African Urbanism and Urban Movements of the Global South

Urbanization is most rapid and probably least understood in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or what is commonly referred to as the 'global south'. Still many scholars and the general public in especially Europe and North America think about the city, its problems and solutions, based on an experience from Europe and North America. This experience has been codified and packaged into 'general urban theory' and printed in textbooks, newspaper articles and so forth. However, many cities of the world "fall off this mental map", which is especially true for cities with less formal resources and skills for urban planning, with high unemployment and big so called informal economies, and with large areas of informal settlements or slums. It is crucial to better know the cities of the world today. Here I present by a few of those actors with knowledge about global south urbanization, a set of scholars, two research institutes and three urban social movements, or movement-like arrangements. These notes are but a few observations, and more necessarily needs to be reported on this issue. 

Scholars of African urbanism - the urbanists of the 'cities yet to come'
In our 'African Urbanism' seminar at the African Centre for Cities we have read works that strive to find a new base from which to think and theorize the cities of today. Scholars have included Edgar Pieterse, Jennifer RobinsonAbdouMaliq SimoneSusan ParnellDeborah PottsSarah Nuttal, Achille Mbembe, Ravi Kanbur, and Jo Beall, amongst others. Three themes emerge from this reading -- which will be elaborated on in a publication -- is on one hand the tension between how to translate research into policy, and how to treat or handle the old debate on structure and agency, and how the "cities yet to come" (as AbdouMaliq Simone puts it) in Africa and elsewhere in the global south, can also be used to build new theory of urbanization and city-making. And what new methods and registers for research can be developed to better know these cities? (see for instance Jennifer Robinson for this argument). One observation more generally in relation to one of my favorite topics, is that urban ecology figures rarely in these accounts on African and global south urbanism.

Research centres as part of a politics of knowledge
In parallel to new research, there is also a politics of knowledge, on how to construct a new sensitivity among scholars, practitioners, activists and the public to understand the cities of the world anew, especially those of Africa and the global south. Here, specifically designed research centres located in these geographical areas are emerging and consolidating their agendas. In the latest issue of CityScapes (see also here), for instance, we can learn about the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), a national education institution with offices in New Dehli, Mumbai, and Bangalore, and the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Some of the clearest topics of these centres are informality, sustainability, climate change, urban political ecology and social justice, to put it broadly. However, apart from these very necessary research activities, there is also a move to change the university curriculum of how urban planners and practitioners are being taught urbanization. ACC for instance, has engaged planning schools across Africa

From centralized planning to engagement with social movements
If the response to urbanization based on a EuroAmerican experience was to build capacities for centralized urban planning, which for instance meant to control to different extent the use of land by the state, this seems to be more difficult, and perhaps not even desirable, in the global south. Rather, the response might be towards some form of engagement with social movements to improve living conditions and the urban environment. Although such an outlook of course raises concern what happens to the autonomy of movements, there are quite amazing examples of forms of collective action between people and organizations living in precarious conditions. The following three examples of movements, or movement-like organizational structures, seems to be of value to know about for those interested in global south urbanization.

SDI – Shack/Slum Dwellers International“Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) is a network of community-based organizations of the urban poor in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was launched in 1996 when “federations” of the urban poor in countries such as India and South Africa agreed that a global platform could help their local initiatives develop alternatives to evictions while also impacting on the global agenda for urban development. In 1999, SDI became a formally registered entity.”

WIEGO - Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing. “WIEGO is a network of individuals and institutions from three broad constituencies: i) membership-based organizations (MBOs) of informal workers such as cooperatives, unions and associations; ii) researchers and statisticians who carry out research, data collection, or data analysis on the informal economy; iii) professionals from development agencies (inter-governmental, governmental, and non-governmental) who provide services to or shape policies towards the informal workforce.”

StreetNet International – informal traders network/union. “StreetNet International alliance of street vendors was launched in Durban, South Africa, in November 2002. Membership-based organizations (unions, co-operatives or associations) directly organizing street vendors, market vendors and/or hawkers among their members, are entitled to affiliate to StreetNet International.”