Ripe for Reform: Policy Implications for African Cities during Covid-19

In a recent World Bank study, economists Somik Lall and Sameh Wahba argue that economic geography, not physical geography, determines the risk of contagion. The Covid-19 virus has spread the fastest in urban zones where people lack access to indoor floor space, sound infrastructure, and the capacity to spend time safely outdoors distanced from others. In New York City, the borough of Queens became a hotbed of contagion while the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea—a richer, more densely populated area—saw comparatively low case counts. The risk of contagion increases as neighborhoods lack physical infrastructure and amenities and where residents are forced to make ends meet by venturing outside in search of employment or services.

This is a critical finding for African cities, which struggle with informal settlements, poor planning and infrastructure, and a lack of basic services like water supply. CSIS Africa Program director Judd Devermont sat down with Somik and Sameh to understand these weak spots and discuss what African municipalities can do to build inclusive and sustainable cities in the pandemic recovery.

  • Somik Lall is the World Bank’s global lead for territorial and spatial development and the lead urban economist in the World Bank’s Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land Global Practice.
  • Sameh Wahba is the global director for the World Bank’s Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice.

The discussion, moderated by Judd Devermont, has been edited for purposes of brevity and clarity.

JD: I want to start with the urban myth that you debunk in your work, which is that urban congestion means that there will be greater disease contagion and spread. Can you share what you found in your newest study?

SL: Sure. As you said, the idea that dense cities are hotbeds of contagion—and that proximity is a key facilitator in the spread of Covid-19—is a myth. It is a myth because it falsely conflates physical proximity with economic density. But if a city has ample housing, water supply, sanitation, basic drainage, and public space, then there is no reason why proximity should lead to contagion.

We use New York City as an example. In late March and early April, the borough of Queens was the hotbed of contagion. And we asked ourselves, “Okay, what is it about Queens, which is much less densely populated than the borough of Manhattan?” In Queens, people live in crowded accommodations with multigenerational families. In Manhattan, you have public-health investments, decent infrastructure, and outdoor space.

So, this generalization that density is a bad thing is just an urban myth. We should be focusing on the economic geography of a neighborhood, of a city, of a region—not just the physical geography.

SW: Determinants for hotspots of contagion are (1) the quality of the built environment; and (2) the livelihoods of the people living there. Both of these determinants are captured in the notion of economic geography in the sense that we’ve got cities that are dense in population but that have built environments that can sustain social distancing, physical distancing. Cities like Seoul and Singapore have done well in coping with the crisis, but some Chinese cities, for example, have failed.

Out of all Chinese cities, those with intermediate population densities fared much worse than those with high population density, the Beijings and the Shanghais of this world. And the reason is their built environment, which lacks infrastructure. But in more densely populated Chinese cities, the built-up floor space allows for social distancing and the quality of public space, plus they have the specialized medical facilities that help them sustain and cope with the pandemic.

The other thing is livelihoods. If you live in a township in South Africa or in an informal settlement in any sub-Saharan African city, dense or not, livelihoods are precarious, and you may not have the ability to stay at home. You neither have the broadband connectivity nor the type of job that allows you to stay at home and telework. In order to make ends meet, you are forced to leave your house and risk becoming exposed to the virus.

JD: Where does that put Africa in this context? Queens may not have all of the investments required to address Covid-19, but most people would expect that Queens is going to be better equipped than an average urban environment in Africa. So, what does the Africa picture look like?

SL: That is exactly what we are focusing on at the World Bank. We’ve put together a methodology that asks, "If we have very limited civic resources, how do we allocate them most effectively to reach the most vulnerable?"

Africa's urbanization has happened quickly with a lack of focus on infrastructure, which has led to an increase in slums. In fact, Africa is the only part of the world where the number of urban inhabitants living in slums has increased over time.

We used our “hotspots methodology” to inform our partners in African cities how best to prioritize resources. In Kinshasa, 75 percent of inhabitants are vulnerable to exposure of Covid-19. That is because it's not only particular neighborhoods, but whole swaths of areas in the city that have limited investments in housing, limited access to public services like water, sanitation at home, and limited outdoor space around their home to step out while maintaining social distance.

At this point, we have worked with about 15 cities in Africa. We have worked with Nairobi, Mombasa, Kinshasa, Accra, and others. And we are systematically applying this methodology to help both our World Bank response, but also more importantly, the cities’ own responses, in doing three things.

The first is, how do we improve and expand safety nets? In many of these cities, you'll see if we were to think about a social protection scheme, there isn't really information at the neighborhood level to identify who's poor and who's not. Who's more vulnerable and who's not.

Second, we're using the methodology to improve conditions in informal settlements where services are quite precarious. And third, we're using these like we're doing in Kinshasa and Nairobi as a stepping-stone to answer the question, "What comes next?" The coronavirus is not the only shock these cities are going to get.

And it's not the only thing that will come in the way of development, so how do we use this as an opportunity to help cities and communities build back, better?

SW: A key point here is the speed at which sub-Saharan African cities often form. Poor people are moving in at high rates, and most cities in the region are growing by 4-5 percent per year. You've even got even cities like Ouagadougou [the capital of Burkina Faso] that are growing at 10 percent per year.

