Challenges linked to urbanization are increasingly making the news. Yet urbanization is not a new phenomenon: in 2008 and for the first time in human history, urban residents outnumbered rural residents. Since then, urban growth rates keep accelerating, especially in developing countries.

However, inasmuch as it is well guided and managed, urbanization can benefit to economic development. Well-managed urbanization starts with adequate provision to all of a decent, salubrious housing – which entails access to improved safe water, sanitation, electricity, etc. On the contrary, poorly controlled urbanization inevitably increases the risks of civil violence and contention within a society.

Difficulties faced by national governments of developing countries tend to be mostly caused by a lack of financial resources. These difficulties are raised all the more acutely as population concentration usually happens before economic growth. Lack of means leads to lack of infrastructure. To this set of constraints can add up some decisive contextual elements such as economic crises. Africa, despite strong economic developments fuelled by its mining resources and exports in the late 20th and early 21st century, is now facing the difficult context – even though only temporary – of an important drop in raw material prices.

Investments scarcity is coupled with major organizational and institutional issues. The city is not always integrated into the State-driven institutional structure, which has historically been built around the concept of territory. In many cases, ensuring the urban functions – i.e. the capacity to organize water, sanitation, electricity, roads, to guarantee decent housing and quality of life – requires a level of decision-making and responsibility that is not that of the States. In a context of strong urban growth, this historical and mutual distrust between central and municipal governments leads to tensions that are detrimental to the cause of essential services accessibility.

In order to provide urban citizens with basic services, the State has to contribute significantly to the financing infrastructure. Second, urban authorities have to manage planning and land-use issues. Finally, users contribute to financing infrastructure by paying taxes, sometimes via surcharges or fees on the different services.

In 2009, Nobel Prize in Economics Elinor Ostrom, American Professor, surprised the experts’ community by advocating for a public management of public facilities by users. She observed that on average, in developing and developed countries – be them federal or centralized – users’ management was by far a more efficient, equitable and suitable management system than any market- or State-driven management system. Although this offers a wide range of opportunities for thinking these questions, both State bodies and local authorities dislike it as the type of organizations that represent service users tend to be agitators and not necessarily manageable politically.

Far from suggesting turnkey solutions for access to essential services in the context of developing countries urbanizing, these observations should allow us to realize how any success in urban growth requires democracy and a dialogue between the three main stakeholders that are the State, the city, and its inhabitants. It also requires to adopt a transdisciplinary approach as none of these issues remains purely technical or financial. Rather, it very much belongs to humanities and social science, from sociologists to anthropologists, lawyers, political scientists to combine their knowledge and help us solve the burning issues arising from mass human concentration levels.

Michel Rocard,

Former Prime Minister, 

Ambassador of France for the Arctic and Antarctic Poles,

(Re)sources, Member

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