Experts React: Urban Legends

The most pressing foreign policy challenges are destined to unfold in the world’s rapidly urbanizing landscapes. The social upheavals grabbing headlines today—rising authoritarianism, historic inequalities, and the sudden onslaught of climate change impacts—are as much, if not more, urban phenomena than rural ones. It is certain that the United States will need to gradually shift its gaze from the Sahel to Sao Paulo and from the Hindu Kush to Kinshasa to promote economic prosperity, secure lives and livelihoods, and revitalize democracy across the globe.

The world is 70 years into a 100-year demographic flip-flop: in 1950, less than one-third of the global population lived in cities; in 2050, less than one-third will be rural. As urban areas grow, the rural population is declining in absolute terms. In fact, the global rural population is expected to peak in 2021, and fall thereafter. And if UN projections prove true, all of the world’s population growth between now and 2050 will be in cities.

Lower-income countries in Africa and Asia will experience the lion’s share of urbanization—90 percent of global urban growth—in the next three decades. The case of Africa is impressive: today, Africa is 43 percent rural; between now and 2050, Africa’s urban population is expected to triple.

Cities present new opportunities: in densely populated areas, development programs—for food aid, education assistance, or vaccines—can reach more beneficiaries with single interventions. Small shifts in urban policies can lead to remarkable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. One municipality’s infrastructure investments—in water, energy, or transportation—can benefit thousands or millions at once.

But urbanization also presents new challenges. For most of history, urbanization has been synonymous with economic growth, but this is not the case in Africa. In recent decades, climate change, food insecurity, water insecurity, and conflict have conspired to eliminate rural livelihoods and push people to cities. As cities have grown, economies have contracted. According to the World Bank, two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban residents live in slums. Rather than beacons of prosperity, cities can be development sinkholes in lower-income countries.

Policymakers have yet to realize either the opportunities or the challenges of urbanization in low- and middle-income countries generally, and Africa specifically. Some policymakers ignore this trend—to them, Africa is a perpetually rural continent—and others misinterpret it.

CSIS is pleased to fill this gap. Urban Legends is a cross-program initiative to shed light on what urbanization means in the twenty-first century and propose policy solutions in response. Read the pieces below to learn more.


Urban Hunger, New Solutions

Caitlin Welsh

Director, Global Food Security Program

Yesterday’s Crisis

The predominant approach to global food security today is informed by the 2007-2008 food price crisis. Poor harvests led to low stocks of staple foods on global markets, increasing prices for food-importing countries; high energy prices and poor policy decisions pushed prices higher. Within a few months, millions of people in low- and middle-income countries became food insecure. Some rioted, and some protests turned violent.

For poor countries, the problem was over-reliance on global markets to meet food needs, and the solution was to increase domestic production. By helping food producers—mainly smallholder farmers in rural areas—to increase production, policymakers were increasing the food available for everyone and growing incomes among the hungry. The solution was easy. It was endorsed by multilateral organizations, embraced by nongovernmental organizations, and enshrined in donors’ development programs. As a result, the global food security community oversimplified food insecurity as a rural problem afflicting farmers.

The World Changed While We Were Making Other Plans

But even then, demographics were shifting: urbanization was happening faster in Africa and Asia than in the rest of the world. Today, the United Nations predicts that poor countries in these regions will account for 90 percent of urban growth by 2050. And new data force us to question our assumptions about global demographics.

In March, the UN Statistical Commission adopted a universal definition of urbanization. Applying this definition, the proportion of the world’s population living in rural areas fell from 46 percent to 24 percent. The World Bank admits “much work is yet to be done” to ensure its own calculations do not underestimate poverty in urban areas. And significant gaps remain in data on informal settlements. Ten years ago, the World Bank estimated that 57 percent of Africa’s population lived in slums; this number has almost certainly skyrocketed since then, as conflict, climate change, and economic dislocation have pushed the number of refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants to all-time highs.

Urban Challenges Need New Solutions. Will We Respond?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, hunger is hitting cities hardest. According to World Food Program USA, “Covid-19 is an altogether new threat, affecting the urban poor in great numbers.” The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that because of Covid-19, the number of poor people will increase by 15 percent in rural areas but by 44 percent in urban areas. We see this in the daily news around the world—rising food insecurity for a porter in Juba, a house cleaner in New Delhi, a coffee vendor in Addis Ababa—and in cities across the United States, too.

Today, the stakes are higher than in 2007-2008. Prior to the pandemic, 3 billion people could not afford the cheapest healthy diets. The economic impacts of Covid-19 will put nutritious food further out of reach for the world’s poor, including those in cities. A Covid-19 paradigm for food security should propose solutions to address hunger in urban alongside rural areas. These include programs for food-insecure populations employed outside the agriculture sector, like the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition’s (GAIN) pilot program for garment-factory workers in Bangladesh; efforts to address obesity, heart disease, and hypertension linked to high intake of cheap, processed foods; investments in food safety in informal settlements, where water insecurity and weak energy infrastructure can lead to foodborne illness; attention to peri-urban agriculture, emphasizing investments in highly nutritious and highly perishable items like fruits and vegetables close to population centers; expansion of social safety nets in developing countries to urban residents; and perhaps most importantly, investments in new data on hunger and malnutrition in cities to inform policymakers’ decisions in the coming decade.


