Feature Article of Friday, 12 October 2012
Columnist: Ernest Opoku-Boateng (Phd)
I hate critiquing an academic report based on a media release, but the assertions purported to have been made by a researcher from the Regional Institute for Population Studies, University of Ghana on the negative effects of urbanization are so outrageous that I have no choice but to react. So what’s the deal?
In a September 28, 2012 GNA report titled “increasing urban population is alarming for Ghana”, one Dr. Delali B. Dovie, Research Fellow at the Regional Institute for Population Studies, University of Ghana is quoted as saying that the over 51 per cent of Ghana’s population now living in urban centres is a phenomenon that has lots of negative implications for the country. He is also quoted as saying that a country should always have majority of its population based in the rural areas so that they could engage in agricultural production to feed the population”.
I do not totally agree with Dr. Dovie’s first assertion, but it is his second statement which is driving me nuts. For not only is this assertion not supported by facts, it is also outdated.
For many academics and policy practitioners, city-bashing is a favourite pastime. Even Biblical writers could not escape this “cities as evil” mentality. Take the case of Nineveh, Sodom and Gomorrah. These were important cities that were described as hotspots of sin and debauchery and therefore ripe for destruction. During the industrial revolution, the squalor, poverty and vermin that city dwellers had to contend with cemented the perception that cities are bad. During this period, it was uncommon to see stacks of smoke-bellowing chimneys clouding the skyline of cities. Child labour, polluted waterways and disease-infested streets were also a common sight as vividly described by Charles Dickens in his books such as Oliver Twist and most of Hard Times. Even in contemporary times, cities especially those in our part of the world, have been associated with negative images such as traffic congestion, slums, poor air quality and environmental degradation. Seeing children selling goods by the wayside or kayeyi carrying heavy loads on their head is not a pretty sight. But can we blame these images on the “inherent badness” of cities or on poor management and systemic inadequacies?
Shaking off the “Dickensian” perspective of the industrial city has not been easy. However, over the last few decades, increasingly better understanding of the role of cities in economic development has led to the conclusion that urbanization is good and not bad for national development. The idea that cities are bad and villages are good has also been proven to be a false dichotomy as evidence shows that villages and cities can be interdependent and symbiotic. In Ghana, as in other parts of the world, the rapid expansion of built up urban settlements is making the continued distinction between cities and villages redundant. In Accra for instance, people living in Kasoa, Bortianor, Ofankor and Amasaman can no longer be called rural dwellers. They are part and parcel of Accra’s economy and landscape. They commute to work or bring their products and services to Accra daily. They in turn buy goods, including manufactured products and take them to their places of residence, creating forward and backward linkages that keep the economy going. For such people, the so-called urban- rural divide is a psychological rather than a physical reality.
Not all Ghanaian opinion makers see urbanization as bad, and that is a good thing. In an October 2, 2012 piece called “Urban settlement remains critical to Ghana's development for instance, Mr. Ofosu-Ampofo, Ghana’s own Minister of Local Government and Rural Development seems to acknowledge this fact saying that urban settlements remain critical to setting Ghana on a more inclusive, productive, creative and sustainable course. He goes on to say that “a prosperous urban settlement contributes to the economic growth through productivity, infrastructural development, ensures gender equality and protects the rights of minority and vulnerable groups, provides social services and preserves natural assets”.
So are cities good as Mr. Ofosu-Ampofo says or they are as bad as Dr. Dovie and his colleagues assert? My biased response is that cities are important for national development. They are the engines of economic growth, offer opportunities for specialization and exchange and account for more than 50% of national GDP. In many countries, cities contribute more than 60% of total tax revenue. As centres of power and opportunity, they offer a platform for the cross fertilization of ideas and the nurturing of human artistic talent and the tenets of good governance. It is not by chance that the world’s best universities, schools and centres of innovation are all urban-based. The agglomeration effect of urban living is enormous. It increases productivity. It reduces the per capita cost of infrastructure provision and improves efficiency of resource use. Research indicates that the cost of delivering basic services is 30 to 40 percent cheaper in concentrated population centers than in sparsely populated areas. In a recent study of the importance of urbanization to India’s economy, the McKinsey Global Institute indicated that cities could generate 70 percent of net new jobs created to 2030, produce around 70 percent of Indian GDP, and drive a near fourfold increase in per capita incomes across the nation. Over the next 20 years, urban India will create over 70% of all new jobs in India and these urban jobs will be twice as productive as equivalent jobs in the rural sector.
