Published on Sustainable Cities

Bastions of opportunity? Urban centers in Africa

Rue animée d'une ville africaine (Banque mondiale) Rue animée d'une ville africaine (Banque mondiale)

As we head over to the World Urban Forum 10 (WUF10) in Abu Dhabi next week, we reflect on cities and towns as recognized bastions of inclusion. But they can also be sites of exclusion, if they are not managed well. And we ask – what are some of the ways in which urban spaces affect opportunity? 

We recently completed a new report on inclusion in Africa. One of the things that stands out in our analysis is the importance of location. While there is considerable attention to Africa’s urban growth and advances in service delivery, there is also evidence that many areas lag behind.  This is, of course, not unique to Africa; nor is it an extraordinary finding. There are “left behind regions” across the world where people have lower access to markets, services and opportunity. And the fact that place of birth is one of the most important determinants of opportunity for kids, is as true in the USA as it is in African countries.

Just as there is a connection between living in cities and towns and having better access to markets, services and range of tangible and intangible “spaces,” there is also a connection between urban location and social identity.  This was articulated over half a century ago by MN Srinivas in the case of India. So, as we finalized Inclusion Matters in Africa, we asked, “does ethnicity matter for poverty”? We know, of course, that ethnicity is a contentious issue – not just in Africa but in many parts in the world. Yet, we also know that certain ethnic groups are over-represented among the poor and tend to cluster in certain regions and areas.

But, to get back to Africa, does ethnicity matter for poverty? Using the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which have data on ethnicity and wealth (based on a household's ownership of select assets), we analyzed data from nine countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia. Looking at the 10 largest ethnic groups in rural and urban areas in each country, we found that ethnicity does indeed matter for wealth outcomes, but that this is mostly true in rural areas and significantly less so in cities and towns. Here is a snapshot of our results:

  • Certain ethnic groups are over-represented in the poorest wealth quintile in all nine countries we analyzed.
  • Disparities between ethnic groups are larger in rural areas than in urban areas. 
  • Size of the ethnic groups does not seem to matter. This may not come as a surprise, but it’s still interesting to note because there is a common myth that inclusion is  “all about minorities”. Some very large ethnic groups tend to be over-represented among the poor.
  • The greatest dispersion along ethnic lines in the poorest quintile in rural areas appears to occur in Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda, followed by lesser dispersion in Zambia and Mozambique. This could of course be due to type and number of ethnic groups in these countries, among other reasons.

If the results seem complex, it is because they are – there are no simplistic or clear conclusions about social identity and location. 

Read the report to understand the complexity of ethnicity and poverty in rural and urban areas. And follow us and engage as we connect you to the many nuances of urban spaces as they emerge in our conversations at WUF 10.




Maitreyi Bordia Das

Director, Trust Funds and Partner Relations, Development Finance (DFi)

Sabina Anne Espinoza

Social Development Specialist

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