In this edition of Talking Urban Futures in Africa, Ethiopian urban researcher Biruk Terrefe speaks to CSIS Africa Program director Judd Devermont about the implications of rapid urban transformation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. They discuss the trade-offs of a top-down approach to building large-scale infrastructure projects, drawing on lessons from Biruk’s recent study on Beautifying Sheger and La Gare, some of the city’s ongoing developments. Biruk highlights the necessity of data in decisionmaking and the importance of pivoting from a sector-by-sector approach to a more integrated urban development framework.
- Biruk Terrefe is a Ph.D. candidate at the Oxford Department of International Development. His research focuses on the politics of infrastructure and urbanization in Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa.
The discussion, moderated by Judd Devermont, has been edited for purposes of brevity and clarity.
JD: We’re seeing significant investments in African cities, especially in Addis Ababa. But in most cases, the decisionmaking processes around these initiatives remain top down. What are some advantages and disadvantages of a top-down approach?
BT: The key trade-off when it comes to top-down approaches to urban development is between speed of implementation and stakeholder inclusivity. We’ve seen this with the urban light rail in Addis Ababa; this is a complex system that was built through some of the densest neighborhoods in the country and the largest open-air market in Africa. You can’t do that without having a powerful, top-down entity that has the ability to muscle through intricate bureaucratic processes.
The Ethiopian government was able to build this railway in the span of three years, which is impressive, but also meant that certain stakeholders were sidelined. The government failed to think holistically: a lot of plans for the city were ignored, newly built roads were excavated once more, and existing infrastructure was replaced.
So, top-down infrastructure development, on one hand, gives you the ability to complete projects with speed. But the central trade-off is that you fail to integrate these projects into urban spaces.
JD: It seems that certain governments are predisposed to a top-down approach. What are some of the consequences of pursuing urban development in a more authoritarian setting?
BT: It doesn’t provide a lot of room for healthy disagreement. What I mean by that is urban planners, people who’ve worked in these cities for 20, even 30 years, who know these spaces like no one else, continue to be overruled by the political leadership. And what we’ve seen in Addis Ababa is the removal of a lot of key technocrats and professionals from these spaces, from decisionmaking positions, who are replaced by “loyal” officials who carry out top-down decisions. And that has much broader effects beyond the delivery of these urban projects. It shapes the way these city administrations function. It shapes who is in the meeting rooms making these decisions.
An important consideration when thinking about inclusivity in urban spaces also revolves around the contracting formats. Ethiopia has a history of signing engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contracts, often with Chinese firms, to complete these projects from beginning to end. Currently, we’re also seeing private companies from Abu Dhabi engaged in providing the city center with a face-lift. This leaves little negotiation room for other Ethiopian actors, local architects, and planners to interfere in the planning and construction process. Once the contract is signed, there’s very little room for changes and adjustments. It’s a very rigid process from its inception to its completion. So, what sort of contracting formats are we employing in these urban spaces, and how much agency does that give other stakeholders to be involved in the process?
JD: What is the public perception of the Ethiopian government’s urbanization projects? Is there satisfaction with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s urban renewal program?
BT: A big part of these projects are the aesthetics. Urban projects are tangible ways to gain public support. For example, the Beautifying Sheger project aims to clean the city’s rivers and create green public spaces. This is being built on land that was originally cleared 15 years ago for the expansion of the Sheraton Hotel, which never materialized. So while some critique the government for its misplaced priorities and grandeur aesthetics, there are others who argue that this was vacant land and that at least the administration is not giving it to some private hotel. Rather, there seems to be an appreciation for the importance of public spaces.
Beautifying Sheger’s symbolic value is much more important than its material value. It’s a riverside project, it’s a park, and that’s great. But more importantly, it’s a manifestation of the government’s vision for the country. The transformational nature of these grand projects and their “modern” aesthetics are intended to spur a certain degree of pride and excitement that Ethiopia can build urban spaces that parallel what we see in Dubai.
Of course, the hidden costs of these projects are often related to rising land values, from which many elites might profit but in the long term make the city less financially accessible to the vast majority.
JD: Let’s talk about the role of foreign governments and foreign private sectors in urbanization programs. You mentioned Chinese and Emirati firms. Have you detected differences in the quality, timeframe, and financing of these projects depending on the origin of the firm?
BT: The international actors involved in urban spaces in Ethiopia range from state-owned enterprises to private actors to international development agencies and firms. China has historically been very involved in large projects like the railways, which extend beyond city borders.
The light rail in Addis was one of the first projects where you saw Chinese workers in the city itself. The Chinese have also built the headquarters of some commercial banks and even the African Union.
Chinese firms often operate under EPC contracts as mentioned earlier, and there are many instances where the consultants, financiers, insurers, and construction companies are all Chinese. The Ethiopian government has been wary of this in recent years, trying to diversify the actors involved.
Abu Dhabi is a relatively new entrant in Ethiopia’s urban spaces. Relations with the Gulf are changing dramatically, driven by Abu Dhabi’s desire for increasing its diplomatic relations in the Horn. Abu Dhabi’s new luxury real estate project, La Gare, does not fit into the urban fabric of Addis, but it was approved at the highest levels of government. It is overseen by a private company, Eagle Hills, that has built real estate in Belgrade and many other international cities. The Ethiopian government only funded 27 percent of La Gare (i.e., the value of the land). Meanwhile, Eagle Hills will import raw materials and construct new buildings on the site. It will own everything it constructs, from the hotels to the malls. The hope is that this project will increase urban tourism, attract the Ethiopian diaspora to invest, and create employment.