In Ghana, urbanization offers the opportunity to unlock many new growth markets in areas such as infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, education, and recreation. In a recent study, the African Development Bank stated that a majority of Africa’s middle class, the driving force behind the continent’s emerging economic status are urban. Not only are they living in cities, they are in fact engaged in non-rural activities like farming. Urbanization therefore offers an opportunity to leverage the strong purchasing power of the burgeoning middle class to create employment avenues, mobilize additional revenue for investment and alleviate poverty. Thus, if Ghana wants to develop, it should push for more urbanization and not less.
Is rural living better than urban living?
In the past, high crime rates, underemployment, poor housing and environmental quality made urban living a more dangerous proposition. But recent events indicate that rural dwelling may not be a much safer or healthier choice either. For instance, air pollution, a hitherto urban problem has become a rural issue as well. Whereas urban people are dealing with air quality issues relating to vehicle emissions, rural people deal with indoor and outdoor pollution resulting from fuelwood use and forest burning on a daily basis. On the educational front, the gap between rural and urban students has yet to narrow. While rural dwellers are scoring zero passes in BECE exams, urban dwellers are scoring nine ones. As infant and maternal mortality rates shows no sign of decreasing in rural areas, in urban centres rates have stabilized. Increasing rates of armed robbery and flooding in rural areas have also put into question the “rural advantage” or “rural idyll” that researchers like Dr. Dovie recount with nostalgia. Recently, a minister is said to have called somebody “kokooase kurasini”. If rural living is such a good idea, why do people, including those in authority see rural people as uncultured? Why are teachers, nurses, doctors and lawyers not prepared to stay in rural areas?
Now on the issue of Ghana needing a majority of its people to be in farming to feed itself, I think this is balderdash. Currently almost half of Ghanaians are engaged in farming. Yet we can’t feed ourselves. For a long time, more than 60% of Ghanaians lived in rural areas and yet we had to import food. With our current agricultural practices and our preference for foreign food, even if all of us went to live in rural areas and took to farming, we will never be able to feed ourselves. With our heightened taste for US long grain rice, Thai perfumed rice, who says that even if we produced everything we needed we will eat them? That you don’t need a majority of your people to be farmers to feed yourself is a fact that one can easily verify by looking at the experiences of some developed and even emerging economies. Take Britain for instance. It has less than 1% of its population in agriculture, yet it is not starving. The US, Canada, Japan and S. Korea have fewer people in farming and yet can produce and donate their surplus. Meanwhile, countries like Ethiopia, Mali and Niger have a majority of their population in farming but are starving. In remarks to investors in New York on Friday, September 28, 2012 President Mahama stated that the good news that the services sector had overtaken the agricultural sector as the main drive of GDP. The services sector is not rural-based but rather urban based. Therefore, if an urban-based activity is the key driver of recent economy growth, how can we say urbanization is a bad thing for the country?
While touting the benefits of urbanization, I am not oblivious to the challenges associated with it urban development, especially if infrastructure development and land use planning regimes are not commensurate with the pace of growth. Without adequate planning and investment in basic infrastructure rapid urbanization can increase pressure on scarce natural resources and lead to air and water pollution, traffic congestion, poor housing, and overcrowding. For instance, the McKinsey Global Institute research that I earlier referred to, projects that India needs to invest $1.2 trillion just in capital expenditure in its cities over the next 20 years, equivalent to $134 per capita per year, almost eight times the level of spending today if it intends to reap all the benefits of urbanization. It may also have to change the ways its cities are planned, managed and financed. Ghana may have to undertake similar reforms and investments but given the returns on such an investment, I think it will be worth doing.