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Bridging the Rural-Urban Development Divide

It is important for development to encompass both urban and rural populations as well as their inter-connections. An understanding of these linkages provides the rationale for measures that can improve rural and urban environments, employment opportunities and living conditions. While it is important to look at urban and rural areas separately, it is equally helpful to examine the linkages that bind them. We are now living in what many are calling the “urban century.”

In Africa, a majority of the population is still rural but that may change by 2030 when it is projected that rural Africa’s population will equal that of  urban Africa. What are the current links between rural and urban Africa with respect to trade, infrastructure, market and non-market institutions? What are the distinct differences between urban and rural dwellers? What should be done to accommodate Africa’s booming population, estimated to reach 2.1 billion in the next 35 years?  Accommodating both the continent’s urban and rural dwellers efficiently and equitably will be challenging but rewarding, if done right.

Spatial rural-urban linkages can be seen in the flow of people, goods, money and information, along with social and economic relations. Sectoral linkages include agriculture and overall rural development, given the assumption that such development will reduce inequality, rural poverty and also benefit urban development. While an analysis of rural-urban linkages as a whole is noteworthy, the differences between urban centers and rural parts of Africa are compelling and demand great attention. Most poverty can be seen in the rural areas, caused by complex and multidimensional factors, including gender, culture, public policies, particularly land allocation. Rural populations rely on agriculture as a source of food and income but development assistance for agriculture is minimal.

Urban dwellers are slightly better off than rural dwellers but the urban poor often remain marginalized and are no better off than rural dwellers. Urban dwellers face several threats, including access to piped water, waste disposal, urban crime, air pollution, and poor nutrition. Economic growth in urban Africa is hampered by poor public services, ineffective management policies, and infrastructure.  A World Bank report once noted that African cities “are part of the cause and a major symptom of the economic and social crisis that have enveloped the continent.” The report added that “Africans need their cities to allow the economy to transform, but they also need to transform their cities.”

Overall, African governments must not neglect the key drivers of development, which are technological innovation, small- and medium-size businesses, and human resource development. As both rural and urban dwellers move from predominantly informal, basic trading and survivalist business practices to high end activities, these key factors will be vitally important.

Governments should realize that urbanization is a powerful engine of growth. It needs sound policies, which include good governance, good infrastructure and transparency.  In rural areas, governments must invest in education, youth training and capacity building. They must also invest in women who bear the brunt of small-scale farming.

Bill Jong-Ebot