Rethinking Urban Migration Post-Covid-19

Erol Yayboke

Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Project on Prosperity and Development

Before the pandemic, international migrants made up about 3 percent of the global population while contributing an estimated 10 percent to global GDP. Covid-19 has brought global migration to an unprecedented standstill and could disrupt migration patterns—and thus economies—for years to come. But when people start moving again, whenever that may be, they are likely to move first to the places they have gone most often in the past: cities.

The urbanization that has become one of the defining characteristics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been fueled by migration. Approximately one in five international migrants live in just 20 cities around the world, almost all of which boast foreign born populations of 20 percent or more. Some cities like Dubai have been built entirely by migrants, who still make up 88 percent of the population. Despite perceptions to the contrary, the number of people migrating within the developing world—about 100 million—is roughly equivalent to those seeking opportunities in the developed world; much of these flows within the developing world involve journeys to more urban environments from more rural ones.

The post-Covid-19 world could lead even more people to migrate within the developing world if pathways to the developed world remain unavailable. These migrants will still look to urban areas for work and services, though these can be harder to find in developing countries where cities may also be ill-prepared for post-pandemic increased flows.

Urban migration can be a double-edged sword. For many urban areas, manageable population growth is necessary for economic growth. In many aging or wealthier countries, native-born populations are unable or unwilling to fill necessary jobs (e.g., construction, healthcare, services) that migrants are typically happy to do. Urban migration also exacerbates existing urbanization challenges. Rapid growth in places like Mumbai and Lagos—fueled by internal and international migration—can result in increased informal settlements where services are lacking, infrastructure is strained, fewer education and work opportunities exist, and violence and social unrest is common.

Nonetheless, incentives remain high for migrants to seek the better opportunities available in urban areas. A subpar job in an urban area is superior to no job in a rural one. And as climate change creates new challenges and exacerbates old ones, more people will inevitably seek livelihoods in urban areas, though these are also not immune to climate risks. Even moderate emissions scenarios put cities from Buenos Aires to Basra and Bangkok to Beijing at risk of sea level rise, inland flooding, and other impacts of climate change. Such impacts will drive more migration, likely to other urban areas.

Covid-19 presents an opportunity to synthesize migration and urbanization thinking with a climate change lens. The pandemic has pent up supply and demand for migration. It behooves policymakers to think of ways to make future urban migration flows as safe, regular, environmentally friendly, and economically beneficial as possible.


The New Landscape for Humanitarian Crisis and Response

Jacob Kurtzer

Interim Director and Senior Fellow, Humanitarian Agenda


The impacts of violent armed conflicts are exacerbated in urban settings, challenging the ability of aid agencies and donors to respond. To avert the most severe consequences of urban armed conflict, it is essential for policymakers to understand urbanization trends and adapt humanitarian action accordingly.

Rapid urbanization has dramatically changed the character of humanitarian need and response. Cities and towns are increasingly theaters of conflict and natural disaster. Densely packed civilian populations are subject to both targeted attacks and collateral damage, while destruction of critical infrastructure in urban settings compounds short- and long-term needs. Besiegement of the major cities in northwest Syria in 2019 destroyed critical infrastructure, disrupted health services, and broke vital supply chains, leaving millions at risk of hunger and disease now, and into the future. As urbanization rates rise, cities are also primary destinations of refuge. In 2016, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated 60 percent of refugees resided in urban areas. In Jordan, 83 percent of refugees lived in urban areas in 2019.

The logistics of aid provision in existing urban environments is substantially different than providing commodities in rural contexts. Aid workers must coordinate with multiple levels of government as well as informal social and community networks to achieve maximum impact, mitigate duplicative activities, and avoid exacerbating tensions. Interconnected infrastructure systems challenge an international aid system that organizes humanitarian response according to sectors such as food, water, and shelter.

Beyond aid delivery, protection of civilian populations in urban contexts is challenging due to the intermingling of civilian, military, and domestic security infrastructure. In urban environments, crisis-affected, displaced populations intersperse within and among host communities, creating obstacles for targeted interventions, potentially challenging core humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality. Activities designed to preempt the outbreak of armed conflict, and to mitigate their humanitarian impacts, also necessitate a nuanced understanding of the impact of armed conflict on civilian populations in cities. The proximity of civilian infrastructure to otherwise legitimate military targets, and the devastating long-term impacts of the destruction of water, sanitation, and electricity grids, requires humanitarian actors to increase the emphasis on civilian protection.

