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Policy meets politics on the frontiers of world urbanization

At a time when funding for urban infrastructure and the promotion of an overarching global goal—the hard-won SDG 11—have catapulted cities up the international policy agenda, it’s hard to believe that urban issues could ever have been considered marginal.

In relation to much of Africa, however, until about 15 years ago urban development challenges were quite a fringe concern in both policy and academic research. Many governments on the continent—particularly in Eastern Africa, where a suite of countries were governed by regimes whose rebel origins lay deep in the rural peripheries—viewed city-dwellers either with indifference or active hostility. International donor agencies ploughed funds into rural development, and later into aspatial ‘social’ sectors such as education and health. Meanwhile, the renewed interest from China in Africa in the early 2000s was largely seen as being focused on natural resource extraction.

This all changed from around 2010. The intense refocusing of international attention on African cities has sometimes been taken for granted as a natural consequence of the continent’s urbanisation, and of evolving international aid and investment priorities. Yet the focus on external and demographic drivers can obscure how this reorientation has been shaped in strikingly diverse ways by different political contexts.

Against the background of this ‘urban turn’ in twenty-first century Africa, my book Politics and the Urban Frontier explores how domestic politics and power struggles harness the demographic force of urban growth, alongside diversifying flows of international finance, to produce very different kinds of cities. I explore this in a set of countries in East Africa (specifically, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda), which I argue is the global urban frontier: the region with the lowest proportion of people living in urban areas, but also on average the fastest rates of urbanisation. Globally-sanctioned ideals of urban progress have been central to urban development in this region, yet their fate in any given city is partly determined by how they become entangled with other political and economic agendas.

What’s missing in ‘global’ urban policy debates?

The kinds of blueprints that have often been promoted for cities in low-income countries (think of the vogue for ‘self-help’ housing schemes in the 1970s, the prescriptive urban ‘good governance’ reforms dominating the 1990s, or the supposed panacea of land titling since the early 2000s) are rooted in certain generic assumptions about how cities work. These policy approaches are steeped in ideas of private property, infrastructure planning, and capitalist social relations that are largely rooted in industrialised countries elsewhere. African cities are often seen by foreign donors and external investors as substandard versions of the urban norm: low-income, dysfunctional nearly-cities that can be ‘lifted’ with the application of enough funds and the right regulatory frameworks.

Yet cities are not just bundles of land, regulations, and economic resources. They are also fundamentally political arrangements of people and things, and in much of the world in the twenty-first century they are shaped by three intersecting variables, about which conventional urban debates say little.

Yet cities are not just bundles of land, regulations, and economic resources. They are also fundamentally political arrangements of people and things.

First, cities are conditioned by shifting geopolitics, both in terms of regional dynamics of trade, movement, and diplomacy, and in terms of the diversifying forms of international finance on offer from donors and creditors. These financial flows, which wax and wane in response to geopolitical conditions, provide scope for bargaining and deal-making over big investments in and around capital cities, where national government priorities jostle with urban ones.

Second, cities are increasingly subject to dynamics of resurgent authoritarianism—but the nature and impact of this varies by country, given different levels of prior democratic institutional development and very different distributions of power among urban social groups. These differences affect how easily a governing regime can crush urban social opposition and repress city-level institutions.

Third, and related, cities are sites of intensifying quests for political legitimacy by governments seeking to build and hold urban power in the context of competing socioeconomic demands. In East Africa, postcolonial legitimacy to govern has often been sought among the rural majority. This is no longer adequate in the face of rapid urban growth. Urban legitimacy is now a central concern, even for authoritarian regimes—but precisely which urban groups matter most, and what needs to be done to court their support, will differ substantially by context.

Cities, then, are geopolitical hubs in which leaders and governing coalitions draw international flows into localised bargaining processes, in pursuit of (often authoritarian) urban power and legitimacy—not just globalising sites of ‘travelling’ urban planning visions and ideals of entrepreneurialism. The latter aspects of cities—which are no doubt important—have received much greater attention than the former. Politics and the Urban Frontier is part of an attempted rebalancing.

Urban analysis as political work

Focusing on East Africa, the book develops a detailed analytical framework to explain differences in urban trajectories between three cities that face many similar socioeconomic and demographic pressures, and similar flows of ideas and finance. It aims to explain why we see a stark contrast between a sustained commitment to top-down master planning processes in Kigali, accompanied by drive towards high-end service sector-led development, in contrast with a long-term ‘anti-planning’ political culture in Kampala where major urban infrastructures are fragmented and targeted as sources of private gain. Meanwhile, Addis Ababa has seen huge investments in the kinds of large-scale mass transport and housing projects that never get off the ground in the other two cities (though these have taken on a life of their own, due to widespread use by social groups for which they were not initially designed). These differences between the cities are above all rooted in power relations, rather than economic might or depoliticised notions of ‘state capacity’.

Why does all this matter? Aside from academic rebalancing, the book’s argument aims to enhance understanding about which kinds of urban investments will be taken seriously in a given context, and which may collide with political dynamics that mean they founder or twist into radically new directions during implementation. Having the analytical tools to better understand the political agendas and conflicts that underpin urban policy in a given context is essential if the international push towards more inclusive urban futures is to produce results in actual urban places. But attention to the politics of urban development is not just about tailoring urban interventions to political contexts to enhance implementation. It’s also about recognizing how such interventions can either bolster or reconfigure existing power relations, and therefore influence politics itself in a particular place—for better or worse.

There is a lot at stake in Africa’s urban century. We have seen the forms of radical socio-economic polarisation, spatial segregation, and authoritarianism that are possible in cities across the world. Indeed, many African cities were created this way during colonialism, and have struggled to escape this shadow. As the continent becomes an increasingly urban, it is vitally important that investors, donors, analysts, and advisors, who often see themselves as providing technical assistance, realise they are doing fundamentally political work—and not always in the ways they intend.

Featured image by Daggy J Ali via Unsplash (public domain).

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