In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of. CONFUCIUS
This picture reminds me of the phrase “a bridge too far”, which means a target that is too ambitious, particularly one that will end up causing problems or even dire consequences. The phrase is based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 book of the same name, which was made into a film in 1977. A similar cliché is “biting off more than you can chew.” When I look at this picture it makes me think that our dream for super efficient modern and inclusive cities in sub-Saharan Africa may just be “A bridge to far” for us to reach in the next 20 years or more……and I’m not a pessimist.
This particular picture though is of the Stone Arch Bridge, built in 1883, a Minneapolis landmark that has withstood the test of time. The lighting shows the warm hollow arches underneath, with the street lights on top of the bridge lined up like a lovely promise towards a vibrant thriving city. This skyline resembles many cities today, it could even be City Center Nairobi, except that it isn’t. Such beautiful infrastructure, bridges, roads, railways, public transport…the things we take for granted in modern cities across the Western world are sorely lacking in Africa. Our governments have invested badly in big infrastructure projects in the past, and those with some vision for better roads and railways have been accused of misspending the money, or siphoning it in corrupt or illicit ways.
But we really need better infrastructure in our cities as our populations continue to grow. Urbanization in Africa cities is a trend that will not stop. We want to live in cities because they offer us access to better basic services…usually and the economies of scale makes us want to satisfy our basic instincts to live close to each other…humans beings in our basic biology are pack animals after all.
Cities are now the place where poverty hides. Homeless people all over the world sleep in railway arches like those shown in the picture above and mingling between the rich and prosperous, are many sad and hopeless people, living in the fringes of that prosperous reality. When I worked in Accra , I saw this shocking juxtaposition between rich and poor everyday because the capital city Accra has over 78 slums, according to UN habitat and over a million people (43% of the population) living in absolute poverty.
The issue of inequality and the pervading evils it breeds is an issue that now occupies the minds of the good and the great entrusted with supporting Africa’s economic growth such as Christine Lagarde, Head of the IMF who recently gave a speech on the “oxymoron’ of “Inclusive Capitalism”.
“One of the leading economic stories of our time is rising income inequality, and the dark shadow it casts across the global economy. The facts are familiar. Since 1980, the richest 1 percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data. In the US, the share of income taken home by the top one percent more than doubled since the 1980s, returning to where it was on the eve of the Great Depression. In the UK, France, and Germany, the share of private capital in national income is now back to levels last seen almost a century ago.
The 85 richest people in the world, who could fit into a single London double-Decker, control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population- that is 3.5 billion people. With facts like these, it is no wonder that rising inequality has risen to the top of the agenda–not only among groups normally focused on social justice, but also increasingly among politicians, central bankers, and business leaders.”
So for Africa the road to financial inclusion may be even longer, many rivers and bridges to be crossed first of all……not too long I hope…because just as poverty disempowers people from living lives of dignity, it also empowers many negative forces such as crime, terrorism and disease. Let’s work towards building better cities in Africa that give more people hope for better lives.