In a world that is becoming more and more uncertain, coupled with systems as complex as cities, the ability of city officials to make robust decisions within ever-changing environments, will largely depend on their ability to be innovative and think out of the box. The world’s leading cities will be the ones that harness opportunities that others may not see or take advantage of.

African cities have come a long way in their efforts to achieve sustainable development. However, one of the biggest challenges in Africa is to ensure that municipalities have access to the necessary capacity and skill sets to achieve sustainable development objectives, while making decisions within highly complex environments.

The performance of the public sector is vital to the achievement of municipal goals relating to the reduction of poverty, accelerating economic growth, and providing better services to citizens. The lack of capacity in African cities is often referred to as the first stumbling block for service delivery[i]. Capacity limitations are such a pressing issue that between 1995 and 2004 the World Bank provided USD 9 billion in lending and close to USD 900 million in grants and administrative budget to support capacity building in Africa. The bulk of this support was directed toward the public sector[ii].

Through ICLEI Africa’s ongoing work in Africa, it is evident that a lack of capacity compels local governments to move into a space where they are often only able to prioritise day to day operations. At first glance, this is not a major point of concern. However, this focus on ‘coping’, often forces municipal officials into a mode of reactive as opposed to proactive planning; a focus on the bare minimum to ensure operational output, which doesn’t encourage innovation. Local governments struggle to move into a more creative space, where new technologies and methodologies, learnings and good practice are shared.


A city system that is constrained to coping and reacting is likely to struggle to meet the developmental challenges of the 21st century, through:

(a) repeating the same patterns and therefore the same mistakes;

(b) focusing on delivering daily targets and not on long-term strategic planning, which allows for better control of long-term outcomes;

(c) addressing the symptoms and not the real cause of the city’s problems.

An example of this is in relation to flooding in African cities, which is often exacerbated by blocked pipes. Resources are often directed to storm water drain clean-ups, rather than education campaigns for preventing incorrect disposal of waste.

A capacity deficit could also mean that even if new ideas and methods arise, the likelihood of these being implemented and institutionalised is unlikely. A further challenge is that in many African cities, a top-down management approach exists, where there are few incentives for city officials to be innovative and creative, and no real mechanism for dealing with creativity if it arises.

A lack of capacity could also result in the breakdown of effective communication between individuals working within different sectors; transdisciplinary engagement often leads to fresh ideas via cross-pollination of ideas and making connections.


The institutional environment

Fostering a culture of learning, sharing and innovation is key, and is influenced by the governance and institutional structure of organisations. The institutional arrangements set the stage for the type of formal and informal education and training programmes that occur, and how they promote and enable innovation and creativity.

Encouraging individual initiative

Individual initiative and responsibility is key to developing capacity as it allows for individuals to take ownership and accountability. Encouraging individuals to develop new ideas, new approaches, new partnerships and innovative ways of doing things not only builds individual capacity, but also that of the organisation.

Initiating specific projects

Initiating pilot projects that aim to address a particular city need or challenge using innovative methods and multi-skilled stakeholders, not only facilitates coordination which builds capacity, but also creates the space for developing good practice. Providing the platform that brings key role players together can overcome capacity constraints by pooling resources and building partnerships.

Promoting more effective use of available resources

One of the continuing ironies in African cites is that often human and material resources are underutilised. A huge amount of financial aid is being directed towards African cities, with many different projects implemented by a multitude of organisations. Imagine what could be achieved if all of these different projects and organisations worked together to address common goals and needs. In this regard, external organisations should be guided by city authorities so that they best fill key capacity gaps and respond directly to city needs and priorities.

[i] Chirisa, 2008. Available at

[ii] The World Bank, 2005. Available at

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