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Fighting urban corruption in fast-growing African cities

An aerial view of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo: Moiz Husein/Shutterstock

Dr. Laura Nkula-Wenz

Lecturer at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town

From a road that costs US$9.2 million per kilometre, to children who arrive at school and see their playground has been enclosed by a solid brick wall overnight, or local officials renting out public social housing units for profit - these are just three examples from Africa that illustrate the ways urban corruption can perpetuate poverty, inequality and injustice.

Though corruption at the city level is not a new phenomenon, it is becoming increasingly prevalent, growing in step with globally rising rates of urbanisation. This trend is particularly evident in Africa, where cities are projected to accommodate two-thirds of the continent’s overall population growth by 2050, equating to an additional 950 million inhabitants. While attention often focuses on the expansion of megacities such as Lagos, Cairo, or Nairobi, in reality, much of Africa’s urban growth takes place in small and medium-sized towns. Urban land is therefore being developed at an uncontrolled pace that surpasses the state's ability to provide basic services and shelter. As a result, planning experts have concluded that much of the urban development happening in Africa is unregulated, non-planned, and non-transparent.

Planning remains the single most important tool that governments have to manage Africa’s rapid urban growth – putting the spotlight on urban planners as pivotal figures in the development of the continent’s cities. With responsibilities ranging from regulating land use and planning public infrastructure to determining future urban development frameworks, planners must balance individual rights - like the right to property - with the public good, such as ensuring access to essential services like hospitals and schools across a city. However, this intersection between public sector decision-making and private interests is frequently fraught with corruption. As a result, planners in Africa face significant challenges in maintaining their professional integrity while meeting the demands of rapid urbanisation.

Corruption in urban development is by no means a uniquely African phenomenon and recent examples from the United Kingdom and Spain demonstrate this. However, in African cities some issues associated with corruption are particularly acute, such as the negative impacts of outdated planning laws and under-resourced local governments. Furthermore, the number of professional planners in most African countries is low compared to the overall population, resulting in a mismatch between the limited number of trained professionals and the rapidly growing demand for planning services from both the public and private sector.

This overwhelming demand, coupled with the feeling of being ill-equipped to address corruption, puts African planners in a challenging position and can make it difficult for them to maintain their professional integrity.

Planners: At the frontline of urban corruption

In response to this pressing issue, Transparency International presents Corruption in Urban Planning: A Guide for Professional and Trainee Planners. Developed in partnership with leading researchers at the African Centre for Cities, it is the first companion specifically geared towards understanding and addressing the impact of corruption on Sub-Saharan cities. Initially conceived as a training course for planning professionals in 2016, the guide has been extensively workshopped with urban development practitioners from across the continent over the past seven years.

The guide outlines several starting points for how urban planning professionals can simplify planning rules and zoning regulations; institutionalise conflict of interest laws at the local level; campaign for accountability, transparency, and integrity; and provide planning expertise to civil society organisations or support citizen-led actions - all already popular anti-corruption approaches to tackling urban corruption.

There is, certainly, no silver bullet for fighting corruption. While regulatory frameworks can be effective in combatting corruption, they can only take us so far. Even transparent systems can be corrupt if those in charge lack integrity. Therefore, the most promising anti-corruption interventions, detailed in this guide, are those that are nimble and that combine systemic reforms with interventions that are specifically tailored to each social context. This approach ensures that urbanisation is managed in a way that benefits all citizens, rather than a select few.

It is up to planners, governments, and civil society to work together to tackle this issue and create cities that are transparent, accountable, and equitable for all.

For more insights, you can download the guide HERE.

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