Hope and Skepticism as Ghana Finally Adopts an Urban Policy

Accra | 04/16/2013 9:00am
Sharon Benzoni | Informal City Dialogues

“Farouk’s people came in their numbers,” says Mr. Kwado Yeboah, Principal Town Planner in the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. He’s talking about the people – informal-settlement dwellers and informal traders – who showed up to represent the informal sector and the urban poor during the making of the Ghana Urban Policy Framework, released late last week.

Recognizing the inadequacy of urban infrastructure and piecemeal planning, the initiative is an attempt to provide a comprehensive framework for urban development. Prior to this plan, development planning in Ghana was focused on rural areas, where 80 percent of the population once lived. Now, though, over 51 percent of Ghana’s population lives in urban areas. As Yeboah says, “Urbanization is a natural phenomenon. It is inevitable.”

So, over the course of the last five years, a lengthy sequence of workshops, proposals, technical reviews, consultations, investigations, analyses and assessments were held in an effort to create a new comprehensive urban policy plan for all of Ghana.

Part of the reason for this apparently endless series of meetings, reviews and analyses was that the process of creating the plan was an attempt to be as inclusive as possible. Mr. Yeboah lists groups involved in the process with dizzying speed: Local community, traditional leaders, private industry, NGOs. And that’s also when he mentions Farouk Bramaiah, the director of the People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements. The People’s Dialogue and the associated Ghana Federation for the Urban Poor are two of the major forces representing Ghana’s urban poor groups, informal traders and informal-settlement dwellers. They were represented at various stages in the process, and the fact that they have gained enough recognition to be included in a national-level policy formulation process is impressive in itself. (“We need more Farouks,” a friend and urban policy guru — my title of respect and reverence, not his — recently told me over breakfast as we discussed the new framework).

So what did all this participation result in? And how will it affect the informal sector? After a good hour of patiently explaining and fielding my questions, Yeboah hands me the two slim documents that make up the policy framework and its associated action plan. “Read it and you will see,” he says.

So I do. The framework is broken down into a background that identifies problems in the urban situation, a (very broad) set of guiding principles, a set of 13 policy objectives and a series of further initiatives to achieve those objectives. I was impressed by the problems identified – issues like a weak urban economy, land-use disorder, urban poverty and inadequate infrastructure. After living in Accra for nearly two years, the issues they identified ring true.

So what to do about them? That’s where the policy objectives come in.

Let me just lay them out for you:

1. To facilitate balanced re-distribution of urban population.
2. To promote a spatially integrated hierarchy of urban centers.
3. To promote urban economic development.
4. To improve environmental quality of urban life.
5. To ensure effective planning and management of urban growth and sprawl, especially of the [primary] cities and other large urban centers.
6. To ensure efficient urban infrastructure and service delivery.
7. To improve access to adequate and affordable low-income housing.
8. To promote urban safety and security.
9. To strengthen urban governance.
10. To promote climate change adaptation and mitigation mechanisms.
11. To strengthen applied research in urban and regional development.
12. To expand sources of funding for urban development and strengthen urban financial management.

Glittering generalities.

So let’s get down to the initiatives. Here, the informal sector is acknowledged, both directly and indirectly. Under “promote urban economic development,” the last four initiatives directly target informality:

- Change the official attitude towards the informal enterprises from neglect to recognition and policy support.
- Ensure that urban planning provides for the activities of the informal economy.
- Build up and upgrade the operational capacities of the informal enterprises.
- Improve funding support for the informal economy.

A number of other initiatives will target issues that directly impact people in informal settlements and major problems that informal sector workers deal with. For example, two initiatives look at upgrading slums and introducing “non-conventional housing finance.”

Yeboah emphasizes that collecting information will be a key change: “We have not been able to study the economic dynamics of the informal sector,” he says. So the Action Plan includes commissioning studies counting the people in informal settlements and markets, and calculating the full extent of their contributions to the economy. He also says that forced evictions of informal settlements and markets would be cut from government policy, focusing instead on in-situ upgrading and compromise.

This all sounds good. Really good. I want to be optimistic. Yeboah sounds optimistic, and he sounds like he really cares about the informal sector. But decentralization has been a major part of Ghana’s national strategic direction in recent years, which means it’s up to dozens of separate municipal authorities to implement fairly broad initiatives based on the plan, and government ministers to emphasize and finance it.

“Changing official attitudes” may be the biggest challenge — there are still plenty of people in government positions who emphasize the illegality of informal settlements like Old Fadama rather than the economic and social realities that drew its residents there.

One other thing that gives me pause is the general thrust of the first two policy objectives, which seek “balanced re-distribution of urban population” and “a spatially integrated hierarchy of urban centers.” An urban policy expert I consulted told me that this kind of initiative involves intensive investments and serious long-term commitment to attracting people to smaller urban centers, relieving some of the pressure on the rapidly growing large cities of Accra and Kumasi (Ghana’s “second city”). The British have successfully managed this in cities like Newcastle, but whether Ghana has the money or political commitment is still an open question. A relatively simple and obviously important project, repairing the Accra-Kumasi “highway” – the bumpy, largely dirt road that links Ghana’s capital and port to its second-most important city and a major economic hub – has reputedly been stymied for years because of politics. Furthermore, this may simply be the result of too much participation; rural communities were perhaps over-represented in guiding Ghana’s urban development plan. In addition, people frustrated with the strains on Accra’s infrastructure have expressed a desire to simply force out recent migrants.

Many people concerned with Accra’s urban development are more than a little jaded. “It’s better to be surprised [when the government does well] than to expect it,” one long-time urbanism expert I often consult told me a few days ago. Still, the framework is a step in the right direction toward creating a cohesive urban development plan that will, hopefully, begin to address the major stresses that make life in the city so hard, especially for those in the informal sector.