Published on Jobs and Development

Urbanization, climate change and jobs in Africa

This page in:
Anton Cartwright, guest blogger, is a Researcher at the African Centre for Cities and a Senior Associate of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership
Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank

Concern about climate change is often deemed a luxury; the domain of those that do not have to worry about famine, surviving the pending winter, local conflict, or political instability. The respective positions – between industrialists and nationalists on the one side, and multilateralists and environmentalists on the other - seem ideological.
Amidst the proselytizing, the lived-reality of the people that are central to both narratives has been lost. The industrialist-nationalists claim to be protecting jobs on behalf of Africa’s poor, while the environmentalist-multilateralists are protecting Africa’s poor from the ravages of a warming climate. Ironically, neither camp has been particularly good at understanding the needs of the people it claims to represent.
There can be no single prescription (climate or developmental) for Africa, a continent that spans 70 degrees of latitude, contains 54 countries, and features 1,500 languages. One of the more reliable continental trends, however, involves urbanization – fastest in East and West Africa, but common to the North and the South. In the next three decades, an anticipated 900 million people will be added to Africa’s cities: a tripling of the current urban population. Given the local governance deficits and the socio-economic reality of the urbanizing population, the inevitable result, as many have observed, is informal human settlements on the outskirts of major cities, where land is unoccupied and work is precarious.
The small affluent-class aside, the clarion call of Africa’s newly urban population is not around climate change or industrialization, but jobs and access to work. The economic growth that has taken place in Africa has not created the type of work that unemployed people can do, and as a result has not contributed to broad developmental gains. More specifically, commodity-driven economic growth on the continent has not generated work that:
  • Is accessible to informal housing residents without them spending inordinate amounts of time or wages on travel;
  • Is accessible to people without professional skills, given that only 70 per cent of Africa’s urban population has a high school education and a much smaller proportion has professional or tertiary experience;
  • Can withstand the quixotic market shifts that characterize the classic commodity and textile industry sectors, and over which workers have no control;
  • Contributes to the type of place-making that addresses the sense of social dislocation that many economic migrants living in informal settlements experience.
Redressing urban labour market failure is not easy. However, in the service delivery vacuum left by formal government and inadequate budgets, examples are emerging that need to inform policy. Off-grid electrification, urban waste-picking co-operatives, and community based sanitation and biodigestion projects that harvest methane gas for resale to households, provide local solutions to Africa’s critical urban problems; using simple technology and local labour, and without onerous central planning or bulk infrastructure.
Similar efforts include the public policing of public spaces, the restoration of riparian zones for flood buffering, and coastal dune rehabilitation to prevent storm surge damage. That many of these activities fit neatly into a low-carbon green economy, is incidental. They are not substitutes for a functional built environment, base-load electricity, or public transport, but they do generate virtuous cycles of services, place-based work, and risk reduction. Given available capacity and budgets, they represent the most tenable means of generating services and economic inclusion.
Building on this potential requires re-imagining urban development models and a radical innovation of the way national government finances are allocated. This is risky. It will almost certainly confront the political and economic interests residing in state-owned energy, mega-infrastructure projects, and the bias towards central planning regimes. But it is precisely this bias that underpins failed urban development models in Africa, and which is stalling the provision of services and contributing to jobless growth. Cities such as Johannesburg have begun to legitimize this potential in municipal programmes such as Jozi@Work.
Legitimizing and scaling existing labour absorbing initiatives will require new skills. But, where successful, it offers the chance to transcend the unhelpful stand-off between industrialists and environmentalists. The important policy lesson involves recognizing the lived-reality and associated needs of people, as central to the design of interventions.


Anton Cartwright

Anton Cartwright is a Researcher at the African Centre for Cities and a Senior Associate of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000