Editorial - View Point


It was unusual in Ethiopian political history to talk about democratic participation or democratic election within the political arena because historically, there was none. Recent fundamental changes in the...

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Urbanization and its challenges

Only recently have we read that Lonely Planet, the global travel guide company, has just honoured Addis Ababa by listing it among the “10 Top Cities” which travellers had better not fail to visit in 2013. The company ranked our capital city the 9th best destination point for aspiring visitors, and said that this ranking was based on various parameters including, its diversity, rapid growth, and the value for money. The list consists of cities from all the four corners of the world and representing countries that are at various stages of economic development. At the top of the list is San Francisco, USA, followed in their order of rank by Amsterdam, Holland; Hyderabad, India; Londonderry (Derry), UK; Beijing, China; Christchurch, New Zealand; Hobart, Tasmania; Montreal Canada; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Puerto Iguaçu, Brazil. Most of these are familiar names, their familiarity deriving from some identifiable attributes of their own and/or associated with their parent countries. Taking care not to go beyond the bounds of rational thinking, it is essential that we congratulate the residents of the city, the city’s government, and the various other stakeholders for this accomplishment. One does not help but wonder if any Ethiopian has expected Addis Ababa, with so much more to plan and do, to win a favourable global attention, let alone at this scale and so suddenly.

What is more interesting in this nomination is less its unexpectedness than the way it was made public. One can, even now, browse the company’s website and discover the various cheery expressions and images used to explain the reasons why Addis Ababa caught the attention of various people whose votes the company used as the ultimate arbiter and, thus, won its nomination. Probably something to be expected of an organization whose business success relies on its ability to show the sunny side of its product, Lonely Planet’s presentation of Addis Ababa—and, therefore, Ethiopia—demonstrates the professional commitment necessary to make, as much as possible, a distinction between contemporary truth and historical bias. Thus, it lacks the usual melodramatic, “shock and awe” manner of dealing with sovereign nations or their peoples. That is, though Ethiopians are by no means that desperate to yearn for whatever false acclaim or flattery that comes their way, past irresponsible defamations hurled upon them of their nation by, mostly, the western media and, to some extent, by others had caused moral injuries and have to stop somehow. However, it is necessary to admit that honest and constructive assessments must always be welcome. As long as they are based on real but beatable issues, though hurtful, they could always play an indicative role, assisting in sharpening policy and strategy in order for the nation to conquer these issues through economic and political means. Now that the economy is visibly transforming, our society is changing, and it is time that the rest of the world got a fair picture of the nation and appreciate what it has achieved.

Even now, however, we need to make sure that we are not sounding overly confident of the mere beginnings. History has shown that no earthly human problem can ever be gotten rid of in its entirety in any society, no matter how developed it is. Even the most prosperous country in the world—namely, the United States of America—cannot afford the credit of doing away with, for instance, one of the most ancient of all social evils, poverty. According to latest reports, 46 million Americans are at this very moment living below the poverty line. Thus, coming back to the starting point, Lonely Planet’s approach is not just attractive by our measure, but honest and objective, as well, justified by the testimonies of thousands of foreign visitors who are nowadays increasingly crowding the streets of Addis Ababa as well as the various attractions across the country.

Alas, the above discussion has not been what the writer promised to follow up Part 1 of this article with. The reader is entitled to a sincere apology as far as certain portions of the digression is concerned, seeing that it may be uncalled for. And yet, we can understand the validity of the connection made with Lonely Planet if we explore the basic criteria it applied for nominating Addis Ababa, or the other cities. According to Lonely Planet, “destinations make the list for a variety of reasons, including special events, recent developments or buzz, or ... the destination is up-and-coming, and worth visiting before the crowds get too big.” Whether by design or accident, this statement goes much further than being a collection of criteria designed for selecting the 10 most desirable cities in the world. With respect to Addis Ababa—and, by association, other Ethiopian cities in general—the impression of the writer is that the above statement shall be taken both as an encouragement and a warning in our bid for increased urbanization. Such dichotomy explains the present situation of some metropolitan cities, and brings into focus some of the reasons why they are sought as well as shunned, not just by foreign visitors but also by their own citizens or residents. Our assumption at this juncture is that, though considered by some as a metropolitan city, Addis Ababa, much less the other cities in Ethiopia, has not yet seen a process of urbanization that has been too awry, thus demonstrating in such a similar manner the prevalence of dichotomous properties, or how these properties stand out to affect the day-to-day, normal course of human life.

