According to the UN Population Fund some 72% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population currently lives in slum conditions. Currently seen as an indicator for development, high rates of urbanisation for Africa’s fast-developing nations often pose significant challenges in the near term.

Ghana, a West African country bordered by the Gulf of Guinea and lying between Ivory Coast and Togo, is the world’s fastest growing economy today. However, population growth and high rates of urbanisation leading to housing and infrastructural incapacity threaten this regional success story.

Following an early sunrise, the Ghanaian capital Accra is transformed into a vibrant, noisy and chaotic hub of activity. Leaving the university district Tesano to the east, the mansions with their barbed wire fences disappear and give way to self-constructed barracks made of mud, untreated timber and zinc roofing sheets. Noxious smoke wafts in between the huts as numerous ash hills signal where habitants incinerate litter. Children play amongst rubbish heaps or search for valuable material in the slowly moving sewage water. Crossing the railway bridge over the ‘lagune’ – the open sewer that locals have romantically named the lagoon – one of the higher income areas of Accra – Abelemkpe – comes into sight, with houses surrounded by high security walls, protecting neat gardens with azure swimming pools..

This juxtaposition between rich and poor is part and parcel of the reality that the rapid urbanisation process has brought to the city.

An IMF Fosterling Back from the Brink
When Ghana gained independence from its colonial power – the United Kingdom – in 1957, it was the first Sub-Saharan country to do so, and the future looked promising.

It subsequently played a leading role in pushing forward the process of decolonisation of the African continent. However, corruption and internal military strife proved to be intractable problems, and Ghana went through an extended period of instability in the 1960s and 1970s. Although well endowed with natural resources such as gold, timber, industrial diamonds, bauxite, manganese, rubber, silver, salt and limestone, the ‘African economic crisis’ of the early 80s also took its toll on Ghana. In less then a decade, the country went from producing nearly a third of the world’s cocoa in 1972 to teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Urbanisation, from one perspective, describes the proportion of the population living in cities or towns at a given time across a given area, or, from another, indicates the rate at which the urban population is increasing

It was at this point that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in with a structural-adjustment package to ‘rescue’ the country’s economy. The usually peaceful Ghanaians took to the streets in protest against the drastic measures imposed by the IMF, but since then the country has nonetheless been moving steadily toward political stability and economic prosperity, and seems today to possess one of the most promising futures of any of the West African nations.

It is neither China nor India, but Ghana that has the world’s fastest growing economy today with an annual growth rate of 20.15% 1 . The republic now has to face up to the side effects of economic growth and the impact of globalisation on the national economy.

Approximately 75% of the inhabitants of more developed regions lived in urban areas in 2009, whereas just 45% of those in less developed regions did so 2 . The United Nations statistics suggest that modernisation and economic progress is positively linked to accelerating urbanisation, but a growing economy does not instantly catalyse an improvement in living standards. On the contrary, population boom and movement to large cities generally puts immense strains on health care systems and creates intense housing pressure.

Urbanisation: Indicator or Hindrance for Development?
What is urbanisation? The general understanding of the term urbanisation describes a movement from rural areas to the big cities, or, citing the most commonly used definition given by the demographer Thompson Warren in 1929, urbanisation is the “movement of people from communities concerned chiefly or solely with agriculture to other communities generally larger whose activities are primarily centred in government, trade, manufacture or allied interests”.

The core problem of the African boomtowns is rather the speed of the population growth than the actual number of people, mostly due to the high rate of natural population increase

However, inconsistencies in statistical description of urban development are widespread. Urbanisation, from one perspective describes the proportion of the population living in cities or towns at a given time across a given area, or from another, indicates the rate at which the urban population is increasing. While the demographics of most developed nations are characterised by a high proportion of urban population, developing nations are often burdened by a high urban growth rate that can – at least in the near-term – pose a significant threat to both the social and economic stability of the region.

Population growth is a major catalyst for issues associated with high rates of urbanisation. As in most of the Sub-Saharan nations, the main factor involved in urbanisation in Ghana is not rural-to-urban migration, but rather the high natural population increase.

Ghana Invades Accra
In terms of absolute population, Ghana cannot be considered overpopulated. The UK for example has about the same surface area as Ghana, but nearly threefold the population. Hence, the core problem of the African boomtowns is rather the speed of the population growth (2.3% per annum compared to 0.4% in the UK) than the actual number of people.

At the dawn of Ghanaian independence, the percentage of Ghanaians living in urban areas was less than 20%, compared to more than 50% nowadays. With an estimated population of nearly 4 million, Accra is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in Africa. Again, it is not the absolute number of inhabitants – as is the case in urban agglomerations such as Tokyo and Delhi – that pose challenges, but rather the high rates of inward migration and all the associated consequences. If this process continues at this speed, city infrastructure will not be able to cater for the needs of newcomers. An obvious issue associated with rising population density is housing.

