Is urbanisation a sign of development success or failure?

The city, according to Gutkind (1974), is the “cradle of human achievement, the countryside is intellectually sterile; the city is the consumer and the rural areas supply its needs” (Gutkind, 1974:45). This concept of the city as the superior partner supports the process of urbanisation being considered, “almost universally, as a direct indication of modernisation, development and economic growth” (Potter & Lloyd-Evans, 1998:4). This link to the economic and the industrial is a primary understanding of urbanisation, but this ignores its social impact as illustrated by Brunn & Williams (1983), when they suggest that urbanisation is a catalyst for change in “values, attitudes, and behaviours” (Brunn & Williams, 1983:5). Urbanisation, then, should be witnessed as more than population location, and the provision of physical infrastructure, but should also be linked to a social process of human development due to a change in social relations and institutions (Epstein, 1967; O’Connor, 1983; Peil & Sada, 1984; Rist, 1996; Thomson, 2004).

Development as defined by Clark (1991) supports this evolution, stating that it should not be purely located in economics, but more accurately assessed as a “process of change that enables people to take charge of their own destinies and realize their full potential” (Clark, 1991:36). Rist (1997) supports this view, adding a new direction when he suggests it “is a process of growth, a movement essentially springing from within the society that is developing” (Rist, 1997:9). This, however, is not to dismiss traditional development relating to the provision of education, healthcare and employment opportunities necessary for the development of individual agency (Slim, 1995:4-5).

This essay will argue that urbanisation is a sign of development success emulating not only from the traditional provision of services and economic growth with which it is predominately associated, but primarily due to its position to act as a catalyst for social change and its role in the creation of a mobilised civil society. The argument will be established from an African, and more explicitly, a Nigerian perspective. First exploring urbanisation as an expression of economic development which supports the provision of services; going on to establish how urbanisation is being used as a tool for development by the labour force, individuals and communities through the creation of social movements, before lastly noting the wider effects of urbanisation as a catalyst for lasting social change and its effects on development.

Economic growth and industrialisation have principally been accepted as proof of development (Mabogunje, 1965:413), and when measured within this framework, urbanisation can be considered a sign of development success, especially when viewed in opposition to non-urbanised societies which are considered lacking in development (Ishemo, 1995:209; Lampard, 1955:92). The importance of urban centres is now self-perpetuating and countries are becoming still more reliant on urban manufacturing and less on rural agriculture (Bertinelli & Strobl, 2007:2499; Hirschman, 1958:195). The success and efficiency of urbanisation (Mabogunje, 1965:436) has created an even stronger draw for investment and an increasing flow of migrants as demand for labour swells (Salau, 1985:194). This shift in investment and labour has led to rural deterioration, in turn reinforcing urban primacy (Epstein, 1967:282), this concept has been labelled by Lipton as an ‘urban bias’ (Lipton, 1977:65).

The prominence of urban bias by states, and increased flows of migrants has led to urban growth in Nigeria becoming potentially unsustainable with much of the growth taking place in the absence of significant industrial expansion” (Olujimi, 2009:203). This is known as hyper urbanisation and is generated through a lack of industrial frameworks (Henderson, 2003:67; Potter & Lloyd-Evans, 1998:14; Tostensen et al, 2001:11). It is argued that hyper urbanisation is a direct result of Nigeria’s investments being supported by foreign loans based on conditionality which creates financial dependence, while limiting the government’s capacity to act (Roberts, 1989:666). Hyper urbanisation does not appear to have slowed urbanisation and migration in Nigeria, because as is noted by Potter & Lloyd-Evans (1998), these arguments predominately ignore “the massive unemployment and poverty which are to be found in the rural areas of so many developing nations” (Potter & Lloyd-Evans, 1998:14).

The provision of traditional development services is a relative success in Nigeria, with research by Salau (1985) finding that residents of large cities have a “substantially better quality of life than their smaller urban centres or rural counterparts” (Salau, 1985:193). This supports urban centres as the loci for investment, particularly in transport, communication, energy, and water. Investment in these traditional infrastructural programmes does not however appear to keep pace with population growth, as can be witnessed through the expansion of slum areas and volume of citizens lacking in access to infrastructural support (Olujimi, 2009:201). This is suggested by Aims (2001) as structural violence against the urban poor which principally manifests in the following areas: increases in consumer prices; limited wage increases and public sector employment and a limit on spending on urban infrastructure – which included services like education and health care which are seen as not producing direct revenue returns (Aims, 2001:355). This restriction in support for education and health care appears counter-productive to generating a workforce able to contribute to the economic and social development of the country (Potter & Lloyd-Evans, 1998:93).

