MIL-OSI Global: African urbanisation: what can (and can’t) be learned from China about growing cities

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Source: The Conversation – Africa – By Astrid R.N. Haas, Adjunct professor, University of Toronto

The economic growth paths of Asian and African countries have often been compared. China, with gross domestic product per capita of US$251 in 1987, was poorer than most African countries at the time. Uganda’s GDP per capita was US$392, Zambia’s US$319 and Ghana’s US$354. Yet today China has GDP per capita of US$6,091 and it is the world’s second largest economy. In Uganda, it is still only US$964.

Asia and Africa have urbanised at similar speeds. Africa is undergoing the fastest urban transition the world has experienced to date with projections that nearly 1 billion more people will live in Africa’s cities by 2050. Earlier, China was in the top spot: between 1978 and 2010, over 700 million people moved to China’s cities. The urbanisation rates in south-east Asia have been impressive as well and many of these nations have not even completed their urban transition yet.

There’s a difference too. Across China and south-east Asia, urbanisation has been coupled with industrialisation and, through increases in economic productivity, has been unlocking growth dividends and reducing poverty. The same pattern has not happened in Africa.

Much has been written to analyse how the urban transition happened, particularly in China, and what other parts of the world can copy from it. The “best practices” identified include policies around special economic zones, which have now proliferated across Africa.

Success in replication has been limited, at best. It’s not always remembered that China’s success did not happen overnight. It was not a linear process and not all regions benefited equally.

But something did happen in China and many benefited. As Chinese scholar Yuen Yuen Ang highlighted in her book How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, China’s economic reforms over this period were bold, broad and uneven. What lessons and ideas does that offer for Africa?

Africa: urbanisation without industrialisation

No country has reached middle-income status without undergoing a well-managed process of urban transition. However, although the urban transition in many African countries is even quicker than China’s, it has largely been decoupled from industrialisation. What the African experience is showing is that when urbanisation is not linked to investments in public infrastructure and services, it will amplify the downsides of dense living, such as the proliferation of informal settlements, congestion and contagion, as seen most recently with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Publications about and comparisons of Chinese and African urbanisation have mostly come from the global north. Less comparative work has been done by African urban scholars.

This presents a learning opportunity, through better understanding some of the details of what actually happened. Therefore, as an African urban scholar myself, I did some initial research on this a few years ago, together with co-authors. We published our findings in the working paper Can Africa learn from the Chinese urbanisation story?.

Our conclusion was “yes” – but with caveats.

The first caveat is obvious but needs to be restated. China is a large country. Africa, by contrast, is a diverse continent with 54 countries and even more diversity in its cities.

And learning should not mean directly adopting what China did, which was very context specific. Rather, Africa’s scholars and policymakers now have the benefits of hindsight and should use this to carefully assess what worked and what did not, and why.

Perhaps most importantly, comparative learning can and should go both ways.

Deep dive into China’s urbanisation

I now have an ideal opportunity to build on this research and to learn directly from the Asian region itself, thanks to Hong Kong’s top-talent visa scheme, which allows me to live and work from the region for two years.

Nearly a year into my stay here, and through my expanding networks into the government, academic and private sector circles in Hong Kong, China and beyond, my own understanding of the urbanisation processes here is growing.

It’s an important time to engage especially with China. Through its Belt-and-Road Initiative, China is directly shaping many African cities through investments and policies. It’s visible in expressways, railways, and special economic zones.

There has been some growing concern with the amount and type of Chinese debt that some countries are taking on and under what conditions. So it’s necessary to understand what may be shaping policies and investment decisions from the Chinese perspective.

Over the coming year, I will be reflecting on what I’m learning in a series of articles for The Conversation Africa. These will touch on some of what I conclude are the most important factors from the African urban perspective, based on my research and work on African urbanisation over the past decade. I will also draw on leanings from academics who have studied and written both about urbanisation in China and the south-east Asian region more broadly.

Topics will include financing of public infrastructure, urban planning, special economic zones and smart cities, among others. These reflections will also form the basis of a more formal publication that I plan to write.

I reject the notion of establishing “best practices” and finding “a model” that can be directly replicated. As noted, China’s urban transition, although it happened quickly, did not happen overnight and was, like everywhere else in the world, rooted in deep historical, institutional, economic and cultural contexts.

It is exactly these idiosyncrasies that I want to understand and unpack: the messiness of the policy process, how policies were suited to local context, what challenges China faced and some of the opportunities and challenges we can glean from hindsight following over 40 years of implementation. These will direct “deposits” for what Yuen Yuen Ang, in an essay, calls the Non-Best Practice Bank of Knowledge, with the emphasis on the fact that “solutions can come in multiple forms, even in ways that contradict western best practices”.

This is the first in a series of articles that will look at Africa’s urbanisation and draw lessons from other countries.

Astrid R.N. Haas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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