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The Urban Challenge in Africa: Growth and management of its large cities.

The Urban Challenge in Africa: Growth and management of its large cities, edited by Carole Rakodi. The United Nations University Press, New York, 1997. xiv+628 pp. US$40. ISBN 92-808-0952-0

This most impressive book is a tremendous achievement. To produce a volume of this size as a collective effort, with a consistently high standard of writing, and with an appropriate mix of ideas and information, was itself a challenge: the editor and publishers have responded magnificently. Each individual author has made a very worthwhile contribution, but the special feature of this book, in comparison with many edited collections, is the way in which it coheres. Carole Rakodi has not only written two substantive chapters, but has also provided both an introduction and a conclusion to the volume. The entire text is virtually error-free, while the technical standard of production is excellent. This book follows equivalent compendia on Pacific Asia and Latin America: for once Africa is in no way the poor relation.

Six contributions are on individual cities ranging from the giant Cairo and highly distinctive Johannesburg, through Lagos and Kinshasa, to the perhaps more `typical' Abidjan and Nairobi--cities comparable in scale to other African capitals from Dakar to Dar es Salaam. Each is highly informative, providing real depth yet accessible even to readers with no prior knowledge of the city in question. The six essays are all very different, partly reflecting the diversity of Africa's cities and partly reflecting the authors' judgement of what are important and interesting issues; but none are so focused on a particular research interest that a distorted picture is given. Possibly some of the diversity, at least across tropical Africa, is more apparent than real. How far, for instance, do some of the points on `informality' presented for Kinshasa apply also to Lagos, and even to Abidjan and Nairobi? However, this balances out an inevitable tendency to over-generalize in some of the contributions exploring one topic or theme for Africa as a whole.

Among the eight essays on particular aspects those aiming to analyze the nature of African cities and urbanization processes are more impressive than those discussing policy and management issues. The editor provides a masterly 57-page overview of African urbanization and the global forces most affecting it over the past twenty years; and in a 48-page chapter entitled `Urban lives: adopting new strategies and adapting rural links', Deborah Potts combines a synthesis of a wide range of literature with a feel for real people in real places perhaps missing from some other contributions. Other thoughtful and well-informed essays deal with urban growth in a situation of economic stagnation, with the internal structure of African urban economies, with residential property markets, and with politics and civil society in African cities.

Of course, even a book of this size cannot be totally comprehensive, so that there are some topics and some cities on which the reader will not find much information or discussion here. Thus there are only five brief mentions of Khartoum, probably the fastest-growing of all major African cities over the past two decades, and one facing huge problems. There is equally little on Addis Ababa, Dakar and Luanda, all comparable in size and management challenges to Abidjan or Nairobi. So in terms of geographical coverage the book is selective, but I believe representative.

Perhaps some of the gaps in terms of topics are more serious. Only minimal attention is given to the management of the physical environment, and also to issues of health and sickness, including the new grim challenge of HIV/AIDS. It is notable that crime as a problematic aspect of urban life, not least in Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi, is barely mentioned. Some readers will feel that gender issues should have been more prominent; while others will be surprised that there are so few explicit references to corruption.

Overall, I suggest that the key role of personal relationships in most aspects of life in most African citizens might have come across more strongly. So might the low material equality of life, indeed poverty, of the majority of city-dwellers. (Perhaps even the superb production of the volume contributes to the providing of a somewhat `sanitized' picture: the marvels of modern technology fall short of conveying the smell of the gutters of Lagos or Kinshasa). Finally, even the chapters explicitly devoted to management of the urban challenge leave one wondering just what is to be managed, in what sense, and by whom. The two main components of the urban growth, the rapid natural increase of the population and rural-urban migration, are two of the most obvious examples.

No book can do much to solve the problems of Africa's cities, but this one does a great deal to shed light on them. Its editor, contributors and publisher deserve hearty congratulations. The task now is to ensure that it is widely distributed, and read, not only where its price an be afforded but somehow also within the cities with which it is concerned.


University College London
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:African Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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