Oumar Sylla, Director (a.g) Regional Office for Africa United Nations Human Settlements Programme

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The Director (a.i) of the Regional Office for Africa highlights the importance of intermediate cities in Africa saying that in the years ahead will constitute centers for investments with the development of special economic zones and spot to test new governance models that will reinforce citizen’s participation.

“Secondary and intermediate cities are essential to achieve the SDGs”

AFRIMAG : For the first time, the 9th edition of the Africities Summit is being held in an intermediate-sized city, that of Kisumu, in Kenya with the theme « The contribution of intermediate cities in Africa to the implementation of the 2030 United Nations Agenda and the 2063 African Union Agenda”. In your opinion, how could secondary cities help the African continent achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ?

Oumar sylla : First, it is important to underline the urban dynamism in Africa as one of the most rapidly urbanizing continent in the world. By 2040, Africa will reach a peak of its urban transition with more than half of its population residing in cities. It is estimated that 1.4 Billion of the population will be urban by 2050. This urban demographic trend will also shape our territories with development of new cities and neighborhoods out of the big cities and urban centers. Urban expansion comes along with new settlements and urban centers – that is why we are talking about medium size cities as an emerging phenomenon in the urban context of Africa. Small and medium sized cities are the fastest growing and form the highest concentration of most of the urban population in Africa. As an illustration, only 221 African cities had a population that exceeded 300 000 inhabitants in 2018, while more than 10 000 cities and towns had less than 300 000 inhabitants; but this number is increasing. We can appreciate the economic, social, and environmental importance of secondary and intermediary cities in Africa when they are hosting the majority of the population. They become centers for investments with the development of special economic zones and spot to test new governance models that reinforce citizens’ participation. The tendency of decentralization in many countries in Africa is an attempt to deepen local democracy and to take service delivery closer to the citizens. At the same time though, secondary cities have been affected by climate change induced effects, informality due to lack of proper planning, and now hit by the COVID 19 crisis. Consequently, there is need to reinforce the principles of the SDGs in secondary cities to make sure no one is left behind. Achieving the SDGs in Africa will on one hand depend on how much improvement in the living conditions of those communities has been achieved, and to what extentthe population of those cities and urban centers are involved in the decision-making process; as well as in informing the SDGs indicators. Secondary and intermediary cities are pivotal to achieving the SDGs

AFRIMAG : In Africa, small towns and intermediate cities are currently growing at a faster rate than large cities. If this urbanization is a source of opportunities, it is also and above all a source of real challenges related to housing, lighting, improving the quality of life, etc. How to meet all these challenges ?

Oumar Sylla, Director (a.g) Regional Office for Africa United Nations Human Settlements Programme

Oumar Sylla, Director (a.g) Regional Office for Africa United Nations Human Settlements Programme

Oumar sylla : Indeed intermediary cities are facing lot of challenges including informalities, inadequate capacity of local governments, weak fiscal systems that always rely on central governments for funds transfer, and lack of proper governance systems. We have seen efforts made by central governments in some countries to respond to urban expansion, but a lot still needs to be done to transform urban expansion into opportunities in Africa. We need to anticipate urban expansion with proper physical planning to guide the growth of small and intermediary cities – a plan that will help define the vision which is often missing. “How do we want our city?” is not a question that is always asked. Strengthening the local financial system is a must, and we must unlock the financial potential by putting in place appropriate policies and institutional frameworks. Harnessing own source revenues system can increase service delivery and foster the social contract. All this should be inserted into a long-term vision and based on adequate capacity. The road is long, but we should take advantage of the momentum that urbanization is offering in Africa, to establish the building blocks.


AFRIMAG : Do African secondary cities have the means to propose innovative mechanisms for efficient services by strengthening citizen engagement in the public space ?

Oumar sylla : We can witness progressive devolution policies in Africa that transfer competencies to local level (Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, Mali, Togo….). This is a good way to reinforce local democracy by taking the decision-making process closer to the citizens, including services. However, this only remains an aspiration in many countries where municipalities do not have adequate capacity and financial means to foster citizens’ participation. Sometimes, we face strong politicization that leads to exclusion and competition for control of resources. There is a need to establish accountability and transparency for the basis of good local governance. We shall take advantage of the digital era to enable citizens to access timely information and data, to develop e-governance, and to empower women and youths as critical categories for the local development process. This will require providing good education and mentorship that can lead to innovation.

AFRIMAG : How is UN-Habitat involved in the development of African intermediate cities where more than half of the continent’s urban population live?

Oumar sylla : UN-Habitat is the leading agency on matters of sustainable urbanization and provides support to African countries in transforming challenges of urbanization into opportunities. Its strategic plan (2019-2025) aims at addressing spatial inequalities, enhancing local revenue and building resilience cities and towns with adequate provision of basic services. Through the Regional Office for Africa, UN-Habitat is putting an emphasis on secondary cities, not only to promote a system of cities, but also to find a balance between megacities and small cities. UN-Habitat is supporting the development of integrated National Urban Policies that can help bridge the gap between rural and urban; small and big cities, in order to establish a coherent territorial development that allows smooth movement of goods and services. More than 20 national urban policies development processes are supported in Africa with a strong localization dimension in economic development. With the overwhelming climatic risk, UN-Habitat is supporting the development of urban resilience plans through the Adaptation Fund Mechanisms in secondary cities (i.e. in Madagascar, Comoros, Malawi and Mozambique). It is also important to mention the role of secondary cities in receiving many internally displaced persons or migrants in areas affected by conflicts in Africa (Sahel Region, Horn of Africa, Central Africa). Pressure is always put on the local governments of those entities for access to services and for social cohesion for migrants and internal displaced persons. That is the reason why UN-Habitat has been working in post conflict countries to provide physical planning and tools for land management, including land conflict mitigation; and to build capacity on municipal finances for local governments affected by protracted crisis.  Looking forward, Africities 9 is offering a good opportunity to strengthen collaboration with local governments, and to provide the needed technical expertise to transform our secondary cities in Africa to be livable, peaceful, resilient and prosperous. This will not be possible without strong partnership. And UN-Habitat would like to praise the partnership with UCLGA, African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa for advancing the urban agenda in Africa.

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