Media Briefings

FOR A BETTER LIFE IN AFRICA, MOVE TO A CITY

  • Published Date: April 2017

Almost every measure of living standards in Africa is better in urban areas – even air pollution

The flight to cities in Africa gets migrants a better quality of life, and so is likely to continue for many years. That’s the conclusion of new research by Douglas Gollin, Martina Kirchberger and David Lagakos, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

Comparing standards of living between villages and urban areas, the authors find that about 40% of rural Africans have a phone, compared with 83% in cities. Only 12% of villagers have electricity, compared with 63% in cities. Rates of health and housing quality are either similar or better for urbanites. But air pollution is the biggest surprise: the African manufacturing sector is not large enough to have a large effect on air quality in cities, while many rural households cook indoors with solid fuels, making their air quality worse for those who live in the house.

‘Residents of just about every African country are voting with their feet and moving to cities in large numbers,’ the authors conclude. ‘Our study gives every reason to think that this trend should continue for many years ahead.’

More…

Just about every available measure of living standards in Africa is higher on average in urban areas than in rural areas. That is the main conclusion of this study. Perhaps surprisingly, African cities are on average not more polluted than rural areas – if anything pollution is worse in villages, where most households burn wood in indoor stoves, thus lowering indoor air quality. Rates of theft and assault are, unfortunately, quite high in both in rural areas and cities.

Consider two groups, one living in the highest density region of a country and the other one living in the lowest density region. Call them villagers and urbanites. About 40% of villagers have a phone, compared with 83% of urbanites. Only 12% of villagers have electricity, compared with 63% of urbanites. Differences in theft faced by these groups are much less stark: 28% of villagers had something stolen from their house in the last year, compared with 33% of urbanites. Numerous other measures, such as health and housing quality, are either similar or better for urbanites.

In terms of air pollution, a major source of fine particulate matter in Africa is dust from the Sahara. But proximity to the Sahara obviously varies a lot across countries and regions, and the African manufacturing sector is not large enough systematically to render cities worse in terms of outdoor air quality.

A bigger issue is indoor air quality. When we look at households who cook indoors with solid fuels, such as coal or wood, it’s the villagers who do this much more often, with indoor air quality suffering as a result. Around 62% of villagers cooked with solid fuels indoors, compared with 38% of urbanites.

The findings of this study are significant because they contradict many preconceived notions of African cities as offering higher wages but otherwise being much worse places to live than rural villages. Its true that wages are higher in African cities, and this is consistent with the conventional wisdom. But no prior study has looked systematically at non-monetary measures of living standards, such as pollution, crime and health metrics as this study does.

Our results provide little support for the idea that there is a ‘spatial equilibrium’ in Africa, where rural residents are on average equally well off as those living in cities. Moreover, residents of just about every African country are voting with their feet and moving to cities in large numbers on net. Our study gives every reason to think this trend should continue for many years ahead.

ENDS


AFRICAN CITIES: Are living standards better or worse than in rural areas?
Douglas Gollin (University of Oxford), Martina Kirchberger (Trinity College Dublin) and David Lagakos (UC San Diego)

Contact
Martina Kirchberger
martina.kirchberger@tcd.ie