Many dwellers pay yearly rent to the Railway Corporation under contract and thus any forced evictions may fall foul of an international legal prohibition on forced eviction

Joel Dogoe, a resident in Accra who knows the city like the back of his hand, describes the housing situation in the capital as follows: “Accra has grown significantly over the past ten years with people now living at Aburi, Oyibi, Oyarifa and even Dodowa which are all outskirts of Accra. One of the reasons for this massive expansion is the fact that there are now good roads leading to all these places, so it is possible to live in the suburbs while working in central Accra”. Born in the Volta Region close to the Togo border, he has spent most of his life in Accra. His family now lives in a nice two-storey mansion in Cantonment, just a stone’s throw away from the American embassy and many other international institutions. “My grandfather told me that where we live in East Cantonment was all bushy when he bought the land to put up this building and today it is Accra’s most expensive place to live with costs of about 100,000 US$ for a plot of land to about 500,000 US$ to buy a house there outright. This is indeed out of the reach for 99% of the Ghanaians.”

Around the world, the quest for better living conditions, and opportunities for education and jobs, continues to attract people to the big agglomerations and cities. The UN2 highlights the overall dearth of progress among local, national, and international actors in planning for this influx to urban environments: “Given the economic, social and environmental implications of the inevitable explosive growth of urban populations in developing countries,”, “the absence of a coordinated proactive approach is astounding.”

Sodom and Gomorrah
In Ghana, a large number of people who previously worked in the agricultural sector moved to Accra and its surrounding agglomeration in search of a new life over the past couple of decades. This migration, however, led to the construction of informal dwelling areas such as the famous ‘Sodom and Gomorra’, a slum area in the central business district of Accra which held up to 55,000 inhabitants at its peak.

Baptised after two cities mentioned in the Book of Genesis and synonymous with impenitent sin in Christian and Islamic tradition, the Sodom and Gomorrah slum was a result of rural urban migration and war in Northern Ghana. This congested area was not planned for habitation and thus was without basic amenities such as running water, electricity and sanitary facilities.

In Agbogbloshie (Sodom and Gomorrah) people survived largely by burning electronics to extract copper and other metals. Jamila Akweley Okertchiri/
The present government identifies urban slum upgrading as a priority intervention area to improve lives of the urban poor in line with the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals. While some slums are due to receive a ‘facelift’ in the near future, Sodom and Gomorrah was cleared in 2009 for environmental reasons and yet other settlements close to the gutters and waterways are presently being pulled down due to flooding risks.

The Railway Dwellers
The plight of the Railway Dwellers from Alajo, situated between Tesano and Abelemkpe, has recently been publicised around the world. The term slum for their neighbourhood is not quite accurate since there are many solid structures as well as basic infrastructure including water and electricity. Some are smart and sleek shops or well-constructed residential accommodation, while others are simply shacks made out of nothing more than plywood, old roofing sheets and cardboard. A diverse social mix inhabits the area: a highly competitive housing market in the capital has forced many to seek low cost accommodation including job seekers, farmers, students and even managers.

In spring 2011, the Metropolitan, Municipal and District authorities received the presidential order to demolish all unauthorized structures. Already over the past couple of years, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) has tried to clear some of the settlements but met with limited success. The clearing of some areas provoked the mushrooming of new settlements as displaced inhabitants had to relocate.

Will we see an alternative analysis one day, i.e. that low urbanisation will become an indicator for high living standards?

In the case of the Railway Dwellers, demolition would mean total destitution for many. The government is justifying the drastic measures with plans to redevelop the country’s railway system, having signed a US$6 billion contract with a Chinese company.

At a stakeholders’ forum earlier this year organised by Amnesty International in Accra, a spokesperson of the Rail Land Association of Abelemkpe, Tesano, Alajo and Achimota pointed out that “housing is a human right” and said AMA presented the issue as if the settlements were mainly slums and residents are illegally occupying the land. In fact, many dwellers pay yearly rent to the Railway Corporation under contract and thus any forced evictions may fall foul of an international legal prohibition on forced eviction3 .

With the Jan 25th 2012 eviction deadline approaching, it remains to be seen what will become of the Railway Dwellers. They will wake up every morning with the fear of facing the bulldozer for the foreseeable future.

Intangibly Complex Issues?
Confronted with the complex process of urbanisation, policy makers often seem powerless or simply overwhelmed. A broad range of expensive measures are needed to cope with high rates of migration to bigger cities including improved education, contraception campaigns, rural employment and home financing, together with improvements in local governance and infrastructure and coordination between local, national, and international groups. This is a wish list that would gel well with much of the broader development community – but can Ghana deliver?

Prof. Sam Afrane of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology thinks it can: “We cannot wish urbanisation away. (…) We need a policy framework that allows people to find good housing, access to water and to live reasonably well in our cities. It is possible. It has been done in several countries and we as a country must find the answers to good urban development”.

Winds of Change
Today, a high level of urbanisation is often seen as a sign of advanced development. However, what will happen if the economic development can’t keep up with the speed of urbanisation? Will we see an alternative analysis one day, i.e. that low urbanisation will become an indicator for high living standards?

Blessing Mberu, a Nigerian sociologist who studies rural-to-urban migration, is not convinced, arguing, “if there is any hope for development in Africa, urbanization must be part of it.” But, will Ghana become the next economic boomtown?

Many African investors are attracted to the country, as it is known to be relatively peaceful and politically stable. The economic development of the country is remarkable in the historical and geographical context; however, we haven’t seen any global brands from Ghana yet. People in Ghana feel the winds of change, but most remain sceptical. As Joel puts it, “I am not sure we are the next big thing yet.”