An Urban Test Case: Learning from Cabo Verde

Cabo Verde and its capital Praia offer a sneak peek of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban future. While its urban population is tiny in relative terms, the archipelago is further along in its urban transition than most of its mainland counterparts. Sixty-eight percent of Cabo Verde’s 556,000 inhabitants live in urban areas, whereas the rest of the region averages below 50 percent. Praia, the fifth-smallest capital in Africa by population, is acutely experiencing the stresses of urbanization, including migration and climate change. It also shares another characteristic of Africa’s cities: the opposition runs Praia while its rival has control of the central government. Cabo Verde, in other words, is an attractive candidate for understanding the African ecosystem, refining the policy repertoire, and establishing new partnerships to address current and future urban challenges in the continent’s megacities, including Johannesburg, Lagos, and Kinshasa.

The Puzzle of Praia

In July 2021, the CSIS Africa Program traveled to Praia at the invitation of the prime minister’s office to meet with urban stakeholders, including the central government, municipal government, architects, engineers, and academics, as well as diplomats from the United States, Portugal, and the European Union.

Overwhelmingly, the most pressing issue in Praia is housing—or, rather, the lack of housing. According to the Ministry of Infrastructure, Territorial Planning, and Housing (MIOTH), nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of Praia’s population lives in informal settlements, which are structurally unsafe and disconnected from services like running water and electricity. This problem persists despite recent initiatives to build and sell housing units to low-income residents by MIOTH in partnership with Praia municipality. The housing issue is exacerbated by unsustainable migration patterns; over the decades, the rush of newcomers has overwhelmed Praia’s modest urban environment, and housing has not kept pace. Unsustainable migration, in turn, is driven by climate change, which presents challenges across the archipelago including drought, landslides, and rising sea levels.

Underpinning Praia’s housing issue are persistent urbanization challenges, including a lack of economic density, a dearth of urban planning, and hurdles to coordination. While specific to Praia, these issues often plague other African cities, and potential prescriptions for Cabo Verde could be scaled to address other urban environments.

  • An Underperforming Urban Economy. Successful urbanization requires economic density. In other words, population growth should be accompanied by economic growth—though these are not occurring at the same rate in Praia. According to a group of Cabo Verdean municipal leaders, the country’s urban residents (68 percent of the total population) contribute a mere 10 percent to the country’s GDP. That’s because Cabo Verde’s economy has been driven by tourism, which accounts for the majority of the country’s foreign direct investment and 24 percent of the GDP before Covid-19. Tourists with spending capacity come for the pristine beaches—not for Praia or other urban centers—and the government has prioritized tourism arguably to the detriment of the urban economy. While Cabo Verdeans are moving to cities for employment, urban dwellers struggle to earn a livable wage, secure housing, and contribute to the urban economy.
  • A Planning Deficit. There is insufficient urban planning to keep pace with the country’s growing urban population. Some municipalities even lack urban plans, and for those that have them, there are little to no monitoring or enforcement mechanisms in place. The registration of buildings is nearly nonexistent, and it has only grown more daunting as new informal housing pops up. The U.S. Millennium Challenge Compact (2012–2017) set up building registries in Cabo Verde, though it only covered three municipalities, and other municipal governments have not followed suit.
  • Coordination Blues. Cabo Verde’s central and municipal governments are on two separate tracks. While some municipalities are more communicative with the central government than others, there is a need for more consistent and meaningful coordination to ensure greater overlap between the urban national plan and plans adopted by various municipal governments. There also is inadequate coordination between central government ministries, such as the Ministry of Economy and MIOTH, whose ministerial plans would be more effective with shared policies that holistically address economic density and transportation routes, for example. The absence of statistics on urban growth at the municipal level, as well as poor communication to constituents about urban policies, are emblematic of current coordination issues plaguing Cabo Verde.

Piecing It Together

To effectively address these urbanization challenges, the government of Cabo Verde (GoCV) should prioritize economic diversification, civil society engagement, and increased government coordination.

