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Urbanization: Africa’s Double-Edged Sword in the 21st Century

Whether it be for better or for worse, the remainder of the 21st century offers much promise to humanity. The disruption of norms will be one of the central themes characterizing the next eight decades.

Whether it be for better or for worse, the remainder of the 21st century offers much promise to humanity. The disruption of norms will be one of the central themes characterizing the next eight decades.

New technology, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), is slated to reshape civilization to incomprehensible degrees. So will climate change in ways predicated as well as unforeseen. There is no place on Earth which better captures this reality than the continent of Africa. The location where humanity can trace its earliest origins, Africa and its fast-growing economies and population is a place already being transformed by the rapid pace of technology and the disruptive effects of climate change.

Its long history with colonization leaves it a place pulled between both legacy and potential. Even among the many autocracies and decrepit dictators lining the geopolitical landscape of Africa, there exists an invigorated and increasingly well-educated youth embodying ambition, hope, and change within a dramatically evolving continent.

It is in these contradictory forces that the unknown persists. Though it is unclear what much of Africa and its diverse landscape and societies will look like in the decades ahead, a brief dive into demographic trend lines illustrate raw potential and an assurance that significant change is indeed underway. One specific point to observe this from is the rise of a young, urban population. It is in these two developments that great challenges and potential arise.

Africa will be the focal point of global population growth in the 21st century. By 2050 the world’s population is estimated to reach 9.8 billion people. By then, the World Economic Forum predicts that 2 out of every 5 people on Earth will be born in Africa. Demographic decline in Europe and North America means that by 2100, 8 out of 10 people will either live in Africa or Asia. Africa will then be home to well over one-third of the entire World’s population.

Along with population growth lies fast-paced urbanization across Africa. Rural-urban migration indicates that by 2050 upwards of 1.3 billion people within Africa will likely reside in an urban setting. Bandar Hajjar, President of the Islamic Development Bank, recently noted in a World Economic Forum publication that “enormous stress is going to be placed on the physical, political, economic and societal infrastructure” across African countries experiencing explosive population growth and urbanization. With the diminishing prospects of rural life, African youth will likely continue to seek out better opportunities in urban areas.

Even among the many autocracies and decrepit dictators lining the geopolitical landscape of Africa, there exists an invigorated and increasingly well-educated youth embodying ambition, hope, and change within a dramatically evolving continent.

One particularly acute threat run-away urbanization poses across Africa is the impact these developments could have on youth. As of today, 10 to 12 million African youth enter the workforce annually, while only 3.1 million jobs are created. One-third of Africans between the age of 15-35 are currently unemployed. Graça Machel, a prominent humanitarian and wife of the late South African President Nelson Mandela, stated that “even though our youth have the potential to transform Africa, if neglected, they could exacerbate poverty and inequality while threatening peace, security and prosperity.”

Lagging job growth and a population only getting younger makes for a formidable challenge to governments across Africa whose resources are often already stretched thin. Economic disenfranchisement among youth in urban settings could translate into instability. The flourishment of organized crime, extremism, and the mass-exodus of people to places such as the Middle East and Europe in search of economic opportunity are possible consequences of this dystopian scenario.  

Nirav Patel, former research analyst in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution, notes that “while there was a consistent pattern of growth in GDP per capita for East Asian countries as their share of urban population grew between 1990 and 2016, the sub-Saharan African story is a mixed bag.” Countries such as Nigeria and Ghana have witnessed their GDP’s grow along with expanding urbanization, while “Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and Guinea-Bissau have experienced a decline in GDP while also experiencing increases in urban population.” The authors of the research Mr. Patel cites from the World Bank “attribute this phenomenon in part to most sub-Saharan African countries failing to reallocate economic activity from the agricultural sector toward the more productive industrial and service sectors, resulting in urbanization without growth.”

Policymakers and analysts consistently assert that African governments must invest more in urban planning, construct sound infrastructure, and rewire their economies to harness the productivity of a young, urban population. These are all correct prescriptions, but they often fail to bring the root of the challenge into context: the daunting demands and strains rapid urbanization poses on African governments simply outweighs what most can handle in the current state of affairs, both domestically, regionally, and internationally. In 2018, The African Development Bank (ADB) estimated that the continent’s infrastructure gap stands at around $170 billion a year.   

This lack of regional capacity along with the dystopian implications of a faltered urbanization process make this a global challenge necessary to confront today. However, against the backdrop of this looming challenge lies an international environment lacking cooperation and regional governments plagued by systemic corruption hampering development. Pinning down the fundamental political changes at the international and regional levels necessary to drive positive action is more abstract than the tangibility of policy creation, coordination, and implementation. Corruption and international omission must give way to multi-faceted collaboration and a more robust, strategic global finance initiative that combats corruption, promotes innovation, and remedies debt burdens. These types of changes are, quite frankly, the foundation for forging an effective transition to a more productive urban economy.

By Zachary Durkee

Zachary is a rising senior studying Political Science with an emphasis on International Relations. He's interested in US-China relations and also writes articles for UCLA's international affairs blog, the Generation.

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