13 December 2018

Decongesting African Cities: Rural and Urban Development Must Go Together

Experts agree: one of the main challenges facing the African continent today is its rapid urbanisation. Yet, strangely enough, local authorities seem ill-equipped to deal with many aspects of development in urban centres, while aid agencies spend most of their resources on rural development. George Owusu, Professor at the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) and Director of the Centre for Urban Management Studies at the University of Ghana, recently cowrote an article for International Development Policy – an academic journal published by the Graduate Institute – on Accra’s decongestion policy. This “solution” to ridding the city of informal settlements may be a quick fix, but it often has larger, more damaging consequences in the long run. The question remains: How should authorities address this challenge? As Prof. Owusu argues below, thinking beyond what is happening in urban centres might be the key.

What are the main challenges to urbanisation in Accra, and in Ghana?

Ghana has been urbanising at a very rapid rate. Unfortunately, migrants prefer to live in large urban centres, particularly Accra and Kumasi, our main cities. What is happening is that as more people move into these areas, city authorities must respond to a lot of challenges – employment, infrastructure, access to services, sanitation, etc. Unfortunately, city authorities have resorted to “decongestion”. What this means is that they see informal settlements as a nuisance to the city. Because they have not planned for these settlements, the solution has been to move in and clear some of these areas, particularly slums.

What should the authorities and policymakers be doing instead?

To be able to address the urban development challenges in cities like Accra, we need to look at broader urban development in Ghana. Because, as a country, we have tended to concentrate our urban development in a few localities, people move from the rural areas to these areas and create the challenges.

Urban development should not preclude the development of rural areas. Rural development and urban development go together, and until we get those dynamics right, making sure we develop our urban areas at the same time as we develop our rural areas, we won’t be able to achieve much.

To be able to attain sustainable development in Ghana, we need to put in place proper measures that will ensure that we have equitable distribution of resources, and proper planning and development across the whole country.

Why is this important now?

We live in a very exciting time. For a long time, issues of urban development have been neglected. But in recent years, it seems to have caught the attention of policymakers and politicians, as well as development donors. There is a lot that we can do in that respect. But what we have to bear in mind as a continent is that the process of urbanisation is irreversible and inevitable. We need to be proactive and to accept the challenges by putting in place innovative measures for sustainable development going toward the future.

Interview by Jienna Foster, Research Office.
Front illustration: Ghanaians working in Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana. By Marlenenapoli [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons.