Behind the fence, the sea: inequality and Africa’s urban future

I’ve been an inequality sceptic. From the perspective of poverty reduction, discussion about the gap between the incomes of rich and poor can seem like a distraction from the income of the poor itself. If the incomes of the poor are rising, who cares how rich the rich are?

Now, though, I’m not so sure.

A few weeks ago I moved from Morogoro, a city of 300,000 people in an agricultural area of Tanzania, to Dar es Salaam, a sprawling and rapidly growing metropolis of several million. At first, I was pretty happy to make the transition: I was tired of eating at Morogoro’s four decent restaurants, shopping at its two decent supermarkets. After a year of mostly cooking with nothing but tomatoes, peppers, onions and carrots, I was looking forward to regaining access to a wider range of vegetables. I was looking forward to being able to go to the damn cinema.

And all of those things are great! And yet, I’m uncomfortable. The ‘nice’ bits of Dar are too damn nice. In Morogoro, the nicest restaurant served decent European food at in comfortable but basic surroundings, at prices which, while out of reach of many poor Tanzanians, seemed accessible to the middle class at least. In Dar es Salaam, the nicer restaurants serve fairly schmancey food at almost Western prices: expats routinely spend TSH 30,000 on a buffet all-you-can-eat breakfast, more than two days’ wages for a starting teacher in a government school.

In Morogoro, the nicest hotels were $50 or $60 a night, which by all accounts got you a decent bed, air conditioning, and a TV, but nothing fancy. The nicer hotels in Dar are five-star and cost hundreds of dollars per night. In Morogoro, if you wanted to swim, you’d go to one of these hotels and pay TSH 5,000 – about three dollars – to use their, slightly dirty, pool. Here, you pay TSH 15,000 to use the pool at the Golden Tulip.

Sitting in a bougey cafe yesterday eating a non-buffet – and delicious! – breakfast with a friend yesterday, I pondered why I was looking at Dar’s luxuries as problem and not a relief. Most expats here who’ve ever visited Morogoro say they couldn’t imagine living there. Couldn’t they see the problem with living such luxury in a country where millions live in extreme poverty?

Couldn’t my co-breakfasters see the fence that blocked our view of the sea but protected us from Dar’s (historically small, but rapidly growing) crime problem? Didn’t it bother them that the only actual Tanzanians in this restaurant were staff, that the clientele was entirely white (or in my case white-ish)?

Oh, I suddenly realised. I’m worried about inequality.

The poor in Dar es Salaam are probably better off than the poor in Morogoro. Yes, they have to deal with more problems, like flooding, and power cuts, and transport, and crime. But they have access to infinitely more opportunities for work and for business. Specialisation takes place here, business grow and take on people, money is made – so much so that young people are flocking here from all over Tanzania, people whose families have been tied to subsistence agriculture since, for all intents and purposes, the dawn of time.

But to be poor in Dar es Salaam is to be acutely aware that there are a large number of people in your city, many of whom don’t look like you and are not from your country, who live a lifestyle you can never even imagine obtaining. How can this not be corrosive to society, in the long run? How can this not undermine the construction of a viable body politic? Crime in Dar es Salaam is rising with alarming speed. Police corruption explains how the rise has been allowed to happen, but not what’s driving it in the first place. A prime suspect must surely be the rapid increase in inequality in Tanzania, particularly in urban areas, in recent years.

Let me be clear: economic growth in Dar is not ‘bypassing the poor’. Economic growth does appear to have reduced poverty significantly in Dar in recent years, even while poverty reduction in rural areas has been notably weak. Inequality is largely the result of the very economic liberalisation that enabled Tanzania to begin reducing poverty after decades of stagnation. The rich are getting richer, and the poor, in Dar at least, are getting richer too. From a strict economic perspective, development is working. Capitalism is working. It’s a win-win.

But sometimes the eye and the gut can conspire to show you something that economic data can’t. In a town like Morogoro, even though the poorest members might not ever eat at the better restaurant, they might at least aspire to work at it. There is some sense of commonality between residents, even including expats, some sense of shared space. It’s safe to walk around.

Maybe it’s just Dar’s sheer size that undermines this sense of social bond. But visiting predominantly Tanzanian, middle-class areas of Dar, it’s not clear that’s the case. People don’t huddle behind fences for safety, they eat out on the street. There’s a sense of community. Where that breaks down is where the rich are – businessmen with armed bodyguards, aid workers – both Tanzanian and expat – with giant SUVs guarded by well-tipped Masai. And let’s not forget that the level of inequality in Tanzania is far lower than in many other African (and Western) countries.

I’m not proposing anything, and I’m still not at all sure the inclusion of inequality in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals is a good idea. It may well be that the side-effects of any policy aimed at reducing inequality on growth are simply too large to accept.

But I see more clearly now that my old, airy dismissal of inequality as an issue simply won’t do. Even if growth is ‘reaching the poor’, it matters how rich the rich are. Imagining Dar es Salaam in twenty years as a Latin America-style dystopia, with increasingly informal settlements surrounding skyscrapers and luxury hotels, I realise now that it matters a great deal.

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Author: Rav

City boy coping with liberal guilt and culture shock in Tanzania. Writes about development, politics, culture and technology.

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