13 November 2012

Ethiopia: Balancing Urbanization in Favour of Enhanced Quality


Ethiopia is celebrating Cities Week for the fourth time in a week-long programme of various activities. During a briefing session organized for journalists, State Minister of Urban Development and Construction, Ato Dessalegn Ambaw, revealed that the celebration focuses on thinking about the ways and means of sustaining the ongoing urban development schemes in Ethiopia.

It is also intended to connect to the legacy of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose visionary leadership had put urban development on a firm pedestal. As a result, this year's Cities Week is to uphold his memory by way of an appropriate theme, namely: "Our cities will achieve Meles' vision being a source of industrialists." In addition, the celebration popularizes the seven urban development pillars identified by the government. The development of small and micro enterprises, job creation, facilitation of urban housing, good governance, and urban sanitation are among these pillars.

Urbanization is one of the key outcomes of the modernization and transformation processes of all ancient as well as contemporary nations. It is still happening as a direct consequence of shifting emphasis made by governments in favour of industrialization at the expense of their mostly archaic, agrarian economies. This is especially more evident in the developing countries in which aggressive transformation policies and strategies are being implemented. The transition from traditional, rural economy to one dominated by manufacturing and commerce is creating in these developing countries the migration of human beings to and their concentration at particular centres of production, creating the nuclei for the gradual birth and growth of urban villages, towns and cities. All the cities and towns in Ethiopia as well as elsewhere in the world have their initial beginning in this transition process, and the more aggressive and sustained the transition gets, the more numerous, expansive and complex towns and cities become.

Ethiopia has been on this path for many centuries, except that urbanization in our country is less driven by industrialization--which had been non-existent in its modern sense until a few decades ago--than by other factors like commerce. Nonetheless, urbanization--like its antecedent, industrialization--has been pitifully slow and intermittent. Existing towns and cities grew and expended so sluggishly that life in them, though somehow confusing or awesome to the utterly provincial, proved to be hardly cumbersome to their citizens. It was no wonder, therefore, if many Ethiopians had had little to complain about, or if they had found little difficulty in copping up with the traffic. Now that so much has changed very lately because of the new-found energy for speedy economic growth in the country, some of us are beginning to stop and marvel at what is going on around us.

Whatever is really going on in our cities? This is one of the issues we should raise for discussion among each other at a time like this. Cities Week should not be a one sided affair, i.e., to applaud what we have so far accomplished, even if this is a more important one considering the folly of celebration or complaining when nothing has been done. Thus, one must always be on the guard to protect what has so far been accomplished from harm due to neglect or disuse. It is also essential to work one's mind to see if there has been anything we should have accomplished, but have not for some reason or other. In plain terms, take, for example, Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia and the diplomatic seat of international organizations like the African Union. Road congestion, road accident, sanitation, pollution (noise, air, water,..., whatever you name it), and things related generally to the ergonomics of a metropolitan city are things to think very seriously and urgently about. We may not have reached that level of danger as experienced in other fast growing cities of the world like those in China, but, going at this rate, how long will it take us to be there? Many things are coming to threaten the normal course of life for a lot of people.

What is more worrisome is that Addis Ababa is only at the initial stages of its development. One may argue that things will change gradually as the city transforms and develops, an argument that is generally right at its face value. And yet, some metropolitan cities have failed to improve once they have crossed some invisible but real red line, apparently a point of no return. In our case, some key factors that influence the quality of urban life are at their low, initial levels, and, if we all really care, we can overcome our present problems.

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