These cities are urbanizing quickly, and governments have neither the resources for infrastructure nor the land market regulations for orderly development. Therefore, poor people find themselves with no options but to settle in precarious lands to be near jobs. Places that are flood prone, that are landslide prone, that are environmentally sensitive, atop mangroves or garbage dumps, et cetera.

JD: I've learned from your work that these urban areas are highly disconnected, right? It’s not easy to move between parts of the city such as poorer neighborhoods and the central business district (CBD).

SW: Exactly. The first part is settling on precarious land because of the dysfunctional land market, which means that you are trading livability for economic opportunity. At the same time, because of the dysfunctions in mobility and connectedness that you're referring to, when you look at a city like Nairobi, half of the population walks an average of one hour to work. While they have a CBD, most of the jobs are scattered throughout the city.

Now, if they have to walk to work and there are no sidewalks, then it's one hour of being exposed to the virus. You add another 25 percent of the population that takes the matatus [taxi buses] to work, and again, because of a lack of road space and the congestion, these people are moving at 11 kilometers per hour. This results in lost productivity and a greater chance of becoming infected.

And then you throw in the impact of the built environment in terms of the comorbidities. In a slum like Kibera, in Nairobi, the prevalence of diarrhea and water-borne diseases from a lack of sewerage means that people are much more vulnerable from a health perspective. So, it's land-use planning, mobility, the quality of the built environment, and its impact on public health.

JD: It seems like your methodology does two things: (1) it helps you assess the overall urban vulnerabilities; and (2) it helps the World Bank and partner governments identify the most vulnerable areas within any given city. Can you walk us through your methodology?

SL: When we started working on this, it was March 14, and nobody had a clue about how the coronavirus was going to spread. Everyone was making wild guesses. So we said, "What do we really know that can get us something quick, that can be used by cities and is reasonably accurate?"

We decided, "There's three things we want to do." One, we need to know where people live. And we need to figure out this out very quickly. So, we used satellite data from global, open-access datasets.

Second, we wanted to know how do they live? Do they have enough floor space at home? We calculated floor space and got data from OpenStreetMap on the location of water points and public toilets. In addition, in some cities we identified the location of wet markets. Then we asked the question, "How easy or how difficult would it be for people to stay at home? And if they were to stay at home, what's the risk of contagion?"

We computed a simple algorithm that allowed us to calculate the number of people who wouldn't be able to socially separate, to have two meters between them. We came up with these hot spots that even under the most rigid safety measures, there's the number of people who are at risk of exposure.

JD: Let’s shift to policy. You provide a number of recommendations. Walk us through what international and local policymakers need to do.

SW: The most critical recommendation is to accommodate unfettered growth. And this means planning and doing things correctly the first time. It's understood that many cities will not have the resources upfront to lay the pipes and put in the paved roads. But these municipalities should ensure that when they upgrade their infrastructure, they’re not paying four to seven dollars for every dollar they would have otherwise paid had they planned upfront. Planning mean reserving public spaces for sidewalks, for parks, but also for health centers, for schools, et cetera. It also means taking into account things like floor area ratio and land values and planning how many stories you are able to build on a certain land unit. That means investing in infrastructure that can sustain density, i.e., multistory buildings.

Regularizing land tenure can unleash a lot of private investment. Nobody's going to invest in their housing or offices when their tenure is insecure. But the moment you provide security of tenure, people can improve their housing conditions, and you can start transforming a slum into a normal city neighborhood.

JD: In some slums, there are entire networks of informal structures that people profit off of. Is there a pathway for reform in these areas?

SW: In Nairobi, 91 percent of its population rents their housing. This is because there's a major concentration of land ownership, especially in places like Kibera, where it’s just a few families that own the land and houses. If you really want to nudge Nairobi to develop in a more sustainable way, there needs to be political change to unlock the land market. The government must have the political will to come in, buy back the land from the landowners, and begin regularizing. Then you will begin transforming the city.

If you start bringing in the whole nine yards of improvement—the water, the sanitation, the paved roads, the drainage—at the same time, in a city where 70, 80 percent of the built environment does not have infrastructure, you're going to see gentrification. Basically, the middle class is going to move in. So you need to figure out a process of upgrading these areas incrementally.

JD: How big is the appetite for this kind of reform?

SL: I personally think this moment is ripe for reform. Let me explain why. The rich were always able to shield themselves from the ills of urbanization, like crime, violence, traffic congestion. But they are not able to shield themselves from a pandemic. It has the capacity to spread throughout the city because the city is an interconnected labor market with hotspots of viral transmission, many of which are informal settlements with poor economic geography. If you don’t address these hotspots, you’ll never be able to contain the virus.

It doesn’t have to be expensive. Yes, it is costly to implement all the infrastructure needed to regularize informal settlements, but you can do it in an incremental fashion. Governments should start with regularizing land tenure, which is not very costly and gives people the incentive to improve their housing and invest in it as opposed to just doing the bare minimum because they’re afraid the government will take it away.

I think it’s the wake-up call that we needed in many ways, and the policymakers that we're talking to are cognizant of these challenges and potential opportunities for growth. They are cognizant about doing something about waste management, about water and sanitation, about regularizing land tenure and slums.

One of the big things we really believe in—with regard to resilient recovery—is good development policy. There is a trillion-dollar deficit of infrastructure finance in African cities, and now is the time to get our focus on this really important issue. Getting land management right and coordinating the infrastructure—I think those are critical building blocks toward a resilient future for African cities.

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

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.