments have it wrong on urbanisation

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BY TERENCE NJOGU

Many urban residents in Africa often lament about the state of affairs in their cities and towns. It is a story of failed cities that are unable to provide even the basic services. Today, 60 percent of urban populations live in slums, unemployment is rife and crime is the norm with urban social disorders like riots, strikes, and terrorism rising in recent years.

Many African governments lay the blame on rapid urban migration and majority of them have adopted policies and strategies designed to inhibit or discourage people from moving to urban areas. Unfortunately, African governments have been getting it wrong. They would be shocked to realise that the Chinese government has in fact adopted urbanisation policies that intend to migrate millions of its citizens from the countryside to cities.

These negative outcomes are not inevitable consequences of urbanization. On the contrary, more urbanized societies are generally healthier, less violent and more orderly than less urbanized ones. By applying the appropriate policies and strategies in place, African urban transition could significantly transform the development prospects of the continent.

The Chinese government recently indicated that urbanisation is one of their top priorities in the next 10 years. They clearly see urbanisation as the pathway to lift millions of Chinese people out of poverty and provide a better quality of life for its citizens. The new rapid form of urbanisation in China has generated high hopes and is expected to serve as an economic engine. The country is doing away with “old urbanisation” that was characterised by millions of rural migrant workers living in heavily congested and polluted giant cities without equal social security and opportunities.

China has completed a new national plan on urbanization that aims to migrate millions of citizens from the countryside into cities. The recently unveiled plan specifies targets, focuses and measures for human cantered urbanisation. The government aspires to achieve a quality based, human cantered and green urbanisation.

The urbanisation plan not only focuses on improving the urban residents’ living standards but giving migrant workers equal access to education, healthcare and social security. This is in turn intended to help restructure the economy and boost consumer demand.

Equal access to opportunities and social security in cities could unleash the demand for goods as all citizens feel safer spending. These are inherent rights and therefore, equal social entitlement is not only an economic issue, but also a social issue.

Economic opportunities are one reason why people migrate into cities all over the world. Cities are known to be places where money, services, wealth and opportunities are centralised. China intends to utilize these phenomena by decentralizing services, ease access to manufactured goods, jobs and exchange capital throughout the country and diversify economic opportunities for its citizens.

Whereas urbanisation in most African countries has been left to take it natural cause, the government in China wants to be involved every step of the way. Despite governments being the drivers of the smart city efforts globally, China leads the rest of the world in building successful smart cities because of the strong government support. The Chinese government is strong in offering more facilities and services to better meet the residents’ demands when building new communities and new towns which include building industrial parks and upgrading industries to support the development of new cities. The government ensures that the new cities are efficient and ecologically friendly.

As everywhere else in the world, huge populations in poor countries, as China once was, is always a heavy burden for governments and local authorities. However, China has proved that it is possible to turn this burden into a blessing by providing a conducive environment for these people to thrive. The government realized that as more rural people move to the cities, aspiring for a better life, the market thrives and provides lifeblood for the economy; so long as there is proper resources integration and management innovation in terms of services to better meet the different demands from its citizens.

Nobel Laureate in Economics Joseph E. Stiglits has cited urbanization in China, along with technology developments in the US, as the two most important issues that will shape the world’s development during the 21st century. Africa should therefore not be left behind in this historical development process. China has taken the lead to show the way, Africa must take a cue from China and come up with appropriate urban planning for its cities that prioritises the people and the environment. With proper planning and implementation, Africa can emulate China and achieve an eco-friendly and sustainable modernisation that is enjoyed by all people.

(The author is a local freelance writer who comments on social and cultural issues)

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