University of the Western Cape: Good Governance in African cities in focus at opening of the African School on Decentralisation

By 2050 most Africans will live in cities, and more than 80% of that increase will occur within the existing borders of cities and especially in slums. The improvement of the living conditions of African people and the economic and social structural transformation of the African continent is therefore closely linked to the way in which African cities are governed.

Since the late 1980s, following international trends, urban governance in Africa has moved towards greater decentralization. It should be stated from the outset, however, that the transition to nominal local control of Africa’s cities has proven to be a largely symbolic exercise making urbanisation and city growth fundamentally flawed in many cities across the African continent.

Despite this, urban centres continue to be engines of growth and development. The good governance of cities is, therefore, viewed as one of the most important means towards the eradication of poverty and the maintenance of prosperous cities. Good urban governance promotes the rights of all people by ensuring that all urban residents reap the benefits of urbanization. It, moreover, constitutes a key pillar of the New Urban Agenda (Habitat III) which recognizes the links between good urbanisation and development i.e. linkages between good urbanisation and job creation, livelihood opportunities, and improved quality of life, which should be included in every urban renewal policy and strategy. The Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 11 which purposes to “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” takes this even further.

Successful cities respond to the needs of the people living in them. Agenda 2063: “The Africa We Want” notes that weak institutions and poor governance mechanisms increase the risk of low performance, wasted resources, inefficient sectoral interventions, human rights violations, and an overall lack of progress.

As important as these international commitments are- the devil really is in the detail. Only once the African region, African countries, and more importantly, African cities interrogate constitutional and legislative frameworks and corresponding governance structures to understand how the governance systems and structures of cities can be improved in real-time – is there any prospect of good, positive urbanisation for all. This is what the African School on Decentralisation is embarking on in its course for 2022. From 30 May to 10 June 2022, experts from different parts of Africa and elsewhere will come together to share with a select group of government officials, academics, members of civil society as well as city leaders and managers from the Commonwealth Sustainable Cities Network and reflect on the need for well-functioning cities.

What then are the essential building blocks for well-functioning African cities? For cities to function optimally, two key ingredients are required, first is having in place appropriate policies to advance the wellbeing of cities, and, secondly, ensuring the effectiveness and integrity of the city structures and the means of pursuing those policies. To achieve well-governed cities, it then becomes imperative to study and understand:
The context and challenges affecting cities domestically, regionally, and globally;
How cities are structured and empowered to meet governance challenges;
How their financing and financial management capacitates them to deliver on their mandates;
What the major governance issues are, as they relate to environmental sustainability, climate change, gendered and safer cities’; and
How data is used as a planning tool in development?
Research indicates that there is a marked gap between the current state and the performance of many cities in Africa. Literature on the state of African cities often paints a bleak picture calling for urgent and critical reforms of urban governance systems in Africa to enable sustainable and inclusive urban development. As an example, cities have institutional frameworks that prevent urban governments from fully delivering on their responsibilities through inadequate decentralization, insufficient resources, inadequate technical capacity, and weak frameworks for engagement with residents, civil society, and other key stakeholders. Many African countries, also suffer from ill-defined distribution of responsibilities between different levels of governments, leading to the duplication of roles and gaps which can lead to intergovernmental institutional conflicts. The net effect is that citizens suffer from poor public service delivery. These ineffective multilevel governance arrangements also compromise planning processes, risk backlogs in budget spending, lead to higher transaction costs and create wider economic inefficiencies, as well as compromising principles of transparency and accountability.