Akin L. Mabogunje, Chairman of the Presidential Technical Board of the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, presented a paper entitled "Global Urban Poverty Research Agenda: The African Case" at a February 1 seminar organized by the Comparative Urban Studies Project (CUSP). A preliminary copy of the paper is available at the CUSP website.

Dr. Mabogunje examined four critical issues related to deepening urban poverty in sub-Saharan Africa: 1) What is ‘urban' about poverty and how is it different from problems facing rural areas? 2) Why is chronic poverty in sub-Saharan Africa a special case? 3) How can that peculiarity be explained? And finally, 4) What have societies done to cope with poverty?

Urban poverty is multi-faceted, said Mabogunje, detailing aspects of urban settlements that characterize urban poverty: inadequate income, asset bases, shelter, and access to public infrastructure and basic services, the absence of safety nets, the poor protection of the human rights, and the general voicelessness and powerlessness within political systems of the poor.

Mabogunje then addressed urban poverty in the African context, citing the special significance of the continent's colonial history. Rural-urban migration has been fueled by high concentration in cities of health, education, and other public facilities that are rarely found in rural areas. Yet inadequate industrial growth has driven increasing proportions of the population--up to 70 percent--to the informal sector economy. Thus, summed Mabogunje, people come to the city because of rural deterioration and they move into urban areas that are undercapitalized.

According to Mabogunje post-colonial factors also lie behind today's urban problems, particularly weak local government and the overcentralization of state power that has contributed to rampant corruption. To create a conceptual framework for action, it is first necessary to understand that colonial powers tried to integrate African economies that were essentially peasant-based into the global capitalist economy. Mabogunje emphasized the importance if kinship, which determines all the critical factors of production. In practical terms, this means that African migrants to urban areas are confronted by five disjunctures: 1) They have no economic assets; 2) Spatial disjuncture; 3) Social disjuncture arising from the loss of social networks and solidarity; 4) The breakdown of the family support system and thus collective responsibility; and, 4) Political disjuncture.

Finally, it is important to appreciate the African response to urban poverty, argued Mabogunje, expanding upon the significant role played by Hometown Voluntary Associations. To articulate a research agenda, he recommended the following:
assess the magnitude of urban poverty; examine its impact on individual household members, particularly the vulnerable–children, women, and the elderly; consider the structural factors that underlie the severity of urban poverty; examine the functional factors that determine the coping ability of the urban poor; and evaluate the capacity of state and international donor agencies to effectively reduce the severity and scope of urban poverty.

Discussant William Cobbett, Senior Urban Upgrading Adviser at Cities Alliance, stressed that a research agenda must have a clear and open bias toward policy orientation and solutions. To highlight some of Mabogunje's research questions, Cobbett presented the following propositions:
1) Africa has an increasingly urban future. This is good news and it should be welcomed.
2) The success of national economies will increasingly be predicated on the efficiency of its urban areas and their workforces. If cities work, so will their national economies, and the converse will be true too.
3) African governments are, at best, ambivalent and in many cases hostile to the idea of an urban future in Africa.
4) This creates a huge drag on economic growth and poverty reduction.
5) There is an overconcentration of political and economic state power that has the net result of disempowering local communities and non-state structures.

Cobbett also commented on the policy questions Mabogunje raised in his paper. First, he addressed Africa's preparation for urbanization. Cobbett explained that growth of urban areas comes from the rural to urban migration as well as from urban fertility and natural growth. If agriculture fails or succeeds, the net result will be increased urbanization and this, he remarked, is a key message for the continent. Mabogunje's paper highlights migration as a coping mechanism for the urban poor, observed Cobbett. As urbanization becomes permanent, the oscillatory nature of migration will decline. Thus, the solution to urban poverty may lie in urban migration.

How will services to support growing urban populations be provided, asked Cobbett, stressing the failure of national governments to recognize the rights of the poor. Referring to the creation of parallel or dual markets that Mabogunje describes in his paper, Cobbett observed that people have sought services and land informally. This ultimately produces huge inefficiencies as the poor pay more for less and local governments lose opportunities to collect revenue.

Looking to the future, how will Africa cope with the doubling of its urban population within the next 30 years? Cobbett referred to a recent World Bank report on the dynamics of global expansion Global Urban Expansion that finds decreasing rates of density with urbanization: as the population doubles, the amount of land consumed triples. These trends take place within a policy framework that rejects urbanization, while the best chance for the poor to climb out of poverty is to move to urban areas, argued Cobbett. Local and national governments must get ahead of the curve, unlocking the crucial policy issue of urban land markets, making them open, transparent and tradable. Furthermore, responsive and effective local government structures must engage with the local private sector, create a climate for investment and actively engage the urban poor not as a problem but as part of the solution.

Finally Cobbett argued for the need to rethink international assistance. Too much aid is aimed at rural poverty, not looking forward. Development organizations are still advising investment in rural areas to slow urbanization while there is no example of success in dealing with urban poverty through attempts to slow urbanization processes. Election and donor cycles also place constraints on effective programming. There is a disconnect between international development assistance and the reality on the ground that serves to reinforce concentration of power, concluded Cobbett, as he called for change to reflect better policy and better outcomes.

Discussant Jane Guyer, Professor in the Department of Anthropology at John Hopkins University, recognized the long-term structural issues raised in Mabogunje's presentation but also emphasized recent historical factors related to Africa's current economy and the poverty situation in the region. Why are people coming to cities without housing or infrastructure? Sharing Cobbett's concerns, Guyer asked what are the conditions that promote urbanization?

According to Guyer, plummeting commodity prices and the decline in agriculture prices has fueled rural-urban migration. Furthermore, Africa has suffered a political storm. Urbanization derives particular characteristics from the political instability, civil war and strife of the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, infrastructure necessary for the development of market economies was destroyed. Africa is the only region in the world where the number of poor living on less than one dollar a day has increased over the past ten years, said Guyer, noting similar patterns in data for health indicators.

We must look to the interconnections between different phenomena to understand the response of national governments to conditions of urban poverty, for example, tracing out entailments to examine the implications of family ownership of land for financial markets. We must study the formal and informal sectors, urged Guyer. From this we can realize the failures of incoherent policy interventions over the past twenty years and push forward.


  • Akin L. Mabogunje

    Chairman, Presidential Technical Board, Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria
  • William Cobbett

    Manager, Cities Alliance
  • Jane Guyer

    Visiting Professor, Department of Anthropology, John Hopkins University