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Foresight @AfriCities 2015: An Interview with Alioune Sall

Dr Sall was interviewed by Dr Geci Karuri-Sebina


Between 29th November and 3rd December 2015, the 7th AfriCities Summit was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Convened by United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa), this event is held every three years and is the continent’s largest convening of local authorities. It focuses on evaluating and enabling the implementation of decentralization policies in Africa as cities become a more prominent development sphere. This 7th summit was themed: “SHAPING THE FUTURE OF AFRICA WITH THE PEOPLE: THE CONTRIBUTION OF AFRICAN LOCAL AUTHORITIES TO AGENDA 2063 OF THE AFRICAN UNION.”

An innovation in this edition of AfriCities was the use of foresight given the link to the African Union’s Africa Agenda 2063 which already cast the deliberations onto a long-range horizon. Dr. Alioune Sall, Executive Director of African Futures Institute and a Director of the Southern African Node of the Millennium Project, was the lead of the foresight programme and consideration. Dr Sall was interviewed on 11 December 2015 by Dr Geci Karuri-Sebina for FFD:


What is the significance of AfriCities for global futures and Africa?

AfriCities is important in that the theme of “Shaping the future…” recognises two things: 1) That we need to now think long term and not simply short term (e.g. as we did with structural adjustment, etc.); and 2) That it is important that participation be the cornerstone of developmental policies and practices. Finding African solutions to African problems will depend on people’s capacity to empower people to do so. This speaks to the need for domestic resource mobilisation and analysis.

Another significance is that there is a lot of talk on the continent about emergence (more than 25 plans for emergence have been formulated recently). The current interest in the continent’s growth within the narrative of “Africa Rising” – which is largely emanating from the urban settings – is significant. The fact that cities have been a major contributor to this growth means that we need to be concerned about how cities continue to contribute to Africa’s growth into the future. However the type of growth may be different from what we have known so far in Africa –the movement from resource-led to knowledge-led economies. The challenge is of course how to make sure that growth goes on, but finding different engines for it. Cities are an important part of this – they must be hubs of creativity and innovation to contribute to the growth we need for the future.


What does this focus on African cities / local governments imply for the relative or changing role of nation states and national governments looking into the future?

One of the implications of this focus on cities and local authorities is about empowering urban dwellers in managing the business of the cities. Quantitatively, urban populations in Africa will be growing and cities will be contributing significantly to the development of countries. Once you accept that urban dwellers necessarily have a say in managing their own business or livelihoods, then the question of how we go about empowering them becomes a question of how to share power between national executives (which have had all the power) with local authorities (which have had none).

But while local authorities are closer to people and are therefore a good entry point, one has to understand that this will not be the end of the road! Local governments would be foolish to think that people will just give them a blank check; they will need to deliver the services and value. People (communities) will want to know what kind of social compacts can be worked out and demand accountability. Furthermore, grassroots organisations which have also been organising and providing support will also demand their inclusion as a player and not simply step aside for local authorities.

So while indeed national and local governments will have to accept that power has to be shared between them, it will also be a question of how they will be held account. This will force leaders to come to terms with the fact that governance cannot be static – it cannot simply be a legacy of the past, or organised in a vacuum! Governance has got to be negotiated towards building the constituency for shaping a future.


But do you think this may change the form of the nation state?

The form of state (especially in Francophone countries which have still been in the old, centralised Jacobian model) will not hold. We are at the end of the road of that model, and this has somewhat been accepted in the push for decentralisation (e.g. in countries like Senegal). However there still tends to be a reluctance to go all the way [with decentralisation] because financial control is still centralised. The arguments used to maintain this arrangement tend to be about a lack of technical capacities at a local authority level. However African governments will not be able to keep resisting this empowerment of local authorities. We will be evolving to new forms of governance; significant shifts of power that move to include the people as a key player.



What is your take on some of the more extreme ideas floating around about “the fall of nations and the rise of cities” – the possibility of 21st century city states, a la the secession of Singapore from Malaysia?

I don’t think that cities would secede because nation states still form the framework for global cooperation. If, for example, you want to raise finance on international markets, you cannot avoid going through a governmental process; you will still need the government authority.

Unless of course we are looking very long term – 150 years or more. In that case [I would say that] the nation state will continue to be important unless the national / international system collapses altogether. In that case, there could be different outcomes. But this could also be an open door for exploitation and oppression as the city’s battle would then simply change from one of fighting a national administration to fighting global financial muscle instead. Financial capital would be likely to dominate everything. This may not be desirable. But even if it were desirable, I don’t think it would be so easy for such a change to happen.


What is your assessment of the anticipatory needs and capacities in Africa given these shifts in governance, and a strengthened role for local governments into the future?

Anticipatory capacity will be of the essence! Transformation is taking place at a very quick pace. We don’t always know where it could lead to. Take for instance – we are all thinking that the emerging urban middle class will push for an individualisation of consumption. But how will the individualisation of consumption (meaning the emancipation of the individual from the tribal) actually [play out]? Will it be only in the economic domain, or also on the political side? I.e., will people perhaps only have individual consideration when they put forward their economic identity, yet go back to their tribal or ethnic identity when it comes to politics? There is no clear answer as to what this individualisation means, and how [governments could respond]. There will be tensions in all spheres, I think, but particularly between the political and economic spheres. Unless we can develop some capacity to anticipate where all this may lead to – to have some sense of how the systems might be affected, we will be shooting in the dark and spend a lot of time readjusting.

