Mothers, sons, and the big city

Are there specific populations in the world where lack of investment poses the greatest threat to future peace and prosperity? In a world connected by the rapid movement of money, goods, and services, and increasingly people, this is fast becoming an important global question. Because if we can identify the highest-risk populations now, it might be possible to make the kinds of investments that avert a confluence of poverty, inequality, disease, and conflict that could threaten nations, regions, and even the planet.

But how to find them? Here’s one possible approach worth considering. It begins with a hypothesis; namely that the largest, most vulnerable populations will live in the places with, (a) the fastest population growth, (b) the largest proportions of young men, and (c) the largest cohorts of young mothers in the population. 

Why? Because these are the places where rapid growth will put enormous pressure on resources, leaving large populations of young men potentially unemployed, idle, and vulnerable to violent distraction, while young women are tied up with the burdens of childcare and locked out of economic and political power and influence. This is a recipe for extreme poverty, inequality, disease, and conflict that could prove highly contagious.

But where are these populations? If we fast forward to 2030 and isolate the ten cities and towns that will experience the fastest population growth, the largest proportions of young men, and the largest proportions of children under 14, we come up with the following ten urban areas (in order of population size): Kampala (Uganda), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Lusaka (Zambia), Bamako (Mali), N’Djamena (Chad), Niamey (Niger), Mwanza (Tanzania), Bujumbura (Burundi), Zinder (Niger), and Kitwe (Zambia).

Two corridors in Africa

Of note, all of these populations are in Sub-Saharan Africa and cluster in two contiguous zones from west to east in western Africa, and north to south in eastern Africa. Niger and Zambia stand out for having four of the ten populations. All of these ten towns and cities are forecast to grow by more than 4% each year between 2025 and 2030, far above the forecast average of 1.4% for the world’s 20 largest megacities, according to the UN. At the upper end are Niamey and Zinder in Niger, both forecast to grow by more than 6% each year, followed by Bujumbura in Burundi (5.24%), Kampala in Uganda (5.09%), Kitwe in Zambia (4.53%), Mwanza in Tanzania (4.52%), Bamako in Mali (4.51%), Lusaka in Zambia (4.51%), N’Djamena in Chad, and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso (4.25%).  

Together, these ten towns and cities will be home to 28 million people in 2030, up from 16 million in 2018. Cities like Zinder in Niger and Bujumbura in Burundi are forecast to double their populations in just over a decade. Kampala, N’Djamena and Mwanza will come close. 

The proportion of young men in these ten countries is high and rising. By 2030, more than 1 in 5 men will be aged 15 to 24 years in all of these populations, compared to a global average of 15.5%, according to UN estimates. As rates of youth unemployment are already high in Sub-Saharan Africa, a critical challenge will be generating paid employment for these large and rising cohorts of young men.

Children under 14 years will account for more than 4 out every 10 people in these towns and cities in 2030, placing a major burden on the women who are largely responsible for raising them. In Niger, children under 14 are forecast to be 48.5% of the population in 2030, while the proportion of children in the other countries range from 43.6% in Mali to 41.1% in Burkina Faso. In contrast, just 23.7% of the world’s population will be under 14 years in 2030.

Continued high fertility rates of more than 4.3 children per woman in all of these populations (compared to a global average of 2.4) will not only keep women from finishing school and getting paid jobs, but will undermine female political power and public influence. Countries that cannot tap their female talent at this scale will forfeit the benefits of female leadership, the so-called “female leadership dividend”. 

This combination of mothers, sons, and the big city has the potential to undermine development in these ten cities and towns, and eight countries, on all of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Absent investments that can mitigate these factors, the risk of cities, countries, and even continents backsliding due to infectious disease outbreaks, urban unrest, and/or climate-induced disasters in these areas is high.

But how to invest in these populations?

First, the governments responsible for these highest growth cities and towns need specific development plans that zero in on young male employment and female empowerment. The most powerful government economic and social ministries should co-develop these plans so that they simultaneously target the kind of economic growth, job creation, and social development that disproportionately benefits men and women aged 15 to 24.

Specific strategies could include employing large cohorts of young males on SDG-aligned urban infrastructure projects, such as housing, healthcare, roads, energy, water, and farming. It is important that most of these jobs are paid, private sector jobs that could be financed through public-private partnerships and blended finance.

Government programs to encourage youth to become entrepreneurs and to start businesses should be front and center. Private venture and philanthropic capital should also be investing in pro-development African entrepreneurs, 50% of whom should be women.

At the same time, governments should systematically remove the barriers that keep young women out of school, out of jobs, and out of politics. The tax and transfer system could reward families whose daughters graduate high school, provide free access to modern contraception, and cash transfers to the most vulnerable young women. Financial penalties for child marriage should be enforced vigilantly so that the practice sunsets by 2030. After women give birth, paid parental leave and subsidized childcare in the first years should encourage return to work.

As an investment in the next generation of civic leaders, governments could even set time-limited quotas for women in city and state government, until the percentage of women in city legislatures reaches 50%. To measure the success of these types of strategies, governments could set bold targets and monitor and publish progress.

Specific targets in the high-growth cities and towns could include:

  • 90%+ male and female high school graduation rate
  • <5% male and female youth unemployment rate
  • <3 children per woman
  • <2% women under 18 married
  • 50% women in local government

To finance these urban development plans, governments would only need to capture a tiny portion of the estimated $US50 billion that leaves Africa in illicit financial flows each year. So-called “STAX” taxes could be introduced on sugar, tobacco, and alcohol products as diets change in these urban areas and the threat of non-communicable disease looms. In countries with natural resources, additional levies on the foreign corporations who benefit most from extraction could be targeted to urban development.

Governments could also consider putting conditions on foreign aid, requiring that a significant portion be pooled and invested in the implementation of urban development plans in these areas. As the ten cities and towns in this analysis form two distinct corridors that cross national borders, regional and continental political platforms like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union could champion these investment corridors as flagships.

Imagine a strategic alliance of west and east African city mayors and state governors, large regional employers, national and continental political leaders, multilateral investment banks and development agencies, philanthropic funders and venture capital firms all aligned to invest in the future of these urban populations.

What about the bigger picture?

These small, highest growth cities and towns are just one element of a much larger global cities agenda. By 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities and ten megacities will have more than 20 million inhabitants each, including Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Mumbai, Beijing, Dhaka, Karachi, Cairo, Lagos, Mexico City, and São Paulo. In most of these cities, governments are already working hard on mega-city development strategies, and some are even describing a future where the world is not a collection of nation states, but of highly networked megacities and conurbations.

In this context, the world should not miss this group of smaller population but highest growth cities and towns, all in Sub-Saharan Africa, and each with the capacity to create a lot of misery and conflict for their own inhabitants, the region and even the world if they are neglected.