The rural vs urban development bias in Africa

African countries need to break the colonial-era development pattern whereby economic growth takes place island-like, centred on urban regions, while the surrounding rural areas stagnate.

Many of Africa’s fast-growing economies are experiencing development patterns whereby the cities grow, but the rural areas stagnate.

Essentially many African countries now have two parallel economies within one country: one, urban, which is increasingly becoming industrialised; and another, the rural, which remains agricultural, moreover, subsistence, based. This causes massive migration from the rural areas to the cities of people searching for opportunities.

Colonial governments left African countries with infrastructure and development in the small urban areas where the former colonisers or settlers lived. Other economic development was limited to tiny urban industrial areas where the small ‘settler’ industrial factories and service industries were located, or close to mining or commercial agriculture centres, or around harbours through which they exported mostly extracted raw materials to the colonial ‘mother’ country.

Colonial governments established urban centres in African countries to “serve the colonial” economy.  New colonial rail-lines therefore often created new urban centres linked to the colonial economy, and bypassed others, often causing their decline.

The geographical distribution of development, resources and infrastructure in many African countries is still based on colonial patterns. In post-independence African countries government spending, infrastructure and incentives to investors often benefit urban areas and groups, rather than rural ones. Off course, the fact that urban areas started at the end of colonialism with higher levels of development and therefore better infrastructure, better skills and more resources, naturally, in self-reinforcing cycle attracts more investors, skills and development.

The post-independence lobsided urban-based growth pattern can be seen from Mozambique to Ghana to Tanzania. In many African countries the rich urban and poor rural divide compound political, ethnic and religious divisions.

It appears that new investments into Africa, from new emerging powers such as China, India and from the Middle East, repeat the colonial urban-biased pattern of investment.

Worse, in many African countries, the countries have essentially two parallel sets of laws, one applying to urban areas, the other to rural areas. The formal rules set out in the country’s constitution apply in many cases to urban areas; and the other customary and religious laws, apply to the rural areas.

The great African demographer Akin Mabogunje argued that a key part of bad post-independence local development policies have African countries focusing on public spending and investment in urban areas, while neglecting rural areas, leading to what he called the “disarticulation of (African) rural economies”.

Those migrating from the rural areas to the cities “are incorporated into the urban informal sector”. However, often those migrating from the rural areas bring what Mabogunje called “rural social relations and modes of production”. The formal is in conflict with the country’s formal constitutional rules, and the latter is subsistence forms of eking out a living.

This leads to a rise in informal settlements, overcrowding, environmental degradation and overburdened public services and infrastructure.

Mabogunje called this the “peasantisation” of African cities, not necessarily “in the sense that most of the people involved are of peasant or rural origins but that they continue to use ‘peasant-type’ strategies to survive albeit within an urban environment”.

African countries must centre new infrastructure, policies and investments to overcome inequalities in the rural areas.  It will be crucial that any new public infrastructure and investments are carefully planned to play a catalytic role in developing rural regions.

They must improve the physical ‘capital’ of rural areas, such as infrastructure – and must roll out special programs to develop the infrastructure of rural areas, especially to link the rural areas with urban markets.

Such infrastructure development must also be linked to broader country industrialisation.

When striking deals with new emerging powers and old industrial country investors, African countries should decide where development should take place, what should be developed and how the development should occur, and then partner such investment with home-grown targeted development initiatives. Unless it takes place this way, new investments from the emerging markets will mimic Africa’s colonial urban-based development patterns.

African countries need to develop labour-intensive agricultural in rural areas.  African governments need to do more to link local rural producers into the supply chains of major urban private – mining, retail and manufacturing – and state-owned companies.

African governments must encourage, provide the training and resources for rural communities to at least farm in such a way to be self-sufficient. Secondly, African governments should help rural communities to farm new products which the country and export markets need.

They should organise rural communities into cooperatives, through which they can collectively produce such products aimed for the local and export markets.

African governments must also set up technical education, whether artisan, vocational and agricultural training institutions in rural areas.

But African countries must make ensure that their countries’ formal democratic rules, institutions and social values are applicable to rural areas also.

A crucial requirement for African rural development is for governments to make sure that in the rural areas there is not a separate oppressive set of traditional rules, institutions and authorities, which not only contradict their formal democratic constitutions, but also holds rural people in bondage.

In most African countries traditional leaders, authorities and institutions in the rural areas are vested with so much power, they control rural land, patronage and the social values, and they wield it in such a way to keep their ‘subjects’ poor. If rural traditional institutions, authorities and leaders have to be retained they must have no formal or informal power, and must follow the democratic rules. They must also be equal in status to their ‘subjects’ – not valued as higher than their ‘subjects’, must be elected and must be impeached if they misbehave.

Giving back individual power to citizens in rural areas is absolutely necessary to unleash the economic potential of Africa’s vast regions.

*This article appeared in print in the African Independent.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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