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Move to cities is unstoppable trend

Early this week, the media quoted Bank of Tanzania (BoT) Governor, Professor Benno Ndulu, bemoaning Dar es Salaam’s population boom and the stress it places on the delivery of essential services, economic production and safety and security in the city of nearly five million people, roughly an eighth of Tanzania’s population.

In the first place, I would like to assure Professor Ndulu and other decision makers that the move to cities is a non reversible socio-economic dynamic in man’s quest for development and fuller expression of his potential. The problem therefore is not the rather high rates of urban population growth but the failure to innovate at the same pace.

According to many studies, 2007 was a watershed year in which the majority of the people on earth were urban dwellers whereas a mere two hundred years ago, city dwellers were only three per cent of the people on our planet. That has led to some economists to coin the term “Homo urbanus” instead of “Homo sapiens.”

Rapid urbanisation is a factor of development. Europe left that stage many years ago as the phenomenon moved to the Americas and more recently Asia, where Shanghai and Tokyo are among the world’s largest cities. It is now Africa’s turn for “Homo urbanus Africanus” and there shall never be a going back to the village life.

An authority on urban policies and planning, Jane Jacobs (1916 – 2006), author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” argued long ago that “in future, human history will become urban history,” implying that the city would be more important than the nation-state.

Founded some 500 years ago, Sao Paulo in Brazil is the largest city in the southern hemisphere. Home to nearly 40 million of Brazil’s nearly 200 million people, Sao Paulo exerts enormous influence in the Latin American country’s politics, trade, finance, the arts and entertainment. 

I happened to be in Brazil in 2010 when most of the political talk centred on the forthcoming general election in which citizens eligible to vote were required to choose the successor to popular President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Worker’s Party who was ending his second, four-year term in office and constitutionally barred to run for a third consecutive term.

His handpicked successor, Ms Dilma Rousseff was acknowledged to be quite an able person but she was having a rough time running against Jose Serra of the Social Democracy Party. Part of the reason was Mr Serra was the governor of Sao Paulo State, which accounts for nearly 40 per cent of Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The problem with Africa is that officials are stuck in old thinking and mentality. The city is not a monster but an “organism” that reminds policy makers in particular, about the biological needs of all. The first question to ask in critiquing urban growth is: “Why am I in the city?” Ideally, we should all have been in our villages but trade, educational and professional opportunities made us all to drift to cities. That process cannot start and end with a lucky few! 

“Tutabanana hapa hapa,” literally Kiswahili for we shall all claim our space right here in the city, is part of the popular culture and innovation by the youth to also survive in cities, where admittedly life is not easy because of the general lack of a more caring and welfare nature of rural life. But who wants a life of backbreaking toil and labour for hard to realise benefits and wages? 

Man is a rational being, economists like to say. And, given a choice, he will always choose what is best for him. With or without education or skills to vend, cities provide the lure and best opportunity for man to fully express his potential in life. As such, they will always be the destination of choice for all those seeking to maximise their opportunities.

Dr. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, USA, led a study that found that city growth “driven by wealth creation increases at a rate that is faster than exponential. The only way to avoid collapse as a population outstrips the finite resources available to it is through constant cycles of innovation, which re-engineer the initial conditions of growth. But the greater the absolute population, the smaller the relative return on each such investment, so innovation must come ever faster.”

Additionally, the rather inability by African governments to maximise revenue collection so as to equally expand the ability by societies to provide for the growing needs of their people is a major challenge. Population will always spiral and, ironically more so when people are left without hope in life. 

So, the problem is not population growth but rather failure to serve the people diligently despite those who are in public service being given all the comfort, surroundings and the right environment to do so. 

Crime and insecurity are factors of marginalisation of a vast section of society, especially the youth. That is the really challenge of our cities and not their growth. Man shall never again be a hunter and gatherer but Homo urbanus. In fact, all of us in white collar jobs already are!




over 10 years ago