Pivoting to Cities: Why CARE Is Addressing Urban Issues in Sub-Saharan Africa

In our eighth edition of Talking Urban Futures in Africa, CSIS Africa Program director Judd Devermont speaks with three representatives from CARE about their programming in urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa. They discuss the shift that CARE took to incorporate urban programming in its portfolio. Doreen Ayebare of CARE Uganda raises the challenge of navigating poor coordination between municipal and district governments and how it hinders provision of services to vulnerable populations. Finally, CARE’s vice president for international programs and operations, Claudine Awute, urges the U.S. government to pay more attention to implications of urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa, including opportunities for trade and investment, issues around migration, and lessons that U.S. cities can learn from municipalities on the continent.

  • Claudine Awute is the vice president for international programs and operations for CARE.
  • Doreen Ayebare is a project manager with CARE Uganda.
  • Meron Kidane is deputy program director with CARE Ethiopia.

JD: Why is CARE adapting its programming to address urban issues in sub-Saharan Africa?

CA: CARE can no longer ignore the boom in urbanization around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. As an organization, we need to look at the population rise in urban areas and recognize that we have a role to play in alleviating youth unemployment and endemic poverty, much of which is unfolding in cities.

We had a huge “aha” moment when we began looking at seasonal migration of individuals from rural to urban areas. When the opportunity exists, people choose cities, because cities lead to more opportunity. However, with no plan for urban development or support for integration, sustainable urban growth does not materialize, creating more inequality and poverty. So as an organization, CARE realized it is critical to not only address poverty, social injustice, and other critical issues in rural areas, but in urban areas as well, in order to promote empowerment opportunities for women and girls, offer better livelihoods and access to basic social services, and improve social inclusion.

JD: Meron and Doreen, what are some challenges and successes in working with municipal governments in both Ethiopia and Uganda?

MK: CARE’s Ethiopia office in 2017 reformulated its urban strategy to target urban female youth. The office has engaged resource-poor urban female youth through HIV/AIDS programming and, more recently, in economic empowerment programs that look at entrepreneurship opportunities and dignified work in wage employment. Our urban focus has two key pillars: economic growth and inclusive governance.

This means that we collaborate with municipal governments on enterprise development and job creation to improve access to finance—and jobs—for aspiring female entrepreneurs. In working with municipal governments, we have come across a number of challenges, specifically, an abundance of prohibitive “red tape” around starting businesses; a disorganized and outdated database for employment information; and significant gender bias with regard to women in business.

We also collaborate extensively with private-sector actors to catalyze employment and job creation, whether through financing or in promoting dignified work in their supply chains. Access to finance especially for innovators and new start-ups for youth is often challenging as they lack credit history and the asset base to qualify for such opportunities.

DA: In some of CARE Uganda’s programming, we have faced challenges in coordination between the municipal government and the district government. Historically, most development stakeholders have worked in rural areas, and are accustomed to liaising with the rural sub-district offices. This means that the issues in urban environments are often left unaddressed and that municipal leadership is not engaged as much as the district offices.

In addition, there is always a scramble for resources between municipal and district leadership. That has been challenging, because we must recognize the district leadership and the city leadership separately but work with both of them. If they have not harmonized, then it is up to the implementer to ensure they coordinate. When it comes to gender-based violence (GBV) working groups, the district has its own group and the city has its own group. They should be working together, because they use the same services, but they operate independently. This is challenging because we want to help women the best that we can, but the lack of coordination makes it more difficult.

JD: Claudine, why should U.S. policymakers pay more attention to urban African issues?

CA: Urbanization in Africa has vast implications not just for African cities, but for the entire world, including the United States. It is not just about migration, although that is an issue. There are opportunities for partnership on issues like education, health, livelihoods, and skills development, especially for women and youth. There are also implications for trade and investment—and even lessons that U.S. cities can learn about how African cities are urbanizing.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Judd Devermont