Madagascar’s growing cities: Why common problems sometimes require different solutions

By Tim Cholibois

Tim Cholibois is a Mercator Fellow on International Affairs and investigates questions of Urban Sustainability and Private Sector Inclusion. He currently works as a Visiting Expert at Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in Antanarivo on a project called “Promotion of Rural Electrification Through Renewable Energies”.

On October 19 to 22 the Second National Urban Forum took place in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Among the guests were the country’s newly elected mayors, who convened for the first time after communal elections in July to discuss urban development strategies with central government representatives and international organisations.

2nd National Urban Forum in Antananarivo

2nd National Urban Forum in Antananarivo

The forum’s objective was to develop a National Urban Development Policy in preparation of the Habitat III Conference in Quito next year. For Madagascar, the implementation of such a policy is long overdue, given that the last time a similar document was published dates back to 1963 when the “Code de l’urbanisme et de l’habitat” was decreed.

Urbanisation here… and there

The general jargon and rhetoric used by the over 550 participants sounded just like any other city conference I had visited so far: Cities produce about 70% of national output and constitute 80% of fiscal revenues. The Indian Ocean Island’s pronounced aim, and also the motto of the conference, was to create “modern, prosper and sustainable Madagascan cities” – ambitious for a country where 92.4% of the population lives on under $2 a day.

One number that did catch my attention, was that currently, “only” 8 million of the population lives in cities. That is roughly one third of the population, 36% to be precise. This is far from what I was used to from my work in the urban sphere in Latin America, where urbanisation rates north of 80% are not uncommon. Africa’s cities, however, are expanding at a much faster rate, currently by 3.5% each year. It is therefore expected that by 2036 more than half of the Malagasies will live in cities. These numbers show that completely different approaches are needed when it comes to managing urbanisation around the world.

The transferability of best practices

This should not come as a surprise. After all, each city is a unique space with very specific, local challenges. However, a popular approach to render cities more sustainable has been to foster sustainable urban planning through city networks. Regional, national and international networks have become the preferred tool for the exchange of information and best practices between city governments and mayors. Yet, this approach, assumes that there is at least a common starting ground or similar resources and capabilities among the member cities, which can be as different as – let’s say – Antananarivo and Rio de Janeiro, or even New York.

Following this train of thought, the participants of the forum listened to international city experts explaining, among others, how the Urban Agency of Reims develops and evaluates their urban development indicators, how Tokyo’s city planners use 3D modelling to revive dying city centres and how Morocco tracks the progress of their “Villes sans Bidonvilles” (Cities without Slums) programme with the help of satellite imaging.

For me as an international, these exposés were extremely insightful and interesting, but the present mayors had very different concerns and problems that they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis: “How do you count the number of toilets in France?”, asked one. “My city does not have a road and can’t be accessed by cars. How should we create infrastructure here?”, inquired another. Indeed, these simple comments question the transferability of certain solutions that might work elsewhere and call for a truly individual case-by-case approach.

Waste management (or the lack thereof) is one of the most pressing problems in the city centre

Waste management (or the lack thereof) is one of the most pressing problems in the city centre

Putting Urban Development on the political agenda

Even though this makes international cooperation on urban issues all the more hard, it does not mean that events like this are a lost cause. Quite the contrary: The French Development Agency (AfD) demonstrated the importance of indicators for city planning, which – at a much more basic level – have already been adopted by the “Malgaches”. Similarly, Germany’s Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH made a striking case for decentralisation, taken up by the Minister for Decentralisation and Interior in his closing remarks.

Most importantly, however, is the signal that the mere existence of the three-day long National Urban Forum sends to politicians, participants and the public: Large-scale events like this create awareness that urbanisation will be one of the defining social megatrends of the 21st century. Both an engine for development and a potentially destabilising force, urbanisation has to be planned and managed, so that the various challenges this process will pose, do not come as a surprise.

Things are different here: A traditional Madagascan dance interlude at the National Urban Forum

Things are different here: A traditional Madagascan dance interlude at the National Urban Forum

Three takeaways for Habitat III

For me, there are three takeaways from this event that city professionals should keep in mind when discussing the National Urban Development Policies at Habitat III in Quito next year:

  • Although cities around the world strive to become “modern, prosper and sustainable”, the interpretation of what that entails differs greatly between countries. The transferability of best practices is often less straightforward than it seems and depends on a country’s resources, capacities and stage of development. Certain regions are therefore inadvertently sidelined in the international debate
  • The international community therefore, has to remember that some of our most disadvantaged partners require a case-by-case approach and extra resources to manage their cities and keep up with their peers. This must not be overlooked when implementing the “New Urban Agenda” which will impact city planning around the world for the next 20 odd years.
  • Similarly, National Urban Development Policies proposed by UN-HABITAT must not fall into this trap either and rely overly on best practices from other, seemingly comparable countries. Only by acknowledging the uniqueness of each country, each city even, can urbanisation become a manageable process in the 21st century

Moving forward: Focusing on commonalities

Possible next steps could be to foster more collaboration among specific city groups in similar specific situations and contexts, such as the creation of new city networks between Sub-Saharan African Cities or Least Developed Island Nations Cities. The assignment of bilateral city partnerships where one city “mentors” the other for the sake of implementing specific projects could be another solution. Addis Ababa, who opened sub-Saharan Africa’s first light-rail system last month, could become one of these mentors, just like La Paz has been extremely active in promoting urban cable car systems across Latin America.

The gist of all these suggestions is that a truly local approach is necessary when attempting to solve these pressing problems. The time to act is now and cities in ‘Least Developed Countries’ depend on the international community. However, if we trust too much in transferable and transnational solutions, those cities which need them the most, will end up being left aside.

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