Urban growth’s natural increase

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Africa’s urban population growth rate was the world’s fastest at 4% between 1960 and 2010, and it is clear that urbanisation across its 54 countries will continue to pose policy challenge in the years ahead. But unlike in many other regions of the world, people quitting the countryside to settle in cities will not be the main driver of that growth.

For years, rural-urban migration fuelled the expansion of African cities, but while it will continue to be important, it will be outstripped by natural population increase within urban areas, as the ratio of birth rates to death rates widens. True, Africa’s rural population will also continue to grow by over 350 million in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, a trend unseen elsewhere in the world. However, at the same time, the pace of rural-urban migration is slowing, and though it accounted for at least half of all urban growth in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, it accounts for less than a third today.

According to the African Economic Outlook 2016, migration is set to play a lesser role in future urbanisation for several reasons. One is that urbanisation itself will be an opportunity for existing rural populations to stay connected to the land, thanks to higher demand for their produce and an upgrading of agricultural supply chains that should make it more attractive to remain connected with the land. Another is that migration patterns themselves are changing as a gradual improvement in infrastructure, including the adoption of mobile phones, is leading to a growing tendency towards more temporary migratory flows.

A third factor is as important: the traditional rural and urban dividing lines have become increasingly blurred, with almost three-quarters of Africa’s population living in rural-urban interfaces of fewer than 500,000 inhabitants.  Africa’s urbanisation has thus reflected a mushrooming of “urban villages”, spurring growth along a chain of small towns. It is a model not unknown in the development of Europe, particularly Germany, where small and medium cities have been the norm.

As African cities grow, pressures to tackle the likes of mass transit, housing and poverty will be a considerable challenge. But rather than focusing only on cities, understanding the drivers of migration could inspire a broader set of policies that incorporate rural-urban dynamics and interactions that favour cities and regions alike. For instance, policies that focus on improving public services could reduce the push to migrate away from rural areas, since surveys show that dissatisfaction with these is a more important reason for moving to cities than looking for work.

©OECD Observer September 2016

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