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The African continent is acknowledged as one of the fastest urbanising regions of the world today. This process is occurring within an overall framework in which, at an average of about 3 per cent annually, Africa maintains its lead as the region of the world with the fastest rate of population growth. All major projections for the future suggest not only that this rapid rate of population growth will continue but also that it will be accompanied by an equally rapid rate of urbanisation that will centre around a number of mega-cities, mostly urban areas that are already centres of high population density. Side by side with the accelerating pace of urbanisation, the continent has also experienced processes of socio-economic, cultural and political change which bear directly as factor, arena and context on the challenges of governing the urban space and the urban experience.
Among the most significant socio-economic, cultural and political processes that both shape and define the context for urbanisation and urban governance include the quest for broad-ranging political reform across Africa which began in the late 1980s and around which struggles continue to crystallise; various experiments in decentralisation, devolution and local-level administration that impinge directly on the content, structure and quality of city governance irrespective of the reasons for which they were undertaken; issues of taxation and representation in city administration and in the urban space; experiments in the creation of autonomous agencies of government as part of new public sector management approaches; the emergence of non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations, and neighbourhood associations that have become an active part of city life and which play a role, either formally or informally, in the overall governance of the urban space; serious problems of economic accumulation that carry consequences for urban livelihood, including issues of employment, income distribution and equitable access to resources; intensifying demographic shifts that make the urban centre the site for the reproduction of Africa’s youthful population; growing problems of environmental sustainability which also bear on the quality of livelihood; and the challenges of balancing urban policing and citizen security with respect for civil liberties and human rights.
Rapidly growing urban centres imply an increased, though not necessarily unidirectional rural urban population flow which deserves to be studied in terms of its recent contours. But a process of migration from small towns and peri-urban centres into big cities is also taking place. The challenges of planning the use of urban spaces in the face of massive population pressure has produced, across the continent, new poles of marginality and exclusion in leading urban centres side by side with new market niches and a sprawling informal sector. The crises of agricultural production arising partly from the flow of population from the rural to the peri-urban and urban areas has also produced new problems of food security which the emergence of peri-urban and city farming by individuals and households has not always been sufficient to overcome. New populations settling in expanding urban settings are confronted with claims of indigenity by earlier settlers which carry implications for all aspects of their rights and often result in violent communal conflicts. With existing infrastructure either in a state of generalised decay or not expanding quickly enough to accommodate growing urban populations, the pace and quality of urban life in most African countries is called constantly into question. The weakened capacity and reach of the state means that whole swathes of the urban space are not covered (adequately) by the apparatuses and agencies of government at all levels, leaving such spaces to self-constituted local militias and informal administrative brigades that arrogate to themselves powers of taxation and policing.
Through the 2004 Governance Institute, the Council proposes to extend the work which it has supported in recent years on urban processes and change by focusing attention on the range and variety of issues arising from and posed by shifts in the context, process and structures of urban governance in Africa. Prospective participants will be encouraged to map the different contours of change that are occurring, produce fresh empirical and analytic insights, engage in a comparative analysis of their findings and reflect on the challenges posed by their own work to inherited/dominant conceptual frames.
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