It is increasingly dawning upon me that the sociology of Africa’s development today is a terra incognita (an unknown land) – the future is really unchartered. When I look at the work we have done with the seven AfriCities foresight city case study – what I can see is that while there is a lot of data, you also realise how much remains unknown. Looking at the analysis of the existing data, it is also clear that these cities are a lot more complex than what can be imagined considering cities in other world regions. Even, for example, for a city like Johannesburg – there is a question of where the next growth will come from?! [Joburg’s] economy has evolved over the past century from its origins in mining to manufacturing and eventually to financial and other business services. These changes have spelt change not only in economic makeup, but also in race, in gender, and so forth. If the only source of growth for Joburg remains as services, then the question becomes whether Joburg is able to compete with other cities [globally] which have the same potential? And how will Joburg handle migration in a context where migrants may be vulnerable unless issues of poverty and xenophobia are addressed?

We need to understand the dynamics of change in all these cities. Anticipation is of the essence.




How effective was this use of foresight towards the Summit’s objectives and deliberations? How so?

We did not get all the answers from the case studies, but they were a good start. They effectively elucidated that: 1) There is a problem; 2) There is potential; and 3) There are methodologies for engaging with these issues of the future, and it cannot just be treated at random.

So the research has been a source of knowledge, but has also triggered some behavioural change among the local government role-players as they came to realise that while they may have been part of the problem, but they may, as well, be part of the solution for tomorrow. Through the engagement, local authorities were beginning to understand that they have an even greater role to play in the future. They were helped to see that the trends are coming with a greater responsibility, but also with great opportunity for them.

For example, the point was made very clearly from the discussions that by 2030 African rural and urban population will be at par, and by 2050 Africa will be an urban continent. This was an eye-opener for many delegates who were still viewing Africa as a rural continent!

The case studies could even have gone further with the benefit of time, and a better understanding of the foresight methodology among the researchers, etc.

In addition to the presentation of the foresight study findings to the important constituency, was the identification of areas where policies and strategies are needed and could make a difference. Six areas were thought to be important:

1) Human resources available to local government;
2) Information as being important for empowerment – e.g. spatial boundaries of cities, disaggregated population and economic data, etc.
3) Platforms for dialogue and building networks as learning platforms – interaction with other policy makers (national, international); building constituencies for change
4) Financial resources – how to increase domestic resource mobilisation, how to deal with informality and to get it into the mainstream, etc.
5) The environment – although cities were generally built around resources, the environment is now at stake and this is made worse by climate change; how can cities use the resources that they require without jeopardising the future
6) Migration patterns – external but also internal migration, the challenges posed by informality (e.g. 50% of urban dwellings in Cairo are informal, which creates challenges for urban land management and settlement upgrades); local governments need to be part of this dialogue.


What kind of resolutions emerging from AfriCities are exciting to you in terms of positive prospects for African futures?

The exciting part for me was to understand the complexity of what a city means, and the need to differentiate between what is a city, what is an agglomeration, what is a town, and so on. There are a number of notions associated with organisation of these entities which are not always very clearly defined. The first challenge for me, and anyone interested in urbanisation and local authorities, is to consider what the differences between these different scales are. So this presents an interesting conceptual challenge. An idea that I found interesting was that of the city is an assemblage of assemblage – various networks that intersect and interact; a dynamic space.

At a methodological level, it was also quite a challenge because you are working with sets of information which were gathered not for the purpose of empowering communities or local authorities, but for the purpose of controlling the development of cities. How do you move from information systems which are designed to control, to ones that are designed to find opportunities for empowering? This will be an important question going into the future.

At the policy formulation level, there is the question of how do you move from all of this information that you get, with all of its shortcomings, to the design of policy? And I do not only mean designed, “evidence-based” policy – which in my view means nothing anymore! Nobody can develop policy only on evidence – after all, there are urban dynamics that have nothing to do with policy, but have more power than policy to shape the dynamics of the future! The question is how to mix the information that is relevant with the ambition, and how to also mix ambition with reality; the Gramscian proposition of blending “the pessimism of the intelligence with the optimism of the will” becomes relevant! It became clear to me [through this process] that this is what we need to do. Because the evidence is really not clear, and urban dynamics are not only subject to policy. You have to also consider ambition (which is also will). And you also have to include the pessimism – about what could go wrong, in spite of your ambitions, and how you manage uncertainties and risks. This must be part of the discourse.


Any other remarks, looking beyond AfriCities?

One of the challenges for AfriCities going into the future is going to be how to go about ensuring some follow-through and consistency, and not only having a meeting every 3 years as a huge jamboree and then nothing happens in between with everyone left to their own devices. One of the things that has to come from this AfriCities is the idea of building capacity of local authorities to develop anticipatory capacities. I hope that there will be some kind of follow thru on this. For example it could be some observatory of urban phenomena and processes which can be used for early warning, among other uses. I hope there will be some follow up on that.

UCLGA would need to follow up on this, but it may need to be endorsed somehow by at the AU level, and also perhaps there is an opportunity to revive ECOSOC (the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council) and getting to interact with the trade unions, CSOs, private sector, and so forth.

As for the African Futures Institute, we would like to build up a network of African researchers looking at the issues of local empowerment, urbanisation, etc. , so we hope that the institutions and individuals which were involved in the AfriCities foresight and sessions will find ways to maintain a platform for interaction.


For more information on the 7th AfriCities Summit, visit http://www.africities2015.org/.

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