Updated: Jan 21
The modern city is the quintessential symbol of human progress, a loud indicator of a country’s willingness and readiness to spring to the future or languish in the past. The one universal constant of our age happens to be one of society’s resolute determination towards urbanization, a reality that both developed and developing countries will share for ages to come. Despite this otherwise normally welcome dynamic, cities of the world will parallel this progression with the stark characterization of social and economic inequality that no other human settlements have historically been able to master. From the conventional lens of poverty in general, the challenge to supply the urban poor with livelihoods enhancement will be the next major global development challenge.
The World Urban Prospects indicate that 55% of the world’s population lives in urban settlements today. By 2050, there will be an additional 2.5 billion souls living in non-rural locations across the globe, a monstrous 68% of the global population if we respond better to proportions. While today Africa’s population is the most rural, with 43% of its citizens living in urban areas, the continent’s urban influx will account for the largest share of urbanizing populations in the world. Africans will almost double their urban population from 770 million to 1.339 billion between 2030 and 2050 (there are about half a billion today), going by current rates of rural-urban migration. This impressive transformational shift will not spare Malawi, where urban poverty already displays its glaring sharp teeth on her hopefuls flowing into cities and peri-urban centers searching to share in on the country’s available treasures.
So is the case of Salome, a thirty-something old married woman who moved to Lilongwe from Dedza. She worked as a cleaner for a newly-established Zimbabwean consulting firm on Kamuzu Procession Road in Old Town during the mid-2000s. In 2006, Salome earned a monthly MWK6,000 salary that could best earn her a living at Mchezi Township, about two kilometers East of the Kanengo industrial area. Google says it should have taken about 19.2 kilometers for Salome to get to work every day. And she would have to return home every evening where the list of her daily tasks as a mother and wife would continue. The sobering truth about Salome, who would have to pay about MWK200 every day, in other words MWK4,400 every month, to make it to work by minibus on a 43-minute ride, would be to remain with a paltry MWK1,600 to cater to her every need through the month. So, there were two things Salome would have to resolve to do. She would have to skip lunch every single day of work. And she would definitely have to walk to and from work if she would make ends meet. Google says she would have to walk seven hours a day.
The ruthless truth is Salome never had a life. At least not one for herself. And her predicament reveals a structural misconfiguration of urban design that plagues millions of city migrants across the world today and poised to affect billions in the decades to come. It is a known fact that among the many demands of an urban community is an enormous supply of labor of diverse talents, some of which the low-skilled like Salome would naturally fill.
The downside of city planning that Malawi shares with almost every other country in the world is that despite the demands for low-earning (unskilled and/or untrained) labor, the cost of living in cities prohibits a life of comfort even within the confines of a modest living affordable by workers like Salome. On the contrary, cities like Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba continue to escalate the cost of land – usually private land – that inevitably makes it practically impossible for poorer laborers to opt for a real city life even before they will factor in the cost of commuting to work. The result is the establishment of slum and squatter settlements around cities, like Mchezi, that have an absorptive capacity for a majority of urban populations that provides a crucial service to the survival of cities.
Without the cluster of workers that is not only unskilled, but also usually without enough bargaining power to earn what they deserve at work, the heart of the city would miss a beat. This usually shifts the purpose of the labor force from one of production to one of survival, in which workers will perform only to do enough hard work to buy the next meal than to unleash their full potential that would make cities formidable production machines. Therefore, designing cities for efficiency would have to valorize the role that Salome and workers in her league play every day. City and District Assemblies would have to take another look at the economic and social costs of maintaining large levels of inequality, usually which harbor social vices like crime, filth and disease.
There is the question of the work commute. From the foregoing, it is clear how the relegation of the urban poor to the peripherals of cities imposes an automatic transport cost, be it financial or physical as in Salome’s case. If left unaddressed as a policy issue by municipalities, cities in Malawi will continue to wear their work force out and will inevitably reap less from their potential ingenuity and creativity. This foregone benefit is a hidden cost that, quantified, might not reveal very nice things for the country’s development future. This website would claim that it is possible for the Ministry of Local Government, through City and District Assemblies, to fully subsidize commuter transportation from key locations (in Lilongwe alone, these would encompass thousands of commuters from 3 Mailosi, Chigwirizano, Kauma, Kasiya, Mchezi, Mgona, Mtandire, Njewa, among others).
And there is the question of affordable in-city housing. None of our cities has taken advantage of mass multifamily city dwellings that would swallow many of its workers who currently involuntarily live far and out. We believe that a modern city should be able to come to terms with the allocation of housing for its poorer workers closer to work than in the distant quarters they currently live. This should be acknowledged as a provision beyond social services and, to a large extent, one of public economics as well. With access to water, electricity, schools and health services, the urban works force will be strong and healthy. With a foresight to build good roads for the outskirts, the potential to relocate most of the city’s middle and upper classes could rise. Because they can afford more expensive services, the suburbs where they live are likely to have everything they need. Although some stubborn rich would remain in cities, and take only certain minimums in services, the quality of services received to all in-city dwellers would be more uniformly enjoyed. And the fact that aesthetics matter to the rich and to institutions, keeping the cities consistently clean would be cause for Assemblies to be creative about and dedicated to environmental health.
It is time we stopped giving our relations from the village the side eye as they move into the cities, acknowledging it as a normal societal shift that is not only affecting Malawi, but the rest of the world. The speed with which it will happen will be uniquely high in Africa, and this urban explosion will require a rethink of policies to handle the urban poor now rather than later.
Municipal offices must recognize that for Salome to survive urban life, she may occasionally have to borrow from her office a ream of paper to sell at the Mchezi market, or pens for her primary school children. Someday, life may demand that she borrow a laptop. That will make her a criminal, a danger to society that must be leashed to a chain.
Future Malawian cities will either spend on the welfare of the poor to minimize the inequality gap and offer opportunities for empowerment of the poor, or they will have to build armies of police officers to keep urban crime in check. That choice rests solely with them today.