Reflections on the New Climate Economy Report on Urbanisation in Ethiopia

This post provides some reflections on the recently released report titled Unlocking the Power of Ethiopia’s Cities, which was jointly prepared by the Global Green Growth Institute and Ethiopia Development Research Institute and funded by the New Climate Economy initiative.

Overview of the Report

The report is essentially an attempt to provide a vision of a potential urbanisation pathway for Ethiopia that can bolster the country’s economic growth aspirations. Specifically, it is an attempt to assess how patterns of urbanisation in the different regions of Ethiopia could be managed and shaped in a way that supports economic growth and development across different economic sectors. The methodology adopted by the authors for this purpose includes the use of different scenarios and a ‘spatial economic framework’ for analyzing the potential contribution of different urbanisation pathways to economic development in Ethiopia.

As stated in the Report:

The work outlines a five-stage process to help guide the development of Ethiopia’s spatial economic framework. The framework is designed to inform existing urban plans by presenting new and important choices for decision makers. These might include the setting of urbanisation targets; how to phase or sequence growth; and the identification of the number, distribution, hierarchy, role and function of key urban centres and development corridors.

The ‘preferred scenario’ for Ethiopia’s urban future identified from this analytical framework is a ‘poly-clustered spatial development’ approach, which includes eight urban hubs, corridors, and clusters that are based around specialised economic activities and functions.

This scenario is based on three ‘recommended strategic directions for growth’:

  1. Unlocking the potential of secondary urban growth centres
  2. Agglomerating and connecting economic functions
  3. Targeting the development of a compact, connected and resilient urban network


Overall the report provides an valuable overview and assessment of some of the key issues and potential options for urban development futures in Ethiopia. The scenarios presented in the report also provide a useful framework for considering different urban and economic development pathways that could be pursued by Ethiopia, as well as the associated pros and cons of each of the possible alternative scenarios.

However, there are some issues in the detail of the report I wish to comment on in the interest of contributing towards improving this area of work in Ethiopia.

Disconnection from Existing of Literature on African Urbanism

The report appears to be largely disconnected from the existing body of literature dedicated to the unique urbanisation challenges in Africa. This is evident in the references and the lack of discussion or analysis of the history, dynamics and characteristics of urbanisation in Ethiopia or Africa more broadly.

For example, the process of urbanisation in Africa since independence has been notable in that many African countries experienced urbanisation that was not accompanied by strong economic growth or a process of industrialisation. A key consequence of this has been the emergence of a large informal sector in many African cities due to the inability of the formal sector to meet demand for employment, housing and other basic services. In some African cities this has resulted in a situation referred to as ‘extreme splintered urbanism’ whereby enormous disparities exist between rich and poor communities in urban areas and informal settlements or ‘slums’ are pervasive.

In the case of Ethiopia urbanisation rates have historically been very low due to the predominance of the rural agricultural economy and low levels of human and economic development. Recently this has begun to change due to the country’s strong economic performance over the last ten years, however urbanisation rates still remain very low compared to most other African countries.

In addition, the Ethiopian capital city, Addis Ababa, exhibits its own rather unique urban characteristics, such as the presence of ‘urban village’ medium density, mixed-use areas and the absence of gated communities as I discussed in a previous post. Other cities in Ethiopia also exhibit quite unique characteristics and also occupy very different geographical and topographical spaces, from the highland cities of Gondar and Mekelle, to the lowland cities of Dire Dawa and Arba Minch and the Rift Valley cities of Hawassa and Adama.

However, none of these unique aspects of Ethiopian and African urbanisation are discussed in this report, which gives an impression that the analysis is rather ahistorical and without due regard for the local context of Ethiopia or Africa more broadly.

In addition, the report also appears to be grounded upon a ‘predict-and-provide’ approach towards urbanisation and urban planning, with limited consideration for emerging urban ideas and concepts such as the ‘science of cities’ or ‘adaptive urbanism’, which both promote a greater role for city residents in designing and controlling certain aspects of urbanisation.

Lack of Appropriate Data to Backup Conclusions

Some of the conclusions and inferences drawn from the analysis in the report are debatable or lacking appropriate data to back them up. For example, the authors state that:

Stimulating economic growth in new centres has appeared more successful than policies seeking to limit growth in large, dynamic and growing cities such as Addis. These policies (e.g. greenbelts, growth management plans) have generally been less effective and led to wider implications, including increased congestion, rising house prices and outflows of industrial activity where cheap labour and land can be guaranteed.

However, the evidence provided to support this conclusion comes from a rather subjective ‘Evaluation of spatial policy options for urban development’ contained in the report, which doesn’t include a clear methodology or any metrics for comparing the impact and effectiveness of the evaluated policy options from the referenced case studies. Furthermore, in a detailed review of urban containment policies in Seoul the authors suggest that in fact greenbelts can be a potentially useful approach for guiding and managing urban growth, particularly for protection of key ecosystem services and productive agricultural land if well applied. It also suggest that impacts on housing prices are modest and could be offset by progressive housing policies to maintain affordability.

