Urban Hosts Roundtable on Accessing Land in African Cities

IDG Highlight, November 2014 - African cities are on the move. Populations are continuing to grow, shrink and transform in response to demographic and economic pressures. By 2015, Nairobi will grow by 15 people every hour, Kinshasa by 39 people, and Lagos by 58. Nearly 60% of Africans will live in cities by 2050. Informality has become a defining characteristic of urbanization in Africa: people are not participating in the official processes for purchasing and exchanging land. And perhaps more clearly than ever before, urbanization and economic growth are failing to produce the improvements to welfare and personal opportunities that we often expect of cities.

In a place where land is scarce and expensive, how do urban migrants find a foothold? How do they access land for their own use and welfare? And what does this mean for governments? The Urban Institute’s Center on International Development and Governance invited expert researchers Loren Landau and Caroline Wanjiku Kihato to discuss their recent findings on these topics. 

Presented by Loren Landau, Henry J. Leir Chair of Global Migration at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

Presented by Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, Researcher and Co-Author; Global Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Washington, DC

Landau’s and Kihato’s work links to Urban’s ongoing project to understand how urban local governments provide services to migrants, and how international partners can work with local governments to achieve shared goals of improved service provision and better outcomes in health, access to work, and access to housing.

  • Land markets in these cities are highly active and complex. Land is being claimed, purchased, traded, and incrementally improved even when it is not sanctioned by the state. The process may not be “legal” but it tends to be highly regulated within communities. These systems depend heavily on social networks and social capital within the community.
  • Our distinction between formal and informal is unclear, and fails to describe the complexity of these markets. It is not helpful to talk about tenure issues in binary terms when a family may have been living in a community for more than 100 years. There is a blurring of what we call government and non-government.
  • These “informal” land markets don’t ensure fairness, but neither do the official processes. A 2006 World Bank survey of business managers [PDF] showed that more than one-third did not expect courts to uphold property rights in a dispute.
  • The cost of being legal is exclusionary. The official processes for acquiring tenure cost an inordinate amount of time and resources.
  • There is a disconnect between the macro-level government structures and micro-level governance within communities. Failure to recognize these communities and their de facto tenure undermines municipal land-use planning.
  • This disconnect also creates opportunities for rent-seeking and gangster-like behavior among land-holders or intermediaries. Their tenants cannot access legal remedies through the courts, and other residents are less to challenge abuses if the land-holder has significant power in the community.

Local government authorities are on the frontlines of managing the transformations of their communities in ways that provide stability and economic opportunities. Through an examination of six South African municipalities and Gaborone, Botswana’s economic and political capital, “Managing Migration in Southern Africa” helps us come to terms with local governments’ responses to population mobility. This research suggests that few authorities across Southern Africa are positioned to capitalize on migration’s potential to alleviate poverty.

The report identifies six primary indices for evaluating municipalities’ abilities and practices surrounding the management of human mobility and other population dynamics. If these challenges are addressed, the authors suggest it would not only enable local authorities to respond more effectively to migration, but also to plan for economic development in a more strategic and sustained manner.

Trading Places presents a new understanding of how people living in African cities access land and renegotiate real estate markets. Living on unregistered land in slum conditions is the daily reality for the majority of urban dwellers in Africa. Most new urban growth takes place in peri-urban zones surrounding cities as people access officially unrecognized land. The book asserts that understanding complex land issues as well as the market forces described in property economics provides a key to addressing the challenges that arise during the transition from predominantly rural countries to increasingly urbanized nations. The apparent complexity of this interface leads many to conclude that urban development remains an unsolvable challenge.

Trading Places offers a new proposition. Evidence shows that there are practical ways in which the formal planning system can adapt to rapid urban growth. More secure land tenure and more effective urban planning can increase the resilience of many more households and communities, especially in the face of the ever-expanding challenges of migration, rapid urbanization, climate change and unequal economic growth. The evidence-based work presented in Trading Places spanned three dimensions over the life of the program: a focus on how the market works (and can be improved) in poor communities; on the daily realities of life for poor people accessing urban land and trying to hold on to it; and on the institutions and governance of land and markets.

Check out the presentation slides to learn more about this work and recent findings.