Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, is a thoroughly reliable source on development economics and development policy options.

In a recent review of Roger Thurow’s new book, The Last Hunger Season, Paul Collier asks: “Why is Africa so dependent on imported food, despite being the least urbanized and most land-abundant continent?” Though the answer is simple, African agriculture is not sufficiently productive, the solutions are more complicated and controversial.

Though new seed technologies and commercialized agricultural practices are likely the best ways to produce more food and overcome hunger, Collier notes that these approaches don’t currently attract much support from African governments, NGOs, and development agencies. Among the concerns is that a switch from smallholder to commercial agriculture would lead to an influx of migrants to cities that are not prepared to accommodate them. But as Collier suggests, this transition looks inevitable.

This, to my mind, is the more fundamental long-term failing of African development: The children of smallholders should, and will, pour into cities. So it is vital that cities become engines of opportunity: That is what cities are for — high density is the handmaiden of economic activity. Millions of young people could be productively employed in Africa’s cities, so the key policy issue that governments and development agencies need to address is what has been impeding urban success — and it isn’t the low productivity of smallholders.

Collier does not get into detail about what is impeding urban success but governance is no doubt near the top of the list. Policy approaches to accommodating the influx of urban residents in cities in the developing world will have to account for the limited capacity of many governments to enforce the rules. This is a theme in Solly Angel’s new book, Planet of Cities. Angel’s approach to planning for urban expansion recognizes that urban growth is fastest in the parts of the world where governance is relatively weak. He envisions a public strong role in planning for urban expansion, but one that is narrow enough to have a reasonable chance of being executed by capacity constrained governments.

Source: Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization; NYU Stern Urbanization Project Brown Bag Discussion Series.

Bob Buckley on Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa

Though Buckley stressed that the data from Sub-Saharan Africa leaves quite a bit to be desired, he does see some patterns of urbanization there that are distinct to the region. For example:

  • Push factors such as conflict and drought appear to play a more substantial role in the region’s urbanization than elsewhere.
  • Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa is taking place at lower levels of income per capita than it has in other parts of the world.
  • Slum populations appear to be growing faster in Sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere in the developing world. Higher shares of slum dwellers present present a number of challenges for development—school attendance and female labor participation tend to be lower in slums, health indicators such as the infant mortality rate tend to be higher.

At one point, Buckley asked why cell phone penetration was growing rapidly in Sub-Saharan Africa while access to toilets (still relatively rare) was not growing?

Source NYU Stern Urbanization Project Brown Bag Discussion Series. The Urbanization Project is now home to Paul Romer.