  • Commerce and the City. Economic diversity is the backbone of any commercially dynamic city. The GoCV should seek to diversify the country’s (and Praia’s) economy, investing in new sectors beyond tourism. There are opportunities in the country’s maritime economy, including fisheries and value-added items such as canned fish within the sector. The GoCV could also take steps to strengthen its tech sector and implement policies to improve the country’s enabling environment to attract foreign direct investment.
  • Getting Civil. It is critical to engage the public—including civil society organizations, academics, and professional associations—to bridge the gap between the government and urban dwellers. As intermediaries, they are well positioned to reinforce public service announcements, engage fellow citizens on urban directives, and address the hazards of informal housing. Moreover, a strong civil society component should foster greater public debate on urban issues, including the role of foreign governments in urban growth and management.
  • Let’s Coordinate. At a first step, the GoCV should commit to stronger coordination between government ministries on urbanization issues, as well as between MIOTH and the country’s 22 municipalities. This might look like inter-ministerial working groups on urban planning, more robust reporting mechanisms between the ministries and MIOTH, and stronger enforcement systems to ensure businesses and individuals are complying with urban plans at both the municipal and national levels. There is also an opportunity for stronger coordination between the National Bureau of Statistics and municipalities to ensure they are effectively measuring urban growth, as well as between MIOTH and local universities to undertake urbanization research—potentially deepening the long-standing World Bank partnership on these issues, for example.

These steps by the GoCV have the potential to entice more engagement from foreign partners, including the United States, European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP). Cabo Verde and its international partners have shared interests in addressing these challenges, and programs to provide training, encourage investment, and mitigate the negative effects of climate change could serve as precedents for collaboration in additional cities across the continent.

  • Technically Speaking. Urban planning requires expertise. Foreign governments are well placed to partner on these issues with the GoCV, including on training, technical support, and even study-abroad opportunities for urban planning and adjacent degrees such as architecture and engineering. There is an opportunity to build off existing technical partnership, such as a European Union–led urban training program for Cabo Verdean civil servants. In addition, ECOWAS and the CPLP could form an urbanization working group to bring together urban experts from across West African and Portuguese-speaking countries, respectively, to discuss shared challenges and potential solutions.
  • Investment, Investment, Investment. Economic diversification will require foreign investment in some of Cabo Verde’s most promising sectors, including the blue economy and renewable energy. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Country Commerce Guide for Cabo Verde, there are few regulatory barriers to foreign investment, and foreign investors receive the same treatment as Cabo Verdean nationals regarding taxes, licenses and registration, and access to foreign exchange. In 2020, Cabo Verde’s trade and investment promotion agency approved of $1.5 billion in proposed investment projects. This year, Cabo Verde plans to establish a tax-free Special Economic Zone for Technology (ZEET) to attract international companies, an initiative that will almost certainly benefit the country’s urban economy.
  • Partnering on Climate. As one of the African countries most immediately affected by climate change, Cabo Verde requires regional and international partnerships and investments in its renewable resource sector, which boasts strong wind and solar energy capabilities. Cabo Verde also has an opportunity to lead regionally on climate change; just last month it hosted the African Group of Negotiators to hammer out an African agenda toward climate change ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November. The country could showcase its activities on climate challenges, presenting itself as a global leader on climate resilience.

A Small-City Partnership

In April 2021, the CSIS Africa Program in partnership with Gyude Moore, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, and Todd Moss, executive director at the Energy for Growth Hub, published a proposal for a Great Cities Partnership. In support of then-candidate Joe Biden’s August 2019 call for “an urbanization initiative . . . to help African cities plan for their growth in terms of critical sectors like energy access, climate change adaptation, transportation, and water management,” the Great Cities Partnership is a multiagency presidential initiative to partner with Africa’s fast-growing cities. While Praia almost certainly will not become one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing cities by 2050, its small size lends itself to experimentation—at a relatively low cost—to refine and stress-test a future U.S. initiative. Specifically, many of Praia’s proximate and underlying challenges mirror the proposed program’s 10 critical areas of focus, including digital connectivity, energy, transportation, law, safety and security, and housing.

Being small sometimes is a virtue. In the case of Cabo Verde and Praia, if the central government, municipality, and its international and domestic stakeholders get urbanization right, it can serve as model for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

Judd Devermont is the former director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Marielle Harris is the research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.

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).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Marielle Harris