The largest French speaking city in the world is in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a population over 11 million. For reference, that would make Kinshasa the third largest metropolitan area in the US, after Los Angeles, and before Chicago.
Despite its size, few people have heard of Kinshasa. Perhaps for good reason, as it only has 11 daily international flights. Kinshasa is the result of urbanization without globalization.
In most countries, cities are drivers of productivity. People move to cities to find opportunity, to give themselves and their children a better chance at life.
- Developed countries are more urbanized.
- Rapidly urbanizing countries tend to increase their standards of living.
- Historically successful countries urbanized early in their history.
- Rates of urbanization are correlated with rates of economic growth.
Kinshasa, and sub-Saharan Africa more generally, present a puzzle. Everywhere else urbanization has been accompanied by economic development.
Journalist Daniel Knowles proposes that African cities are designed for consumption of natural resources. Kinshasa has great nightlife. The elite get rich through rents on the natural resources in the country while everyone else survives on the scraps.
Eyerusalem Siba, Jeremy Barofsky, and Jonathan Grabinsky at Brookings propose a slightly more sophisticated version. Dictatorships tend to have larger capital cities, which combined with the health benefits from city life draw rural workers.
Another major factor in the lack of African city development is the same thing which has held back African development more generally, poor governance. On virtually every governance index, Doing Business, Economic Freedom, Failed States, Africa scores near the bottom. African cities can hardly be expected to thrive if registering a business takes 54% of per capita income.
The solution is improved governance. Luckily, rapid urbanization provides a tool for improving governance. By creating multi-use, broad based special economic zones in the suburbs of cities, African countries can pilot reforms which can later be expanded to the rest of the country. These low risk projects can be rapidly populated because of the growing urbanization.
Eko Atlantic is an example of a project which could benefit from governance improvements. It is a planned satellite city of Lagos Nigeria being built for 250,000 residents. Governance improvements in Eko Atlantic would benefit the developers by increasing property values, as well as showcasing to Nigeria the importance of governance in economic growth.
The types of governance reforms which could be piloted surrounding cities are as follows.
- Improve dispute resolution: Simplify and expedite commercial cases. Civil law countries could hire common law judges for additional credibility.
- Reduce barriers to businesses: Make it cheap and easy to start a business. It should be a one stop shop, possibly online, which costs under 5% of per capita GDP.
- Liberalize the labor market: It should be easy to hire and fire employees.
- Reduce corruption: The civil service staffing the new jurisdiction should be separate from the civil service of the country as a whole. There should be stiff penalties for corruption.
- Land rights: Land rights should be clearly assigned and easily transferable.
- Reduce and simplify taxes and tariffs: It should be low cost and simple to pay taxes and ship goods across borders.
By implementing the above recommendations, Africa can turn her cities into centers of productivity, unleashing humanity’s ultimate resource.