The creation of a workforce is a vital component of industrialisation of the urban centres. The urbanisation of segments of the population acts as a catalyst for social change due to the close proximity in which people live and work. Individuals and communities, before relocation to the city, had little incentive or necessity to mobilise outside of their community. Migration to the city has both reinforced community bonds as new migrants are supported during their integration in finding accommodation, employment or other business contacts (Barnes, 1975:84; Epstein, 1967:283), and generated new opportunities and networks through the commonality of shared employment by industrial sectors. This commonality of employment as produced by industrialisation, regardless of ethnic or religious community, combined with the centralising urban location has led to the evolution of trade union movements, as workers attempt to negotiate contracts which provide for the delivery of basic human needs, including health care and housing (Sklar, 1996:37). Trade unions are confirmed by Aims (2001) as “an urban phenomena” (Aims, 2001:356), and provide one of the strongest examples of social development in Nigeria today, despite the “repression and the setbacks they suffered (…) they have been one of the main social forces able to consistently intervene in and influence the national debate” (Obono, 2011:95).

Trade unions provide one example of a civil society developing to implement social change, enabled by urbanisation. Civil society is a diverse term and can be defined as any organisation which arises out of voluntary association within society, and includes groups such as a religious, community, campaign, women's, or sports associations (Thomson, 2004:5). The development of political activity by civil society groups provides avenues of self-determination for citizens, enabling the “poor to demand more and exert influence on policy” (Devas, 2001:393), thus supporting Clark’s (1991) fundamental aim of development, which ensures people are able to exert influence on their personal situation and to realise their potential. Ikelegbe states that there is a compelling power associated with civil society discourse and it’s links to democracy, social change and state modernisation in Africa (Ikelegbe, 2001:1), although he stresses that this is a romantic association following the “wave of popular protest and social mobilisations that has resulted in democratisation since the early 1990s” (Ikelegbe, 2001:2). The failure of civil society in Nigeria, Ikelegbe finds, is the weakness stemming from group disorganisation and confused ideological positions, however these flaws do not disable the civil societies ability to threaten the state (Ikelegbe, 2001:5). Okafor’s (2009) case study provides a very different perspective of Nigerian civil society and their development of societal agency from that of Ikelegbe (2001). Although the claims by Ikelegbe that for a civil society to be able to affect change requires group organisation, together with strong and unified ideological position, are supported, it additionally suggests that a broad member base and ownership of the group, together with a long history of experience for action of social change and national geo-political location and self-funded character provided the legitimacy to influence government policy (Okafor, 2009:264).

The final development success of urbanisation to be addressed is the evolution of an academic community through the arrival of universities in Nigeria. Universities themselves are a sign of a growth and prosperity, supporting the rise in education provision throughout the state, together with the growing aspirations of the urban population (Odion-Akhaine, 2009:432). University lecturers have been seen as playing “major roles in influencing social change and in helping governments to formulate polices” (Bangura, 1994:261). The development of the technocratic class in Nigeria has “encouraged the expansion of the academic mass and led to high levels of unionization and social visibility in national pressure group politics” (Bangura, 1994:262). Thus universities provide another source of legitimate empowerment and a catalyst of lasting social change derived from urbanisation.

In conclusion urbanisation can be considered a sign of development success. In traditional conceptions of development urbanisation both originates from and continues to support the cycles of economic development and industrialisation. These understandings of the impact of urbanisation fail to perceive its primary position as a catalyst for social change which is generated through the close proximity of its population, which while creating issues with the delivery of traditional development and hyper urbanisation, has also spurred the creation of trade unions and social movements, enabling citizens to realise their potential and influence their own development.


