SEATTLE — The rise of “poor megacities” (the world’s largest cities in low-income nations) over the last three decades has allowed for improvements in job opportunities, public goods, infrastructure and healthcare. Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, noted that “cities are the best path we know out of poverty. They are the best transformers of civilizations. But, there are also demons that come with density.” In other words, urbanization has mitigated poverty, but infrastructure and service delivery have not always kept up.
While sub-Saharan Africa’s urbanization rate has increased from 15 percent in 1960 to 38 percent today, the population in its cities has nearly doubled between 1995 and 2015. More than 50 percent of these urban residents live in slums. In addition, only 40 percent of African city residents have access to improved sanitation facilities, the same percentage since 1990. On top of that, overpopulation is clearly a growing issue in such areas because of Africa’s high fertility rate.
In order for urbanization in Africa to produce lasting economic gains, the cities need to combat the consequences of increasing population density. These examples of the strategies African countries and people have used show how developing infrastructure is alleviating poverty.
The Rise of Secondary Cities
The urban development of secondary cities helps by decentralizing power and economic activity. This allows such secondary cities to gain greater access to capital and political autonomy to provide high-quality services. In the town of Kagera in Tanzania, people who moved there contributed more to overall consumption growth and poverty reduction than people who moved to larger urban centers. Smaller urban centers tend to have more jobs that match the skills of these nearby migrators as well as lower transportation costs and better social links.
A shift towards higher productivity services helps cities become more like cities in developed nations by specializing in different areas. For example, the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) established the ECOWAS Vision 2020 resolution in June 2007 to raise the standard of living in West Africa. One of the resolution’s objectives was to improve connections between countries through social and economic infrastructure like roads, telecommunication systems, energy and sea and air transport. Their plans have put into motion the construction of several hydraulic and thermal power stations.
Stronger transportation networks increase productivity as well. ECOWAS has been constructing an expansion of the underwater pipeline connecting Nigeria to Ghana to reach Mauritania and Morroco, as well as a coastal road connecting Dakar to Lagos and a trans-Saharan road from Dakar to Kano in Nigeria. In addition, it has created a regional coastal navigation services company to expand the availability of sea travel as a more affordable alternative to road transport along the coast.
Taking Advantage of Human Capital
Improved health has increased human capital, but structural transformations are essential to sustaining human capital investments. In one example, entrepreneurs from Technoserve helped many Mozambicans out of poverty by providing a market systems approach to revive the country’s cashew processing industry. Without their help in establishing a reliable local market, the hundreds of thousands of small farmers would not have been able to gain the new jobs the industry had created. This example shows how developing infrastructure is alleviating poverty in Africa, as these farmers needed more than just improvements in farming practices and people to plant trees in order to succeed.
Upgrades to current slum settings improve welfare and child health, which in turn encourage demographic transitions. The Kenyan government and UN-Habitat signed a memorandum in 2003 that led to the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme. This program replaced the existing shacks with modern high-rise buildings and facilitated the inclusion of services like water, sanitation and electricity. Similar projects are in the works in Ghana and Niger.
Incorporating Big Data
New data collection techniques also show how developing infrastructure is alleviating poverty. Some recent studies have shown potential in the use of new satellite data sources that can better measure city size, economic growth and migration to improve target funding and to measure how effective policies may be.
In northern Kenya, satellites measure the amount of ground vegetation to predict how much pasture can be used for grazing livestock. During a drought, the satellite indicates the scarcity of pasture. In such cases, pastoralist policyholders are able to obtain an insurance payout to protect their cattle.
In Mali and Uganda, the micro-agricultural insurance program SUM Africa predicts crop yields of smallholder crop farmers by analyzing historical data. Farmers who purchased insurance receive a payout if predicted crop yields decrease to a certain level.
Through these and many other strategies to develop their infrastructure, African countries have been helping their youth find jobs and reduce poverty. It is an ongoing process to make resources such as water, energy, and all-weather roads accessible to the poor, but these examples show the wide-ranging success that can be applied across the continent.
– Connie Loo