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AfriCities VII

The Potential of National Urban Policies in Africa

Anton Cartwright – African Climate and Development Institute


The growing recognition of the importance of cities for development does not alter the fact that cities and countries are co-dependant, or that cities are better off when supported by their national governments. An appropriate balance of power and responsibilities between tiers of government is at the heart of sustainable cities and in sub-Saharan Africa striking this balance requires policy innovation, if not experimentation.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s urbanisation is often caricatured as “fast, late and poor”, attributes that create particular challenges when it comes to financing and providing the infrastructure and services that urban citizens require to live long and productive lives. Less widely acknowledged are the urban governance arrangements that compound finance and service delivery challenges. The limits of generalisations notwithstanding, many cities in the region are governed by an awkward combination of traditional and municipal authority, and this authority is highly prescribed by national governments. Local governments find themselves charged with the administration of petty responsibilities and revenues, while control of the significant urban investment and revenue streams remains with national government and SOEs[1] (Berrisford and McAuslan 2017). This mode of urban governance foregoes the benefits of proximity in urban development, and increases the chance that the rapid growth of urban populations in Africa will overwhelm the capacity to assimilate this population in ways that avoid social and ecological disaster. Dar es Salaam is one of the few primary cities in the world where infant mortality and maternal mortality at birth is higher than the national average, pointing to harsh realities of rapid and inadequately planned and coordinated urban expansion.[2]

It was the limitations of the prevailing multi-level governance arrangements in many sub-Saharan African countries that saw National Urban Policies (NUPs) emerge in 2016 as a key policy instrument for the region in the wake of Habitat III. NUP proponents in Africa envisaged these policies fulfilling different needs: caretaking cities while local government capacity was created; simplifying and cohering the many interests, bylaws, tenure regimes and programmes that had accreted over decades of piece-meal urban development; providing a conduit through which African cities could contribute to Agenda 2030. With the benefit of a few years’ hindsight, what many proponents under-estimated was the extent of competition between tiers of government and the danger, innate to NUPs, that they legitimise the desire of national governments to retain control over local authorities.

It is this contested nature of multi-level governance that necessitated caution by the Coalition for Urban Transitions (CUT) when developing a NUP in Tanzania and supporting the process of NUP review in Ghana. The CUT is a donor funded outfit, external to the respective country’s governments, but with a desire to support national governments in overseeing sustainable cities. The need to balance caution, reflexivity an ambition resulted in the Tanzanian Urbanisation Laboratory (TULab) and the Ghana Urbanisation Think Tank (GUTT), two interdisciplinary institutions convened and funded by the CUT but directed by the respective governments.

The two country contexts are very different. Tanzania is in the midst of a centralisation phase in an attempt to crack down on corruption, marshal a consolidated fiscus and finance the type of mega-project stimuli that will see the country achieve middle-income status. Ghana, in contrast, is committed to cities and has had a celebrated NUP for 5 years, but has struggled to implement this policy in a way that encourages local economic development and addresses income and spatial inequality.[3]

In spite of differences both the TULab and the GUTT had a research focus – data and knowledge are crucial to the urban transition regardless of context. The commissioned research was undertaken by local researchers, covered a variety of topics and yielded valuable insights, including:

  • How much households are prepared to pay, and how much money local governments actually have (not how much they need) to build infrastructure and provide services in Tanzanian cities – between $23 and $150 per capita per year;
  • The manner in which people access safe drinking water in the absence of state services – through a sophisticated network of local experts that a few local authorities have harnessed to overcome bottlenecks in the formal water sector;
  • How power is wielded between different tiers of government in Tanzania – through staff procurement, the timing of budget transfers and prescriptions on how cities may enter the debt market;
  • The growth and employment implications of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) based industrial pathway relative to a pathway designed to meet growing urban demand for food, construction material, energy and mobility in Ghana and Tanzania – the economic growth prospects are similar, but there is a significant difference in who benefits from the new work opportunities that are created.

The emphasis in both countries was on diagnosing the root causes of existing urbanisation outcomes, rather than jumping to conclusions or expedient policy prescriptions. Deliberations identified the importance of enabling conditions, including an urban rights framework, a political commitment to cities and new data (especially qualitative data on urban informality) as prerequisites for the success of the more technical NUP components such as finance and infrastructure planning.

In accommodating a wide variety of voices and perspectives, the respective TULab and GUTT experiments had to navigate between continuity and disruption, local knowledge and donor expectations, deliberation and deadlines, experimentation and planning, government protocol and youthful irreverence. These are tensions intrinsic to urban development and while there was, as with most experiments, the constant threat of ‘combustion’, accommodating these tensions contributed to a refreshing candour and creativity that in turn yielded new policy insights. It was, for example, through the bringing together of in-country policy conversations around industrialisation, urbanisation and climate change, that a new narrative emerged on how the global imperative of low-carbon cities could be harnessed to support industrial competitiveness, create urban jobs and attract investment in ways that have proven elusive to Tanzania and Ghana in the past.[4] Similarly, through the respective processes it became clear that a thriving, low-carbon urban future was not something that African countries needed to ‘find’ or ‘adopt’, but rather something that could often be readily crafted through the coordination of mundane and routine decisions at different scales, but with cities in mind.

Neither the TULab nor the GUTT tried to write policy or legislation, understanding that this is the domain of democratically elected governments. Implicit in both processes, however, was the recognition that the influence of research is determined by the sense of ownership that decision-makers feel towards the resulting knowledge and data. Ownership was enhanced by drawing on local researchers to conduct fieldwork, relying on the cadre of government officials and urbanists convened quarterly by the TULab and GUTT, to peer review reports, deliberate and share ideas. In the process research findings were embedded in the discourse and imaginaries of the same people that influence urban development and will live with the consequences of their decisions and interventions.




[1] Berrisford S., McAuslan P. (2017) Reforming Laws in Africa: a practical guide. Special Report published by African Centre for Cities (ACC), Cities Alliance, United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and Urban LandMark, Cape Town.

[2] Worral L., Colenbrander, S., Palmer, I., Makene, F., Mushi, D., Kida, T., Martine, M and Godfrey N. (2017) Better Urban Growth in Tanzania. Coalition for Urban Transitions Working Paper, London (August).

[3] Inkoom, D., Amponsah, O. and Adabor, E. (2019) Half a Decade of Implementation of Ghana’s Urban Policy: Stocktaking the Successes and Failures of Flagship Projects. Ghana Urbanisation Think Tank Background Paper, Accra, London (April).

[4] Cloete B; Kazibon, L. and Ramkolowan Y. (2019) The Macro-economic Impact of Two Different Industrial Pathways in Tanzania. Tanzanian Urbanisation Laboratory Background Paper, Dar es Salaam, London (April).


Related Contents: Africa 2063: How Cities Will Shape the Future of a Continent


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