Therefore, such conclusions by the authors appear somewhat premature, particularly in regards to their applicability to the Ethiopia context given the limited analysis of the specific local urban conditions and policies.

Very Limited Attention to the Informal Sector

The most disappointing aspect of the report is the very limited attention given the important role of the informal sector in Ethiopia’s urban centers and the rather antiquated approach towards addressing informal settlements.

For example, one of the ‘assertions’ being tested in the report’s performance assessment of the different scenarios is that “informal settlements [are] more likely to appear in bigger cities where population is less controllable.” This appears to be based on a very simplistic view of how and why informal settlements emerge (i.e. that they are primarily the result of rural-urban migration) rather than the more nuanced ‘slum-producing logics’ framework as developed by Edgar Pieterse.

In addition, under the business-as-usual scenario it states that the “costs of urbanisation [are] likely to be high due to retrospective clean-up of informal settlements within and on the periphery of urban areas.” It appears this is grounded in the belief that informality is something to be avoided at all costs and implies the only solution is removal and resettlement.

This is out of line with the emerging best-practice approaches to addressing informal settlements as outlined in the Five Management Stages of Informal Urbanism by Christian Werthmann, which suggest that the most enlightened and realistic approach is to anticipate and accommodate informality through different methods, such as land allocation, upgrading, and/or the provision of sites and services.

It also ignores the growing body of evidence from numerous Asian cities that demonstrates how informal areas can be upgraded and improved through the collective actions of local community groups with the use of locally controlled funds, which in turn can catalyse increased investment from local governments, and all at a fraction off the cost of slum removal and resettlement programs and without severe social impacts.

In addition, the size and importance of the informal sector in African cities should not be underestimated as it plays a critical role in providing employment opportunities and producing goods and services. Moreover, as I have argued in a previous post, some elements of the informal sector, such as the informal taxi network in Addis Ababa, exhibit the characteristics of a complex-adaptive system, which should be appreciated for its flexibility and responsiveness.

One Very Large Caveat

The report contains one very large caveat that raises a number of questions regarding the ability to implement the report’s recommendations. As stated in the report:

This study has not, however, completed any formal analysis of capacity, policy and regulation, financial approaches and governance – which are critical for the sound implementation of any urbanisation strategy…Something repeatedly recognised by government consultees of this report was that capacity (along with finance) is a priority issue. There are a range of ongoing efforts by [the Ministry of Urban Development, Housing and Construction] and others to improve local municipal capacity in particular; however the scale of resources and time required is significant. The readiness and assimilative capacity of local government to plan, develop and administer a wide range of new investment and activities will test this capacity further. This is a key risk (and perhaps the most significant one) in realising the spatial urban development plan.

Given this is the case, the value of the report’s findings and recommendations need to be questioned if they are too far beyond the current implementation capacity of the relevant government agencies. A more sensible approach could potentially be to consider the existing strengths of local agencies, including the informal sector, and how they could be enhanced and built upon, rather than seeking to implement strategies that require a high level of analytical and implementation capacity that may not exist for many years.


Overall I believe this report represents a good starting point for thinking about potential urban futures in Ethiopia and how spatial patterns of urbanisation can complement and drive economic growth and development. However, as detailed above there are a number of areas where the report is found wanting, particularly in regards to the lack of consideration for the role of the informal sector in Ethiopia cities and the unique characteristics of Ethiopian and African urbanism. Moreover, the huge financial and capacity requirements to fund and manage the proposed poly-clustered spatial development strategy raises questions around the practicality of this urban development approach.

As such, I believe a more nuanced assessment of the local urban context in Ethiopia and the dynamics of urbanisation processes in African cities could complement this work and perhaps yield some different insights about what is more practically implementable.

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4 Responses to Reflections on the New Climate Economy Report on Urbanisation in Ethiopia

  1. Tom Minney says:

    Very useful post Adrian, thanks. Questions of urbanization appropriate for different cities should be high priority for African policymakers as we can expect massive urbanization and giant mega-cities in the next few decades. In most cases, consultants’ reports that cannot be implemented and don’t speak to the local situation may not be much use, as you point out.
    Are you joining other urbanization debates, such as the UK’s Africa Research Institute?

    • Adrian Young says:

      Hi Tom. Thanks for the feedback. I tend to be a little isolated from international debates due to my location and the fact I’m not directly engaged in urban issues through my current employment, which means I can only do it during my spare time. But I will look into the Africa Research Institute as you have suggested. Thanks again!

  2. Rabya says:

    Thank you for this post Adrian! I was looking for any kind of feedback, comment on that report. It seems that you are quiet familiar with the local situation in Ehtiopia. I was wondering what the governments reaction was towards this report, if any. And what the governments plan is in general to address the rapid urban growth? I fail to find something online. It would be a great help as I am writing a paper about this topic. Thank you!

    Regards from Germany,

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