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Assessing Quality of Life in African Cities

A study by The Economist Intelligence on the most liveable cities in the world (PDF of the complete report), suggests that six out of the ten least liveable cities in the world are situated in Africa.

However, another ranking by the New Economics Foundation shows that, based on the HPI (Happy Planet Index), residents in certain African countries are happier than those in several European nations [fr]. So where are we exactly, when it comes to urban quality of life in Africa?

Urban versus rural life 

As Sabine Cessou points out, the Happy Planet Index is fundamentally subjective and seems to favour African countries in terms of respect for the environment. She states [fr]:

Le cas de Madagascar illustre bien la particularité des mesures de HPI. Ce pays, plongé depuis 2009 dans une profonde crise politique et sociale, glisse chaque jour un peu plus dans le gouffre de la pauvreté. Ce fléau touche 76% de sa population, contre 68% en 2010, selon le rapport Perspectives économiques de l’Afrique de l’OCDE [..] Mais le respect de l’environnement et le relatif optimisme de ses habitants jouent en faveur de la Grande île. Avec une empreinte carbone de seulement 1,2, Madagascar se classe avantageusement, dans le palmarès HPI, entre la France et l’Autriche.

The case of Madagascar is a good illustration of the peculiarity of the measurements used in the HPI. This country, which was plunged into a profound political and social crisis in 2009, slides a little deeper into the grips of poverty every day. This scourge affects 76% of the country's population, compared with 68% in 2010, according to the OECD report on economic perspectives on Africa […] But respect for the environment and the relative optimism of its inhabitants works in favour of the island. With a carbon footprint of just 1.2, Madagascar achieves a favourable position on the HPI, ranked between France and Austria.

However, an overall carbon footprint of just 1.2 for the nation stands in stark contrast to that of the Madagascan capital, Antananarivo, often ranked amongst the most polluted cities in the world [fr]:

En deuxième position, on trouve la capitale du Bangladesh, Dacca, qui s'illustre par une pollution de l'air au plomb. Les deux autres villes suivantes sont Antananarivo et Port-au-Prince, capitales respectives de Madagascar et de Haïti, “confrontées à une croissance rapide de la population urbaine et à des besoins toujours plus importants en matière de gestion des déchets et de l'eau”.

In second position we find Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, the air of which is contaminated by lead. The following two cities are Antananarivo and Port-au-Prince, the capitals of Madagascar and Haiti respectively, “faced with rapid population growth and ever-increasing needs for waste and water management”.

This video uploaded to YouTube by user  on 30 June, 2012, is from the World Bank in Madagascar on social protection in Madagascan cities [fr]. The video depicts the daily hardships that the malagasy population is facing while they transition from the rural to the urban areas:

Such is the paradox of life in Africa; urban capitals in full expansion despite endemic poverty, surrounded by abundant natural spaces, which cast into especially sharp relief the unique contrast between rural and urban life.

The capital city of Windhoek in Namibia by Bries on Wikipedia. License CC-Attribution-Share Alike 2.5.

The capital city of Windhoek in Namibia by Bries on Wikipedia. License CC-Attribution-Share Alike 2.5.

The state of affairs in Namibia [fr], as described below by Antoine Galindo, is one which the residents of several African cities would recognise:

C’est principalement contre ces violences que mettent en garde les différentes chancelleries. Ces vols peuvent être assorits d'agressions physiques dans les grandes villes. En dehors des agglomérations, le pays reste calme et prisé pour ses paysages spectaculaires et très variés. Seulement, en raison de l’insécurité qui règne encore dans les rues de la capitale, le tourisme piétine, et l’afflux des étrangers demeure faible.

It's principally this type of violence that the various ministries are issuing warnings about. These thefts can sometimes occur alongside physical attacks in larger cities. Outside urban areas, the country remains calm, popular for its spectacular and richly varied landscapes. Still, due to the insecurity which continues on the streets of the capital, tourism is making little headway, and the influx of foreign visitors remains weak.

Growing infrastructure problem

Amel Bouzidi analyses the study conducted by The Economist Intelligence, noting the following [fr] about Algeria:

 Sur les 140 villes passées au crible, Alger arrive à la 135 position, derrière Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Teheran (Iran), Douala (Cameroun) et  Tripoli (Libye). Dacca, capitale du Bandgladesh, ferme la marche.  Le mauvais classement de la capitale algérienne qui compte une population de plus 3 millions d’individus ne surprend guère. Alger est dépourvu de lieux de loisirs, les salles de cinéma se comptent sur les dix doigts de la main, la circulation automobile y est épouvantable et ses habitants se plaignent de la saleté des trottoirs. A tout cela s'ajoutent aujourd'hui les coupures fréquentes du courant électrique ainsi que les coupures en eau potable.

Of the 140 cities put to the test, Algiers came in in 135th, behind Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Tehran (Iran), Douala (Cameroon) and Tripoli (Libya). Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, came in last. The poor ranking of the Algerian capital with a population of over three million comes as little surprise. Algiers lacks leisure spaces, its cinemas can be counted on one hand, traffic is terrible and its residents complain of the filthiness of its streets. Added to all this are the frequent cuts in the power and water supply.

In Douala, Cameroon, power cuts are one of the symptoms of a dire economic situation [fr]. Global Voices contributor Julie Owono describes a state of affairs in which the country's infrastructure cannot keep up with its rapidly increasing population:

According to certain estimates, just 20% of the Cameroonian population has access to a regular electricity supply. In fact, those who have access to electricity are accustomed to power cuts every three days. Electricity is also becoming more and more costly for the rest of the country's citizens. The private provider, AES Sonel, for example, recently announced a 7% rise in prices starting June 1st, 2012.

Rapid changes to quality of life in urban areas 

The urban quality of life study also shows that the rankings are susceptible to rapid change. One of the criteria taken into account, the city's economic power, sees three Chinese cities dominate the list. The report explains that other criteria such as the efficiency of its institutions, human capital, cultural attractions, and the financial maturity of the cities weigh more heavily in the balance.

Looking to the future, the report suggests certain points of improvement that cities in emergent countries (including African cities) must accomplish to improve their position in the rankings:

The rise of emerging markets will likely make a number of largely unknown cities rather more prominent by 2020. Bandung, Hangzhou, Lagos and Lima, for example, all feature growth rates of 6% or higher, but are familiar to few outside of their home countries today. That will change. A key question is the speed with which this will happen [..] To do so, they need to adapt their investment attraction policies, but this in turn requires more fundamental shifts. “They have a good stock of infrastructure, but it’s highly polluted and there are no public spaces and things like this. They now understand that they have to move to something more qualitative.”

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