23 June 2012

Is Africa's Medium Term Future Really Urban? New Evidence

The recent report from UNICEF "Children in an Urban World" has much to commend it.

Urban populations are growing, more children are being brought up in urban areas, and we in the development research community are having to play catch up with this (based on my highly imperfect knowledge of the number of research projects, research funding streams and calls, journal articles etc.).

The UNICEF report confirms much of what we know: on average urban areas are better off (for example the rates of child underweight prevalences are 1.5 times higher in rural areas), and yet the urban areas contain pockets (large ones) of some of the most destitute and poorest people on the planet.

What the UNICEF report does, being a UN report, is use UN urban population data projections.  For example, the inside cover (above) has a graphic that shows  Nigeria with 50% of its population living in urban areas.

But a new paper from Deborah Potts at Kings College (in World Development and available here) points out that the UN projections are based on trends in the 60s and 70s when many African countries were rapidly urbanising (that is, their urban populations were growing fast enough to increase the proportion of the population living in urban areas).  Once we examine more recent data, we learn that these proportions are way off.

Potts' paper spends much of its time in a forensic analysis of old and new data from Nigeria.  She zeros in on an initiative called Africapolis (supported by the French development agency AfD), which cross-references census data, satellite images and secondary data sources (sometimes very very micro) to conclude that 30% of Nigeria's population is urban.  And, more extraordinarily, the percentage will only increase to 31% by 2020.

30% versus 50%.  And Nigeria is by far the most populous country in Sub-Saharan Africa.  This overestimation by UN data trends is constant with new census data emerging from other West African countries, she says.

None of this is to say that urban populations in many African countries are not growing--they are--simply that they may not be growing faster than overall population.

Why has African urbanisation slowed down? Potts' hypothesises that economic growth gains in Africa have not been broadly based in urban areas and that this is slowing  rural to urban migration.

Population in African countries might not be urbanising as quickly as conventional wisdom claims, but my guess is that the focus of the development research community still has some urbanising to do.


Anonymous said...

What does this mean in the long term for those populations in urban and rural areas in terms of population growth, poverty, malnutrition etc.? If there is less rural to urban migration is this an indication of the lack or maxed out natural resources left in urban areas and increased stress on natural resources in rural areas?

dustyjulian said...

Cracking stuff. Many thanks for the blog. Very useful for us folk working on Nigerian rural poverty.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the explanation is that fertility rates in urban dwellers is falling dramatically faster than that in rural areas.

Lawrence Haddad said...

Dear Anonymous,

I still think Africa's future will be increasingly urban, but it just won't be as rapid as we had previously thought (subject to further evidence).. What does this mean for policy on urban poverty, malnutrition etc? I co-authored a couple of papers on this in World Development in 1999 (on trends and so what?)--someone should update them..

Dustyjulian, thanks, but don't get too excited... understanding rural poverty means understanding the rural urban connections, no?

Thanks both

Anonymous said...

Lawrence -- thanks for this. I'm curious about where slum growth rates and the numbers of people living in slums fit into this analysis. The lionshare of Population Censuses don't include slums, which in many West African countries account for half of urban populations... in light of this fact, how complete is this analysis?

Secondly, the CIA world factbook is the source of much recent urban and slum growth data. The Africapolis and your analysis don't discuss how relevant is that data? CIA cites urban and slum growth rates in West Africa as being 4-5% in many countries.

Anonymous said...


Can you comment on this definition of settlement used by Potts? Is this how you would define a settlement?

 “settlements should be defined as urban only if most of their residents derive the majority of their livelihoods from non-rural occupations (eg not agriculture, fishing, forestry).”

Thank you.

Robert Jenkins said...

Thank you for your recent post on urbanisation in West Africa and your kind words on UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report on urbanisation and children. We appreciate your call for an increased focus on urbanization in the future and the importance you place on collecting and analysing data to better understand trends. This analysis would form the basis for developing and monitoring policies and programmes to improve services – with particular emphasis on disadvantaged children, which remain an underserved population.

Urban demographics is a challenging and developing area of research. Although the research you cite is impressive and informative, it is only a part of the picture. Such a specific study cannot be used to extrapolate broader regional or global trends on urbanisation. This would require deeper research.

Regarding your comments on the data we have cited on urbanisation rates, the figures used by the UN are based on a broad range of sources in order to get as accurate a picture as possible. Evidenced-based initiatives that improve the lives of the many disadvantaged children in cities are starting to show results, but far more needs to be done. Look forward to our continued collaboration. Robert Jenkins, Policy and Strategy Division, UNICEF

Anonymous said...

conflicts and disasters are driving people to cities. This is a major factor.

Karla Solamo said...

Just a thought, it's really important to have a, not necessarily a good, but stable form of government in order to look over the the taxes and urban planning. I could just imagine the effort being poured into the division of r&d tax credits to carry on with the government projects.

Aries Brickman said...

I guess it really isn't a matter of sustainable and available housing as far as the african scene is concerned. It seems the main focus would still be economic re-focusing.