So, there are many financing modalities, contracting formats, and types of projects being rolled into the city by foreign developers at the same time.
JD: Does the Ethiopian government prefer one model over another? Would they welcome more foreign EPC contracts or the approach that they have with the Emirati firm? Or are there other models that you think would be welcomed and attractive to the Ethiopian government? And extending that to urban planners: which model would they find most optimal?
BT: That’s a very good question. It’s difficult to assess the new administration’s preferences. There’s a new 10-year urban plan coming out soon, which will lay out the government’s approach to urban spaces for the next decade. Many government officials have historically appreciated the speed and clarity with which EPC contracts deliver. It’s very clear that this is what you’re going to get at the end of the day, except some projects where there was serious mismanagement. Financing remains a big question, given Ethiopia’s debt exposure over the last years.
But we’re now seeing new engagement with foreign private actors. With any new relationship, there seems to be hesitation on both sides—the Ethiopian government as well as some of the international developers. Some developers are worried about investing in Ethiopia, as there’s still a foreign currency shortage, and they have to import almost everything. So it’s a work in progress. Ultimately, there’s no overarching rule in which the Ethiopian government says we prefer this or that.
Actually, I would say that the new administration has been quite explicit about its desire to diversify economic interests—and keeping everyone on their toes. We’re seeing a diversification of investment portfolios, which could give Ethiopia a bit more leverage and negotiation power. It will enable the government to say to Chinese companies, “if you’re not going to do it, we’ll go to the Emiratis.”
JD: Let’s talk best practices. In your work, you talk about the need to shift toward the development of urban places and away from sectoral solutions. As the region urbanizes, how should we think about developing African cities equitably and inclusively?
BT: If I had an easy answer to this question, we wouldn’t have so many problems across the continent.
When I say we need to move away from sectoral solutions, I’m saying that we want to build streets and not just roads. Streets do a lot more than just transport vehicles. They are spaces in which people interact, in which people sell their goods. And who are we building roads for? Is it really just for cars and ensuring efficient transport of goods? Are we designing our urban spaces so that human life and social interactions can flourish? Where old coffee shops are integrated into our streets and the sentimental value of these spaces is maintained?
Inclusive placemaking in cities means being conscious about building housing complexes along with schools, hospitals, and transport systems that connect these citizens to other social functions.
Unfortunately, a lot of the planning in our cities takes place in sectoral silos. Transport engineers are taking care of their roads. Housing officials are taking care of the housing, and there’s very little communication between these actors. Much of this is driven by the institutional arrangements. If you have a Ministry of Transport and a Ministry of Housing that work on separate portfolios, how do you think they’ll ever work together? The Ministry of Urban Development is often treated as a peripheral ministry, but it’s central to many of the economic and political challenges that a country like Ethiopia faces.
That’s where the future lies: how do we make sure that institutions are considering urban spaces holistically instead of thinking sector by sector? How can we strengthen them in terms of expertise, in terms of having professionals in these organizations, and giving them the political clout that they need to push their agendas?
JD: This is the government’s responsibility. But is there a role for foreign actors who want to promote sustainable, equitable urbanization in Africa? Is it appropriate for foreign actors to insist on this non-sectoral approach?
BT: I repeatedly advocate for more data on our urban spaces. We don’t have enough information to make the right decisions. We barely know how many people live in our cities. Estimates for Addis range somewhere between 3 million and 7 million depending on who you ask. Foreign actors could finance and support more research and data collection on our cities so that governments are able to make more informed decisions.
Insisting on non-sectoral approaches is one thing. But pushing research and strengthening institutions that work on urban issues is critical. We need data on people’s movements, on land values, on population sizes. These data points are critical in shaping our urban futures.
JD: There probably is a way that the U.S. government could, for example, to tap its tech companies to provide info on demographics, movement, and population trends based on aerial assessments and other resources. That would be part of the solution, right?
BT: There definitely is a role for tech companies to play, but what exactly that role is, I’m not sure. There may be legal and security concerns around such assessments. But we need a more holistic understanding of where people are moving from. My colleagues at London School of Economics (LSE) Cities estimated that 23 people move into Addis every hour.
Linked to this is the important issue of developing our secondary cities. Discussions on urbanization in Ethiopia often focus on Addis, as I have done here as well. That’s because Addis is 10 times larger, if we trust the data, than our second biggest city. Let’s say Addis has 5 million people. Our second biggest city, Dire Dawa, has 500,000 people. If everyone moves to Addis, that’s not a sustainable solution. The faster other cities grow, the more regionalized the rural-urban migrations will be. Currently, there’s a massive structural issue in Ethiopia—that we have one focal center, and it’s in the geographic center of the country. If other cities continue to grow, then that will absorb many people who would have otherwise decided to move to Addis. A critical takeaway is that we need more investments outside of Addis.
JD: What’s the big takeaway?
BT: Local and foreign governments alike should be more aware of the political economy of Africa’s urban spaces, treating them not just as economic goods but as political goods. There are political and material interests at play in cities, given the vast number of voters and concentrated resources. So, when we begin to think about shaping urbanization in Africa in the next 30 years, then we can’t solely approach this technically. We have to understand that decisionmakers are often driven by political calculations. How can we rearrange political incentives in urban spaces to ensure that politicians and urban planners alike make socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and politically supported decisions? That is the most important question.
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.