Urban development amid the 'new scramble' for Africa

Pharmacy in a shanty town at night

Principal Investigator

Project background

Much of the African continent is currently undergoing an 'urban revolution': societies that until recently have been overwhelmingly rural and agriculture-based are inexorably, and often rapidly, urbanising.

This has profound implications for African states and societies, especially given the limited economic base of many cities on the continent. It is also throwing up new challenges for traditional aid donors such as the World Bank, Britain and the US, who have long been inclined to focus much of their effort on rural poverty.

Meanwhile, the increased engagement between emerging global powers and countries on the African continent has attracted widespread attention in recent years, particularly with respect to the role of China as an aid donor, investor and source of migrants.

Some have talked of a 'new scramble for Africa' akin to that of the arrival of the European powers in the late nineteenth century, and debates about whether this is ultimately good or bad for Africans are ongoing.

While there is a large and growing body of research on Chinese engagement in Africa, and considerable scholarship focusing on African urban growth patterns and urban development prospects, there is very little research exploring the interrelationship between these two trends.

The urban dimension of Chinese engagement is a key issue, however, particularly as (unlike many Western donors) China has no objection to funding major urban infrastructure and construction projects and has developed a number of Special Economic Zones on the fringes of African cities.

Project scope

This project therefore aimed to address critical gaps in existing research, by researching direct and indirect impacts of Chinese engagement in the two strategically-selected African states of Ethiopia and Uganda, with particular attention to the 'core' cities of Addis Ababa and Kampala respectively.

It also explored how interactions between Chinese agencies, other emerging powers investing in Africa, 'traditional' donors and African governments are shaping the way urban development challenges and opportunities are understood and acted upon.

  • The research was pursued through exploring three critical issues:
  • The governance of urban land, particularly with respect to Chinese approaches to leasing land to finance urban development.
  • Major urban infrastructure projects and their impacts on low-income groups.
  • Efforts to create mass industrial and service sector employment.

A range of methods was employed to build a rich picture of the impacts of Chinese urban engagement in each case, including

  • interviews with African municipal and national governments, international donors, investors, and Chinese migrant business people
  • small-scale surveys and focus groups with urban communities
  • gathering background quantitative data
  • analysing policy documents and tracing ideas and discourses across international documentary material and policy fora
  • and undertaking co-productive urban site analysis with a range of international actors.

As well as the academic community, the research is of interest to local and national governments in African states, international policy makers (including a range of UN organisations), multilateral and bilateral aid donors, and development NGOs.


Economic and Social Research Council

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