  • Aims, P (2001) ‘Attacking Poverty: But What Happened To Urban Poverty and Development?’, Journal of International Development, 13 (2001) 353-360.
  • Bangura, Y (1994) ‘Intellectuals, Economic Reform and Social Change: Constraints and Opportunities in the Formation of a Nigerian Technocracy’, Development and *Change, 25 (1994) 261-305.
  • Barnes, S.T (1975) ‘Voluntary Associations in a Metropolis: The Case of Lagos, Nigeria’, African Studies Review, 18:2 75-87.
  • Bertinelli, L & Strobl, E (2007) ‘Urbanisation, Urban Concentration and Economic Development’, Urban Studies, 44:13 2499-2510.
  • Brunn, S.D & Williams, J.F (1983) Cities of the World: World Regional Urban Development, Harper & Row Publishers, London.
  • Clark, J (1991) Democratizing Development: The Role of Voluntary Organisations, Earthscan Publications, London.
  • Devas, N (2001) ‘Does City Governance Matter for the Urban Poor?’, International Planning Studies, 6:4 393-408.
  • Epstein, A.L (1967) ‘Urbanization and Social Change in Africa’, Current Anthropology, 8:4 275-295
  • Gutkind, P.C.W (1974) Urban Anthropology: Perspectives on ‘Third World’ Urbanisation and Urbanism, Van Gorcum, Assen.
  • Henderson, V (2003) ‘The Urbanisation Process and Economic Growth: The So-What Question’, Journal of Economic Growth, 8:1 47-71.
  • Hirschman, O.A (1958) The Strategy of Economic Development, Yale University Press, New Haven.
  • Ikelegbe, A (2001) ‘The Perverse Manifestation of Civil Society: Evidence from Nigeria’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 39:1 1-24.
  • Ishemo, S (1995) ‘Culture, Liberation, and ‘Development’’, Development in Practice, 5:3 207-215.
  • Lampard, E.E (1955) ‘The History of Cities in the Economically Advanced Areas’, Economic Development and Cultural Change, 3 81-102.
  • Lipton, M (1977) Why Poor People Stay Poor: A Study of Urban Bias in World Development, Temple Smith, London.
  • Mabogunje, A.L (1965) ‘Urbanization in Nigeria: A Constraint on Economic Development’, Economic Development and Cultural Change, 13:4 413-438.
  • Obono, D ( 2011) ‘Trade Unions and Social Movements as Political Actors’, Vienna Journal of African Studies, 11 (2011) 95-113.
  • O’Conner, A (1983) The African City, Hutchinson, London.
  • Odion-Akhaine, S (2009) ‘The Student Movement in Nigeria: Antinomies and Transformation’, Review of African Political Economy, 36:121 427-433.
  • Okafor, O.C (2009) ‘Remarkable Returns: The Influence of a Labour-Led Socio-Economic Rights Movement on Legislative Reasoning, Process and Action in Nigeria, 1999-2007’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 47:2 241-266.
  • Olujimi, J (2009) ‘Evolving a Planning Strategy for Managing Urban Sprawl in Nigeria’, Journal of Human Ecology, 25:3 201-208.
  • Peil, M & Sada, P (1984) African Urban Society, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester.
  • Potter, R.B & Lloyd-Evans, S (1998) The City in the Developing World, Longman, Harlow.
  • Rist, G (2002) The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith, 2nd Edition, Zed Books, London.
  • Roberts, B.R (1989) ‘Urbanization, Migration, and Development’, Sociological Forum, 4:4 665-691.
  • Salau, A.T (1985) ‘Quality of Life and City Size: An Exploratory Study of Nigeria’, Social Indicators Research, 18 (1986) 193-203.
  • Sklar, R.L (1996) ‘Towards a Theory of Developmental Democracy’, Democracy and Development, Leftwich, A (ed), Chapter 2 25-44, Polity Press, Cambridge.
  • Slim, H (1995) ‘What is Development?’, Development in Practice, 5:2 143-148.
  • Thomson, A (2004) An Introduction to African Politics, 2nd Edition, Routledge, Oxon.
  • Tostensen, A; Tvedten, I & Vaa, M (2001) ‘The Urban Crisis, Governance and Associational Life’, Associational Life in African Cities: Popular Responses to the *Urban Crisis, Tostensen, A; Tvedten, I & Vaa, M (eds), chapter 1 7-26, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Stockholm.


QR Code
QR Code is_urbanisation_a_sign_of_development_success_or_failure (generated for current page)