Whether it is in Ethiopia or elsewhere, urbanization stands for the “physical growth of urban areas as a result of rural migration and even suburban concentration into cities, particularly the very largest ones.” Its most important feature is the marked increase in the proportion of the population that lives in the urban areas—and, thus, a corresponding decrease in the share of the rural population. It can also be characterized by a structural shift in the economy towards an ever greater dependence on urban modes of production, distribution and consumption in which speedy introduction and innovation of technology play a central role. The dominant patterns of employment increasingly favour trained, productive and creative manpower matched by more dynamic and equitable compensatory schemes. The resulting gains in profit, real income and rising living standards for all participants in the economy serve as a magnate to free and draw more and more productive resources from the rural sector to the urban centres making urbanization to gather additional momentum. In view of these trends, it is not misleading to link urbanization closely with modernization, industrialization and other similar factors. What is more, at least from the context of advanced western countries in the twentieth century, the link has appeared to work well and served developing countries as a model to influence their own advancement.

Addis Ababa and a number of other cities in Ethiopia are expanding very fast. The rapidity and magnitude of the expansion of Addis Ababa has caused some expatriates to wonder what source of wealth has the city come to possess recently so as to finance all those massive development projects in such a relatively short time. Many compatriots, on the other hand, cannot help but resent the fact that time and resources have been wasted in the past decades for lack of real political leadership that could have taken the nation on the path of development rather than toward war and destruction. This resentment, however, is acceptable to the extent that it inspires the people for action many times greater so that lost time and resources are essentially compensated for. That seems to be the case, because the speed and scale at which Addis Ababa is growing into a real metropolis befitting its national and international roles would not have been possible otherwise.

We can summarise the gains Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian cities are ensuring out of their new-found energy to speed up their ongoing processes of heightened urbanization by focusing on two broad aspects. First, to the extent that urbanization is part and parcel of the country’s policies and strategies, we can logically attribute its current progress to the government’s ability to guide urbanization consciously along its short- and long-term plans. This means that, because the government has adequate control on the drivers, processes and outcomes, balance among the interconnected issues can be effectively maintained and the urbanization process proves to be healthy and sustainable. For instance, healthy urbanization presupposes that the population absorption capacity of cities must go hand in hand with the rate at which people migrate from rural areas. Whereas it takes a lot of planning, time, effort and investment in resources to make urban areas fit for decent living, movement of people happens almost instantaneously and is driven by almost anything. From negative factors like famine and violence to positive ones like the decision to improve opportunities for jobs and education, there is an endless list of factors causing masses of people to move to cities. In a situation where jobs, housing, utilities, schools and other facilities are already overstretched, migration of rural people into the cities may tear down beyond repair the latter’s social, economic and political fabric. Whether things have been going on in this fashion thus far notwithstanding, it is essential that they do from this point on if we mean to engender a robust culture of urbanization.

Secondly, other things equal, robustness or health of our cities attained through the planned and controlled implementation of urbanization schemes easily translates into self-sustaining mechanisms. Robust and healthy cities are, relatively speaking, clean, comfortable, prosperous, vibrant, safe and hospitable. All of these are qualities that come with the ability of the cities to provide their residents basically with the opportunity to engage in some productive or profitable activities of their own calling. In an environment like this, growth and development are inevitable, thus guaranteeing further opportunities for urbanization, absorbing automatically additional people migrating from the rural sector for whatever reason. At the same time, this kind of dynamism of the urban areas adds value in the national economy by providing a potent market for agricultural products thereby assisting in raising agricultural income.

Slightly ambiguous as it may be, Lonely Planet’s phrase—namely, “visiting before the crowds get too big”—can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, it may be that Addis Ababa will continue to grow as it has so far, and, attracted by its healthy and robust growth, more and more visitors from abroad will find it their best destination point. That is, the number of people visiting it in the near future is expected to grow. In the event that this happens, the city is likely to lose some of its serenity. On the other hand, it is equally plausible to experiment on the notion that Addis Ababa is already showing signs of fatigue amid breath-taking splendour. The strains show most vividly in its transportation systems, the traffic jams, the heat that is aggravated by reflecting mirror windows of skyscrapers, the nauseating stink of filth breaking from roadside toilets and overflowing into the streets, and what not. It has been repeatedly indicated about the sorry state in which some of the newly constructed roads, pedestrian walks, light poles, drainage pipes, and so on are right now, but nothing has come of it so far. So, it is hardly necessary to spend time on it any more.

Some of these are tolerable to the residents, except probably the now worsening issue of how to get where one wants to. Long lines of people waiting for the minibuses, midibuses and buses of Addis Ababa are doing a good job of reminding us of the days two decades ago. A new development in this respect is that the waiting lines sometimes last outside of the rush hours, as well. As the saying goes, in this world of endless trade-offs, one’s tragedy is another’s opportunity, and some abusive taxi drivers and their assistants appear to be already in the midst of a rare feeding frenzy, like sharks converging on helpless victims. Unless these and other irregularities find a quick and lasting solution, our city, the New Flower, will repeat the story of countless others elsewhere.

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