Home>Archives>China-Africa Forum on Local Government Cooperation: What Agenda for The Future?

China-Africa Forum on Local Government Cooperation: What Agenda for The Future?


Beijing, 27 August 2012

Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi
Secretary General, UCLG Africa

China and Africa has developed very important and diversified trends of cooperation in recent years. These are defined and adjusted during the bi-annual meetings of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a high level dialogue platform of heads of state and governments of the two sides. So why is it felt necessary to set up a Forum on China-Africa local government cooperation besides the FOCAC? What aspects can one see as the niche and added value of this new forum? What would be its specific roadmap? These are some of the questions this introductory statement wishes to address.

I was requested to deliver a keynote speech to  this Forum in my capacity as the secretary general of the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG, Africa) which gathers all national associations of local governments of Africa and 2 000 main cities with a population above 100 000 inhabitants. Through its membership, UCLG Africa represents around 350 millions African people. Our organization has its headquarters in Rabat, Morocco, and has five regional offices in Cairo, Egypt, for North Africa; Abuja, Nigeria, for West Africa; Yaoundé, Cameroon, for Central Africa; Arusha, Tanzania, for East Africa; and Harare, Zimbabwe, for Southern Africa.

Why a Forum on China-Africa local government cooperation?

Local governments are the level of governments closest to the citizen. In the course of its institutional development, any national government has an advantage in having a closer link to the citizen so that they can be better associated to the management of their own business. Local governments have been set up to primarily serve this purpose. But they are also developing as an autonomous level of governments thanks to the dynamic of urbanization. The rise of cities in the demographic and economic scenes is the most important change affecting people’s life worldwide, including in both China and Africa.

According to a study recently published by McKinsey Global Institute, China urbanization is happening at 100 times the scale of the world first country ever to urbanize in modern history (which is Britain) and 10 times the speed. Over the past decade China’s share of people living in large cities increased from 36 per cent to nearly 50 per cent.  If the current trend continues, the China’s urban population will expand from approximatively 570 million in 2005 to 1 billion in 2030.

Africa follows more or less the same pace. According to UN Habitat figures (cf. 2010 State of African Cities Report), Africa is home to a huge growth of her urban population which rose from 205 million in 1990 to 412 million in 2010. It is estimated that the continent will have an urban population of 753 million by 2030, which means that it will have to accommodate an additional population of 341 millions city dwellers between now and 2030, more than the today’s total population of the USA.  By 2030 China will have 221 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants, and Africa 68 (compared to 22 in 1990). So China and Africa are witnessing the same momentum in urban dynamic, even if the pattern can be quite different at that horizon, with the number of cities with more than 5 million people amounting 25 in China, compared to 10 in Africa.  But China and Africa also share a common trend towards dispersed urbanization pattern with a great number of city dwellers living midsize and small cities. Anyway this common and shared urban momentum is leading to a situation whereby, in demographic terms, the future of cities in tomorrow’s world will be mainly written in China and Africa. Therefore a Forum on China-Africa local government cooperation makes a lot of sense, since the bulk of the urban world population in the coming years will be located in these two areas. One can even easily argue that debates held in such a Forum and the orientations chosen by China and Africa local leaders in their cooperation will ultimately have great impact on the way the world will be living its urban future.   

But another reason why a Forum on China-Africa local government cooperation is useful stems from the role of cities in the growth of nations and of the world economy. According to the World Development Report published by the World Bank in 2009, there is a strong correlation between urbanization and economic growth. Whenever the level of urban population reaches 30 per cent of the total population of any given country of the world, the share of GDP produced in cities amounts at least 50 percent. According to a study published in June 2012 by the McKinsey Global Institute, in 2010, China Metropolitan Regions were home to 78 per cent of the country’s GDP. It is forecast that 90% of China GDP will be generated by cities by 2030. Of course the contribution of cities in Africa is less than in China because the level of economic growth is also less, but for sure, African cities will also become the lead contributors to the wealth of the continent by   2030. The McKinsey study also signals that the top 600 cities will generate 65 per cent of the world economic growth by 2030. Today these 600 cities are home to 20 per cent of the world population but generate more than half of the global GDP. Among the top 600 cities, a group of 440 cities from emerging markets will account close to half of expected global GDP growth from 2010 to 2030. China alone has 242 cities in that group, followed by Latin America, 57; South Asia including India, 36; Africa and the Middle East, 39. Globally this means that we are witnessing an economic shift of the contribution of cities in the world economic growth from developed to emerging markets, with the predominance of China. This means also that the growth and competitiveness of the national economies of China and Africa are more and more related to the way cities and local governments are resourced, equipped and managed. In fact managing urbanization is by in large primarily a local issue. This is true in China as well as in Africa. Most of the time the efficacy in the management of urbanization depends on the entrepreneurial nature of local leaders and their capacity to identify growth potentials and investments opportunities. But the efficacy of local policies depends also on the quality and robustness of national policy frameworks defining the scope and margins of local initiatives in such areas as land policy, strategic infrastructures location and building, investments attraction and approval authority, etc. If these national policies are considered powerful in China, it is not always the case in Africa; and here there is space for institutional cooperation for city enabling environment between China and Africa.  UCLG Africa endeavored to put in place a CEE Ratings aiming at waving a warning and call on national governments for them to assess the way cities and local authorities and administrations are given room for maneuver  and autonomy of decisions to address the urban challenge in the African context. The first report on CEE Ratings will be launched at the coming Africities Summit scheduled in Dakar, Senegal, from 4 to 8 December 2012. We wish that this report gives birth to an interesting debate on the role of cities in the management of urbanization, and that the Chinese experience will inspire some positive thoughts in that regard.

