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Talking Points

Spatial Inclusion in Africa – It’s Still Political

21-11-2014

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The 2015 African Economic Outlook will focus on Spatial Inclusion in Africa, so ECDPM was invited to a brainstorm hosted by the OECD, UNDP and AfDB on the topic.

What emerged from discussions was the wide range of ways of interpreting spatial inclusion, but also a need to think politically.

Much of the discussion centered on the overlap or not of rural life with agricultural activity; of economic structural transformation with rural-urban migration transitions and household activity diversification into non-farm activities; the continuous rather than dichotomous nature of rural to urban livelihoods, and issues of demographic transition.

As raised, thinking about spatial inclusion therefore implies the need to understand income and poverty disparities within and between countries. Data-wise, this means going beyond averages and trying to capture elements of the heterogeneity of individuals, households and firms across space.

How to cut the spatial cake?

But as well as linking people, places and markets, spatial inclusion can also relate to political and even ecological inclusion. At least three different options for looking at spatial inclusion were in discussion.

  1. There was a heavy emphasis on taking an economic-geography lens, thus looking across space in terms of being rural, peri-urban and urban, with different associated types of economic activities and implications for economic and social inclusion.

  1. Discussions on decentralisation highlighted the relevance of looking at spatial inclusion through a more administrative lens, understanding policy as something that is designed and implemented at different levels with different impacts, whether at the level of  communities, villages, towns, or cities, with implications for both social and political inclusion. 

  1. In a rather different take, it was proposed that spatial inclusion be rather examined from the point of view of ecological assets. The example was given of South Africa where 8% of the land surface provides 50% of water for the economy, thereby supporting 80% of the economy.  Who controls the resources and how is clearly important for inclusion, whether the resources are water, minerals, or arable land.

A further way of looking spatially that received less attention, and one that is increasingly important in African policy, is in terms of physical infrastructure linkages.

Taking an infrastructure or corridor approach may offer opportunities both analytically and in terms of policy design. Inter-regional transport infrastructures cross rural-urban, as well as ecological boundaries, offering links between different types of space, social groups, administrative areas and economic activities.

And in policy terms, they may also offer advantages for promoting spatial inclusion. By offering a relatively narrow, strategic approach to policy, corridors offer the possibility for linking complementary public and private investment, overcoming coordination failures,  linking agriculture and rural households to local, national markets and even international markets.

Spatial inclusion and exclusion

But whatever way you cut the cake necessarily implies trade-offs. Unless spatial inclusion can be all-encompassing, there will be an element of exclusion for some parts of the population. While this might be partly addressed by complementary approaches, for example linking policies to promote commercial farming or industry with support or cash transfers to small-scale farmers or firms, it nonetheless involves policy tradeoffs at some level.

Tradeoffs imply policy choices. This might be, for example, whether to invest in energy for villages rather than industry; or rural development rather than peri-urban or urban development; or encourage rural public services versus urban. In the case of infrastructures and corridors, this may mean focusing on one corridor over another.

While that is the reality of policy design, where there are tradeoffs, there are political-economic consequences. Indeed, it might be argued that spatial approaches actually raise the level of necessary coordination and alignment of interests across actors. By being cross-sectoral these include ministries, donors and others and their departments, not to mention other public sector agencies, firms, unions, CSOs and various individuals.

Taking a spatial approach to development policy is certainly important and an approach that is (re-)gaining traction. The wide range of ways of interpreting spatial inclusion are also sure to provide rich material for the next AEO.

But the authors should also be clear that thinking spatially also means thinking politically – and that is a challenge when policy comes to practice.


In addition to structural support by ECDPM’s institutional partners The Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria, this publication also benefits from funding from the Department of International Development (DFID), United Kingdom.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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