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Senate Panel Looks at Challenges Posed by Rapid Urbanization in Africa

A U.S. Senate panel Thursday examined the challenges posed by rapid urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa. The panel heard how the United States is assisting African governments cope with the fast-pace growth of urban areas.

The chairman of the Senate African Affairs subcommittee, Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, says massive population shifts in Africa over the past decade or so raise serious policy issues for African governments.

"Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest urbanizing region in the world," said Mel Martinez. "In 1994, the urban population in Africa was approximately 172 million. By 2004 it had grown to 264 million. The rapid rate of urbanization has serious economic, social and health implications. Urban poor living in densely populated slums and informal settlements constitute a significant portion of this population. In these areas, social disorder simmers because of overcrowding and economic despair."

The United Nations Human Settlements Program, also known as UN-HABITAT, is helping African governments deal with rapid urbanization.

The organization works to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all.

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka is under-secretary-general and executive director of UN-HABITAT:

"The aim is to provide local authorities with the skills and confidence to encourage greater participation of ordinary citizens in the day-to-day management of their cities and towns," said Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka. "Gone is the assumption that the central government will provide free housing for the urban poor. The traditional welfare state model has given way to partnership and participation at all levels. Free public provision has given way to affordability of housing and services as the only tested means for sustainability and for moving to scale."

But Tibaijuka warned that the international community cannot afford to fail in this endeavor:

"If the international community does not act now to support African initiatives, we will pay dearly in the future in terms of the social upheaval that rapid, chaotic urbanization is bound to unleash, both in Africa and beyond," she said.

The United States says it is doing its part.

James Smith is senior deputy assistant administrator for the Bureau of Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade at the U.S. Agency for International Development:

"In post-conflict countries, such as Angola, U.S. AID is working with the national government and other donors to improve city management, to promote good governance practices and increase investment in local infrastructure," said James Smith.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also is working with African national and municipal leaders on housing issues. Darlene Williams is the agency's assistant secretary for policy development and research:

"The core message we share with them is this: protect private property rights, enforce contracts under impartial judges, keep taxes low and equitable, reduce regulatory barriers to enterprise and housing, prohibit discrimination in housing and support popular participation in governance," said Darlene Williams.

The U.S. officials called on African governments to reform policies so they can better attract and manage trade and investment, and generate job growth.