Furthermore, the development of both China and Africa and their cooperation perspectives will translate into a trend of exchanges of good, services and people that will only grow as time goes on. This trend will in turn put at the fore the human dimension of the China-Africa cooperation. Obviously trade and business imply human relations and if the relations are continuous and strong, they favor mutual migrations in the respective cities of China and Africa. Despite the fact that local authorities are not responsible for foreign affairs, it appears clearly that the day to day relations between Chinese and African people at local level is critical for sound and peaceful relations between China and Africa. This is a dimension which should gain better attention since one should not underestimate the role of cities and local governments in humanizing the rather  cold international relations. For this reason as well, the Forum on China-Africa local government cooperation has its full justification.

This being said, what could be the specific agenda for this Forum?

Towards a tentative agenda for the Forum

Because China and Africa are so important in the demographic and economic dynamic of the world urban future, their local leaders have the responsibility to contribute to the agenda setting of international cooperation involving cities and local governments. The Forum on China-Africa local government cooperation could therefore be used as a platform for exchanging views on the priorities to put forward in various international local governments arenas in order to get the concerns of China and Africa local governments duly taken on board.  But for this Forum to have a meaningful impact it should address the following threemain challenges facing Chinese and African cities and local governments: the challenge of integration and inclusion; the challenge of sustainability and resilience; and the challenge of economic growth, job creation and competitiveness.1. The challenge of integration and inclusion

Despite a slowdown in the growth rate of cities in both China and Africa in the recent period, migrations from rural to urban areas and from poor regions to wealthier ones still characterize the urbanization dynamic. Managing migrations flows is becoming an integral part of local authorities mandate, and this will be more so not only for internal migrations within the country, but also for international and cross border migrations, which is new. Also as stated before, the development of cooperation between China and Africa will probably result in improved mobility of people between the two areas. Some of the migrants will become residents and the quality of their welcoming and integration locally will on the long run determine the quality and long lasting overall cooperation relations between China and Africa. In order to regulate how the respective migrants should be hosted at the local level in both Chinese and African cities it is recommendable to define a Code of Conduct that sets out the way to welcome and host respective citizen from both sides and their rights and responsibilities of the migrants. The discussion and adoption of such Code of Conduct should be one of the items on the Forum’s agenda, with the view, once it is adopted, to submit it to the FOCAC for consideration and inclusion among the instruments organizing China-Africa cooperation relations.Furthermore Chinese and African cities are both exposed to the threat of spatial and social divide and exclusion, with part of the city dwellers enduring poor urban conditions in informal settlements and slum areas. This threat is persistent in Africa where urban poverty is in the rise despite a decade long of economic growth. In China the issue of exclusion seems to have been better handled since the country succeeded to get more than 300 million people out of poverty over a period of 10 years (from 2000 to 2010), and to reduce poorly serviced urban neighborhoods. How did China managed to get such results in poverty alleviation and in addressing city integration and inclusion in a proactive manner? What has been the role of local governments in this success? What lessons can be learnt from the Chinese experience? Documenting the local governments’ contribution to inclusive urban policies in China and Africa followed by a series of related workshops for exchange of experiences on this topic should also be included in the work plan of the Forum.2. The challenge of sustainability and resilience.

