Prior to the COVID-19 crisis African communities and cities were already experiencing huge shortcomings in providing affordable and cost-effective basic infrastructure.What this crisis has taught us so far is how fragile we are as society and the how critical it is for all citizens to have access to basic human needs. African cities, like their global counterparts are scrambling to respond to the current health emergency by ramping up health infrastructure, securing supply of equipment; and ensuring that basic food and consumption needs are met whilst isolation measures are in place. However; the lack of basic services and limited economic opportunity, that many already experience across Africa; calls into question both the impact and efficacy that such short-term responses will have.
For example, the ability to self-isolate when living in a one-bedroom makeshift home with six family members is an impossibility for slum dwellers which in some African cities form the majority of urban populations. Similarly, for the approximately 65% of Sub–Saharan Africans who earn their living through the informal economy; extended lockdowns mean the loss of already precarious incomes.
New approaches to development
Up to now, African governments have applied themselves to responding to the effects of rapid urbanisation with a developed world design and planning toolkit; that calls for the installation of extensive new transport networks, industries, large scale housing programs, water and sanitation, development of schools and healthcare facilities and implementing digital solutions and the maintenance of old infrastructure. In the context of resource scarcity which makes funding and implementing these large projects challenging, for many this will not come soon enough.
The crisis must be used as an opportunity to do this right, as it might not be the last. The limited funding that is going to be available moving forward must be concentrated on economic and basic infrastructure to improve the living conditions of current and future generations.
Global problem, local solutions
Thus, the current crisis highlights the need for a more multi-faceted solution, that both enables long-term and wide scale transformation; that also includes more agile and localised approaches to deliver safer and healthier cities at speed. In order to achieve this, we need to assist cities in developing more context driven, opportunities to adopt better governance, creating capacity to provide basic services and focusing funding where it can make a difference on what communities really need, integration and better use of limited resources and including the creation of sustainable economic opportunities for the people.
More generally as practitioners we should push cities to use the current crisis as an opportunity to take much more seriously their adaptive measures to both short term shocks like pandemics, or natural disasters and the longer-term effects of climate change if we are to secure better outcomes for Africa’s urban poor.