Conference on The Just City in Africa Postponed due to Visa Delays
By Michael Cohen and Bastian Schulz
Protester holds up a placard calling for the end of the brutal Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Lagos. Photograph from Foreign Policy (1999).
The conference on The Just City in Africa has been delayed until 2023 due to U.S. State Department delays in processing visas for scholars from Nigeria and other Sub-Saharan countries. The visa office has said it could take up to six months to complete the approval process. Nevertheless, this article lays out the framework and importance of the conference, as well as the goals that the organizers hope to accomplish.
Rapid urbanization is transforming many if not all countries in Africa. Cities are central to the process of economic and social growth and innovation in all parts of the world. Although governments have for the last several decades made attempts to improve the living conditions in African cities the results are far satisfactory: the distribution of political, economic, spatial, and financial resources remains unequal. In order to influence and ultimately change the discourse around urbanization in Africa, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in various countries has engaged the concept of a social and inclusive just city to facilitate innovative discussions among political decision makers, civil society representatives, and others on issues such as affordable housing, fair and clean public transport, and meaningful civic engagement in urban spaces. The objective is to promote urban social justice, equal distribution of opportunities for social mobility, enhanced access to social space, and family friendliness in African cities.
Africa’s urban population will double over the next 25 years. By 2040, a majority of Africans will be living in cities. Urbanization is thus one of the major trends shaping the African continent. Africa’s cities have long been a perplexing policy challenge. The colonial powers used cities for political/administrative control and economic extraction. Rural-urban migration increased over time as urban areas appeared to offer better opportunities for higher incomes and a better quality of life. Demographic growth after independence resulted in a rapid increase in the unsatisfied demand for jobs, employment and wealth in general and urban services and public goods, including housing, water supply, sanitation, and transport in particular.
The urban invisibles, the majority of African city dwellers, live in informal settlements, work under precarious conditions, mostly in the informal sector, and do not have access to social protection schemes.
Thus far, however, populations all over the world and especially in Africa have been living in “unjust” cities, in which historical inequalities have been further compounded by neoliberal urban policies. Public goods are scarce commodities in African cities and often out of reach for great majorities of city dwellers – the urban invisibles. The urban invisibles, the majority of African city dwellers, live in informal settlements, work under precarious conditions, mostly in the informal sector, and do not have access to social protection schemes. They are deprived of basic infrastructure services and have suffered greatly under the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, urbanization processes in Africa are accompanied by increasingly acute shortages of essential services, relatively low economic productivity, growing intra-urban inequality, and unmanaged urban spatial growth contributing to serious environmental consequences such as climate change and the diminishing of natural resources. A Senegalese urbanist referred to this situation as “urbanisation dependant”, in which public investment has been heavily driven by international donors, private investment has depended on remittances, and local economic machines have been weak and unable to gain momentum and scale.
Most recently there has been a debate, largely among international economists, about why Africa’s cities have not “taken off” in productivity terms and what is needed to transform “African market towns” into thriving urban economies with a greater share of manufacturing. At the same time various issues concerning inequalities between but especially within cities become more obvious, as there is clearly a lack of debate regarding the interconnectedness of rapid urbanization, political developments, growing inequalities (SDG 10), changes in the world of work (SDG 8), gender injustices (SDG 5) and environmental aspects including climate action (SDG 13). So far, the explanations of these intra-urban inequalities have been the familiar suspects: infrastructure deficiencies, informality, low investment in human capital, weak governance, and low levels of resource mobilization and investment, all of which are important but do not appear to offer immediate remedies. Currently, cities in Africa are “unjust cities” and labels such as "smart" or "eco city" that are attached to new urban development projects have so far been unable to fill both the conceptual and the material gap, failing to deliver public goods into the overall majority of the population in urban areas. They have also not been able to generate satisfying answers to the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic.
For a just, sustainable, and redistributive urban policy, urban socio-political power relations must change. This is the stage where political struggles will be playing out.
This list is notable for its lack of mention of three important factors: politics, social justice, and a sustainable view of the future. Technocratic solutions alone, which national decision-makers as well as bilateral and multilateral actors tend to favour, will not be able to reduce increasing urban inequality on the African continent. For a just, sustainable, and redistributive urban policy, urban socio-political power relations must change. This is the stage where political struggles will be playing out. The political challenge has been how to assure political competition, fairness, and human rights. Intra-urban inequalities have fueled demands for social justice – in incomes, wealth, labor rights, gender rights, educational opportunities, property rights, to mention some of the most visible and pressing problems. Envisioning alternatives for the future has largely been considered a luxury in national and urban environments in which satisfying daily needs for food, shelter, services, and health care have been urgent priorities. Visions of smart cities, including the Smart Africa initiative by African countries, have been largely exclusive pro-business urban enclaves e.g. Konza city in Kenya, and value efficiency and security rather than inclusivity and sustainability. On the continental level, the African Union has crafted a continental development plan for 2063, in which strategizing for the future of cities has generally been lacking.
Many of these issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As in cities around the world, the pandemic has made structural differences more visible, as millions of people have lost opportunities to earn even minimal incomes, to purchase food and services, to send their kids to school, and to assure minimal levels of health care. Africa cities have, to varying degrees, been particularly hard-hit by the crisis and it is mainly the urban invisibles who’ve been hit hardest by governments responses to the pandemic. These invisibles have now become visible. If conditions were difficult in pre-COVID-19 Lagos, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, or Nairobi, the pandemic has deepened the problems amidst an atmosphere of uncertainty and foreboding.
The conference in NY
The conference will take stock at the global, national, and urban level of the current challenges facing Africa’s cities, towns, and urban areas. In addition, the conference would seek to generate new insights, socio-political perspectives, and concrete starting points for a “people-centered urban transformation” with a specific focus on the global level.
The conference will be offered in a hybrid format, allowing about 100 persons to assemble in person at The New School in New York, and a wider online audience. The two-day conference will include plenary presentations, panels, and opportunities for discussion and exchange.
It will likely be offered in a hybrid format, allowing about 100 persons to assemble in person at The New School in New York, as well as a wider online audience. The two-day conference will include plenary presentations, panels, and opportunities for discussion and exchange. This format will provide the space for us to think jointly about and work towards cities in Africa that are designed for and run by the many, not the few. Participants will need to work out clear policy messages, identify progressive micro-struggles to be publicized, and identify concrete proposals on how to make the distribution of incomes, opportunities, and public goods more equal within the rapid urbanization process in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The key aim of the gathering is to discuss Africa’s urbanization from a progressive perspective, seeking to operationalize the concept of the “just city” by identifying specific policy and investment areas to support a broader process of policy and institutional reform. It will address the questions of democracy, social justice, and sustainability in Africa through an examination of current urgent problems such as poverty and inequality, urban transport, informality, and food and health in a (post-) COVID-19 environment. Its focus will be on thinking in the medium and long term about how to get “ahead of the curve” on the provision of public goods in African cities with the intention of improving social justice in the process, especially for the urban invisibles.
 http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/kenia/17107.pdf  http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/kenia/17107.pdf, p.40 ff  See work by Paul Collier, Anthony Venables, J. Vernon Henderson, etc.  OXFAM-India, The Inequality Virus: Davos India Supplement 2021, (New Delhi: OXFAM-India, 2021)