One of the daunting emerging issues at global level is whether cities and the economies they are the engine of, will be sustainable and resilient or not.  Given the share of China and Africa in the world urban population, one can say that the global battle for cities sustainability and resilience will be won or lost in Chinese and African cities. First of all these cities should resist the temptation to copy the unsustainable consumption pace of natural resources witnessed in cities of the developed world. This will not be easy since most of the technologies available in response to the needs and demands of cities are largely inspired by the approaches and solutions implemented in cities of the developed world. Although it is becoming obvious that the ecological footprint of cities of the developed world is not sustainable, the upper and middle classes of cities in the developing countries aspire to have the same unsustainable way of life than their counterparts in the developed world. In such context, for the local leaders, implementing more energy and carbon efficient urban models will not be easy, unless these leaders can form a global coalition in favor of sustainable and resilient cities. Chinese and African local governments might take the initiative to set up such a coalition, with a focus on secondary cities, and the objective to curve the unsustainable trend which is developing in a worrisome way throughout the world, including in China and Africa. The work of this coalition should be to gather expertise and intelligence that can help frame appropriate methodologies to urban planning and management in the context of rapidly growing cities, highlighting innovative approaches to land use aiming at increasing the city density and limit to the urban sprawl; to local housing policy which recognizes the diversity of the demands and responses, including for the poor;  to more efficient local mobility and transport management systems with a focus on non-motorized means of transport and the development public transport; to disasters and risks management with more attention to early warning and prevention, to cite but a few. Many weather-related risks are being exacerbated with climate change, hence the need to prepare cities to face those hazards. The idea of establishing post disaster China-Africa local government first help brigades could be one of the tangible outcomes of the Forum which would have visible direct impact on the ground. The formation of such brigades could benefit from the support of national governments and the sponsorship of the business sector in China and Africa. The secretariat of the Forum could be tasked to prepare a feasibility pilot project in order to implement this proposal if it has the buy-in of the Forum.A special mention should be made here to the pressing needs of cities in Africa which development is strongly linked to mining activities and which should be assisted by their counterparts in China and by the mining companies in their efforts to master tools and skills that will allow them to acquire the needed knowledge in order to manage their natural resources in a sustainable manner and start preparing the reconversion of the economic base of their city after the mining activities are over. It is strongly recommended that the Forum define a program involving African mining cities where Chinese mining companies are active, and devote one of its sessions to this very critical issue. The Forum could also take the lead in organizing the China-Africa mining cities network in order to initiate peer learning and mentoring processes among them at both political and professional levels.

3. The challenge of economic growth, job creation and competitiveness

If there is an area where there seems to be a huge difference between Chinese and Africa cities, it is in the field of economic growth, job creation and competitiveness. China is rated the world champion in that regard, Africa, the looser.  Despite the increase in trade and investments flows in particular from China to Africa, the situation of the economic growth of the African cities and their capacity to create jobs and improve competitiveness remains a big challenge. China is investing massively in Africa, but this investment is concentrated in the field of oil and gaz, commodities, mines and big infrastructures and equipments. In fact 70% of the Chinese investments in Sub Saharan Africa are concentrated in four countries: Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Sudan. The attention to cities and their huge demands in roads, basic services, housing, public equipment… have not yet hit the radar of the China-Africa cooperation as it should. These demands of cities represent a huge business opportunity, taking into account that by 2030 there will be almost 300 million city dwellers in Africa that will be part of the world consuming class with per capita revenues of around $ 3 600 or 10 dollars a day.  It would be therefore interesting to focus attention of China-Africa cooperation also on African cities and to adjust the cooperation instruments accordingly. The empowerment paradigm should underline any approach to investment in African cities in that investments should not be implemented in the ignorance and at the expense of existing social capital, in particular in informal settlements and poor neighborhood. Instead they should be implemented using this social capital so as to ensure their full ownership by the citizen. But obviously there is a case of scaling up the level and quality of infrastructure and equipment in African cities, otherwise there is no way these cities can fully contribute to the economic growth.
Another issue that is causing headaches to most of local and national leaders is the problem of youth unemployment. In principle Africa is experiencing what experts call the “demographic dividend” with a large number of young people entering the labor market and provoking a rise in investment levels, productivity and competitiveness. This is the virtuous circle Chinese cities have experienced. Unfortunately this is not happening in Africa because the youth labor force is not skilled enough to take advantage of the opportunities that are there, and there is a risk that these unemployed young people are enrolled in criminal activities or serve the political elite in the propaganda activities during elections, that might result in social crisis when promises made to them are not fulfilled.  Given the importance of a peaceful environment for any development endeavor, it is critical that African cities find credible solutions to youth unemployment before it is too late. Three avenues can be explored to this end as suggested by Edgar Pitersee from the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa: (1) create labor-intensive jobs to install, maintain and revitalize urban infrastructure and public facilities; (2) develop social jobs for home-based care needs; (3) create environmental services jobs including cleansing the city, collecting and recycling garbage, replenishing degraded city’s ecosystems, etc. it is highly desirable that the Forum on China-Africa local government cooperation pays attention to this very vital issue for African cities, but also to a certain extent for Chinese cities. Here also dedicated programs can be developed in the framework of China-Africa city to city cooperation that would include not only the three aforementioned areas for youth employment, but also other elements aiming at boosting local economic development using local entrepreneurs from both sides with the cities playing a brokerage role.

At the end any sustainable management of African cities will be linked to the capacities of these cities to generate wealth and mobilize resources through taxation or user fees for local services. The Forum should also be a platform to exchange experiences on resources mobilization and local governance.

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