Humanitarian agencies and donors are beginning to develop solutions. Area-based approaches, the use of cash programming, microtargeting of beneficiaries, and localizing humanitarian response are adaptations well suited to urban humanitarian crises. But more must be done. Donors, humanitarian agencies, and other stakeholders should allow space for experimentation and adaptation of humanitarian action by increasing investment in disaster preparedness and in pooled funds that support preparedness in crisis-prone areas. Humanitarian aid actors’ ability to adapt to urban settings will ultimately determine their effectiveness in addressing humanitarian crises.


The New Politics of Urban Sub-Saharan Africa

Judd Devermont

Director, Africa Program

Sub-Saharan Africa’s rapid urbanization is remaking governance and politics across the region. The continent’s 1.3 billion people is set to double by 2050, and more than 80 percent of that increase will happen in cities. This demographic transition has disrupted the balance of power between incumbents and opposition parties, fueled a surge in popular protests, and provided a platform for new leadership. While it mirrors some of the urban-rural political dynamics in developed economies, the shift is more dramatic in part because of the speed of urbanization. The political consequences have started to play out within a decade, not over a half of century, as has been the case in the United States. The region’s urban profile is altering political campaigns, voting preferences, popular mobilization, and a new crop of candidates. It will eventually engender new political norms and require new engagement strategies from African leaders and international partners, including the United States.

The Wayback Machine

From independence to the return of multiparty democracy in the 1990s, most African countries were predominately rural. While urban centers historically have served as opposition strongholds, their share of the vote has been small relative to rural counterparts. Ruling parties, therefore, focused on courting rural voters through patronage and in partnership with traditional leaders and rural functionaries. With most rural areas limited in access to media outlets, incumbents could dictate what messages, via state radio and TV, were conveyed to the majority of the country. In this period, there were significant antiregime protests in urban centers in Nigeria, South Africa, and Sudan, among other countries, but seasonal labor strikes and student demonstrations were more commonplace than sustained, nationwide popular mobilization.

Disrupt Africa

Urbanization, in combination with other demographic, technological, and geostrategic developments, however, is changing the game. Urban populations are not only larger in relative size, but academics say they are more independent and more likely to vote on the government’s performance than exclusively on identity politics.

  • Rising Opposition. Opposition parties have defeated the incumbent or incumbent party 17 times since 2015. Put another way, the opposition is currently winning about one-third of all presidential or general elections. Many of the winning political parties have succeeded in majority urban countries. Nigeria’s All Progressive Congress (APC) clinched the biggest cities, including Lagos and Kano, to defeat the then-ruling party for the first time in the country’s history. In 2017, Liberia’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) leveraged former soccer star George Weah’s popularity to corner the urban youth vote. The opposition’s access to urban population through traditional rallies and social media, combined with a new openness to coalitions with other parties, has increased their competitiveness.

  • Surging Protests. African urban publics are routinely taking to the streets to demand political and economic reforms, some of which relate to elections and unconstitutional term extensions. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen the largest increases in anti-government protests in the world since 2009, with annual protests increasing by 23.8 percent each year—more than twice the global average of 11.5 percent, according to CSIS’s Sam Brannen. It is easier to mobilize protests in dense urban areas, as well as coordinate actions, with more reliable access to the internet. These incidents are more likely to be picked up by private media outlets, often headquartered in cities, and by international news reporters, magnifying the protest’s impact.

  • Emerging Leaders. Sub-Saharan African municipal leaders tend to be younger and more dynamic political leaders, seizing the national stage by their merits instead of political loyalties. The new generation includes former Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola and former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, who remain key players in Nigeria and South Africa, respectively. In addition, there are a considerable number of female mayors across the continent, such as Adanech Abiebie in Addis Ababa, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr in Freetown, Mampho Thabane-Libate in Maseru, and Mat Mint Hamady in Nouakchott, among others. These leaders, by virtue of the size of their jurisdictions, have national importance and the potential to contest for top jobs in the future.

A New Engagement Map

The shifting urban landscape poses new challenges for governance and for diplomatic, economic, and security engagement from sub-Saharan Africa’s external partners. It requires new thinking about the everyday politics in urban Africa. As political scientist Jeffery Paller noted in a CSIS interview, it is essential to understand “the informal norms, the informal relationships, that inform governance structures” in urban areas. African political parties may have to develop more targeted campaigns, tailoring pitches for urban and rural constituencies. Ruling parties, in particular, will have to redouble efforts in urban areas to remain competitive with the opposition in democratic systems. How African politicians adjust and evolve to meet the reality of larger urban populations in part will shape the future of governance and politics in the region.

Africa’s international partners also need to update their engagement strategies, discarding old chestnuts about how Africa is “by and large an agricultural society.” Africa’s future is urban, and the United States, in particular, needs to move faster to realign its resources and programs.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program
Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program
Jacob Kurtzer
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Humanitarian Agenda