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Africa is rural. Or that’s what senior Western officials envision when they talk about the continent. This is wrong. Dangerously wrong. Africa is increasingly urbanized, and its future will be shaped not in sleepy remote spaces but in the dense vibrant clusters of Lagos, Addis Ababa and Kinshasa. Big cities are becoming the engine of the continent, with huge implications for future energy needs, security, governance and public services - as well as rising risks if urban growth is poorly managed. According to the World Bank, urbanization is the single most important transformation the African continent will undergo this century. Sub-Saharan Africa is already 40 percent urban, while tens of millions of people are flooding into cities every year. By 2050, it’s estimated that the continent will host at least nine “megacities” of more than 10 million people and more than two dozen in excess of 5 million, about the size of metropolitan Washington.
Many are far off the current radar: Antananarivo in Madagascar; Guinea’s capital of Conakry; and N'Djamena, Chad. Cities, of course, have for millennia been the locus of economic activity, wealth creation and especially jobs. By one detailed measure, Africa’s consumer class is already more than 300 million and heavily concentrated in a handful of large metropolitan areas such as Cairo, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos and Luanda. The African Development Bank estimates that up to 12 million young Africans finish school and join the job market each year. The most attractive, well-paid and high-productivity jobs - in finance, information technology, creative arts, data processing and even manufacturing - will nearly all be in densely populated clusters. But, of course, urbanization has serious downsides. On average, 60 percent of Africa’s city dwellers live in slums, and they suffer disproportionately from communicable and non-communicable diseases. AIDS prevalence is generally higher for urban populations than rural peers; and obesity is rising. Africa’s path to joining the global economy rests on the success or failure of its cities, not on its rural communities.
Despite breathless press - such as a New York Times article on efforts to “make farming sexy” - agriculture provides poor employment prospects, especially for the young and educated. Similarly, a wave of new donor efforts to electrify Africa are mostly focused on delivering small solar home systems in rural areas. These can provide a few lights for poor remote households, but they are inadequate for the needs of city lifestyles and useless for industry and commerce where jobs are created. Given all this, it’s shocking that Western efforts to aid the continent continue to be focused on an outdated rural paradigm; they must reorient toward the cities. According to the United States Agency for International Development’s foreign aid dashboard, Washington spends more than twice as much on rural areas than urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa. Out of the 16 compacts made by the Millennium Challenge Corporation that don’t directly address energy, only Zambia’s program is focused on urban challenges rather than rural poverty, agriculture, health services and the like.
Among individual donors, only the U.K.’s Department for International Development is committing significant resources to programming and research targeted at municipalities. How can the U.S. Africa’s burgeoning urban areas will pose? First, U.S. policy and investments should be shifted heavily toward major urban clusters, rather than to countries as a whole. USAID could program more funds to tackle urban development, while the Millennium Challenge’s city program in Zambia could be replicated with subnational compacts across the continent. The new U.S. Development Finance Corporation, launched by the Trump administration, will have even more tools at its disposal to support investments in urban infrastructure, technology and services. It could even organize a Smart City initiative to accelerate partnerships between African cities and U.S. Second, the U.S. could boost diplomatic engagement with municipal leaders. U.S. embassies can develop closer ties to the region’s governors and mayors, while senior U.S. Washington and visit African city halls during foreign trips.