OECD Warning: African Urbanization May Not Yet Be Sustainable

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The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published its most recent African Economic Outlook today. In it, the OECD warned that although Africa has been urbanizing at an unprecedented rate, it must take steps to ensure that that process remains sustainable or it could lead to enormous economic collapses.

Since 1995, the population of Africans living in cities has doubled to a record high of 472 million as of 2015. At that rate, the OECD opines, two-thirds of the African population will live in cities by 2050. Successful urbanization requires infrastructure and social transformations, however, and the OECD does not see those things changing at a comparable rate.

As the OECD’s Development Center Director, Mario Pezzini, put it, “Africa’s ongoing, multi-faceted urban transition and the densification it produces offer new opportunities for improving economic and social development while protecting the environment in a holistic manner…The benefits could accrue for both urban and rural dwellers alike, provided governments adopt an integrated approach.”

The OECD suggests that urbanization plans tailored to each nation must precede further growth, and innovative methods of financing the reforms necessary to support the process must be developed. Common to all of these plans is a need for efficiency, multi-tiered governments, decentralization of power, improved transparency, and greater economic capacities.

Nations that adopt such changes, the OECD argues, will be able to sustain their swelling urban populations with greater agricultural productivity, rapid industrialization, and expansion of the middle-class (most likely with financial prompting of foreign investors).

From an infrastructure standpoint, these nations will also need to create safer and more diverse neighborhoods. They should also promote public transit, waste collection, more reliable utilities, and city planning and building codes that consider the effects of climate change. As noted by the OECD’s report, poor planning leads to costly urban sprawl and rapid decay.

Africa, as a whole, remained the second fastest growing region for economic development, second only to Asia. In 2015, the region experienced 3.6% growth, a rate that is more than double the growth rate for Europe. The OECD’s report anticipates the region’s growth rate rising to 4.5% in 2017. That is despite the slump in commodity prices that has heavily impacted nations like Angola and Nigeria.

In the end, the OECD believes Africa has shown incredible economic resilience. However, to continue its rapid rate of urbanization, it will need to turn that resilience into better lives for the citizens of these nations. That will require better policy, better governance, better infrastructure, and programs designed to attract greater foreign investment.