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Urban Challenges in the MENA Region

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Feature Story Template

  • The urban setting is under extreme pressure in MENA today, as a result of a very rapid urbanization rate over the past 10 years.
  • A major challenge for MENA is the very high percentage of informal housing, reaching 20-40% in some parts of the region
  • The world is becoming more urban, and decisions are increasingly being decentralized to cities and municipalities.

November 2008 - Interview with Anna Bjerde, Sector Manager for Urban and Social Development, in the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA).

Ms. Bjerde, a Swedish national, joined the Bank in September 1997 as a Young Professional. She has since held various positions, her most recent assignment being Lead Energy Specialist in the MENA Region.

What are the key urban challenges in MENA today as opposed to 10 years ago?

The urban setting is under extreme pressure in MENA today, as a result of a very rapid urbanization rate over the past 10 years. Out of a population of 300 million, 170 million reside in urban areas and according to UN projections the MENA population will reach 430 million by 2020, of which 280 million are expected to be urban. That is an urban population increase of over 65%, compared to the projected rural population increase of 8.5%. In addition, the region has two megacities where the population exceeds 10 million: Cairo and Tehran. Indeed, Cairo, Tehran and Baghdad, combined, account for 25% of the urban population of the region.

Against this very high rate of urbanization, the provision of adequate infrastructure and public services is clearly the key urban challenge. This is all the more challenging given the backlog of un-serviced and underserviced populations and the increasing pressure on the fragile environment from urbanization. Another major challenge in MENA, is the very high percentage of informal housing, reaching 20-40% in some parts of the region creating social pressures and linking to economic opportunity for lower income groups. Finally there is also the need to develop the capacity to manage natural disasters and address the vulnerability to climate change.

How does this picture vary across the region?

As mentioned above, MENA has two "mega cities", although compared to Sao Paolo and Beijing, they are actually not that mega at all. As for the rest of the region, 25% of the urban population is concentrated in cities between 1million and 5 million, and 50% reside in cities under 1 million. While the population numbers vary, there are some common priorities across the region which essentially have to do with:

  • The need for infrastructure (roads, water, electricity, sanitation, solid waste management)
  • The need for jobs
  • The need for affordable housing and food
  • The need for education and a future for their children

How does the Bank's emphasis on governance and anticorruption feature on the urban agenda?

The governance and anticorruption agenda takes shape in several ways in the Bank's work. In MENA, and indeed increasingly also in other regions, it is about the accountability of service delivery and of investment/resource allocation decisions for generations to come. In the urban agenda, what it means is a need to look very closely at how urban populations' basic service needs are met, and to what extent services are reliable, affordable and safe. This is also very closely linked to the work we do in social development, where we look at the demand-side of governance, accountability and local development. This is why I am personally very excited about the merger of the urban and social units in the MNA region; we will be able to hopefully have even more impact through our combined efforts and expertise.

What are the key lessons that have emerged from the Bank's global experience as relating to urban management?

In a nutshell, it is that the world is becoming more urban, and decisions are increasingly being decentralized to cities and municipalities. Therefore, to have impact we need to work at the local levels. This is also where implementation takes place, which is why we have learned that urban development solutions must have local ownership and mandate to be implemented.

What are the best ways of engaging the private sector and local governments as key partners in the management of urban challenges?

The best ways involves matching the local designs of urban development plans to local circumstances. What it comes down to at the end of the day is addressing the needs to people and working with people to manage its resources in its urban settings. In some settings, the private sector is best suited for service delivery, in others it is the public sector, or NGOs. What is clear however, is that it is difficult, even in less decentralized environments, to implement solutions at local levels designed and decided upon at the national level.




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