University of Ghana Legon, Faculty of Social Sciences

Francis Dompae

Development Studies, ISSER

Course: Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Development (ISDS 705)

Policy Brief:

Migration and Urban Exceptionalism in Sub-Saharan Africa:

The Progress of Accra to the Syndrome



Migration, a geographical movement involving a change from a usual place of residence over a defined territory over a defined period of time, has gained more prominence in the twenty-first century due largely to globalization and climate change. For thousands of years dating back to the Stone Age, humans migrated in search of better lives. Studies and theories have shown that migration is primarily an economic phenomenon, as the decision to migrate is generally considered quite a rational one, as it takes place despite, in most cases, the existence of unemployment in the migration destination.


Ghana and the Migration, Urbanization and Development Exceptionalism

In recent times, migration has assumed wider dimensions in which various reasons – economic, social, political and environmental – have transformed. The economic motive remains dominant as it relates to issues of labour, job, income expectation and distribution. This is exemplified in Ghana by the increasing population pressure on the south from the north and from rural to urban migration. Ghana’s population distribution occurs largely through migration which is driven mainly by socio-economic, geographic and demographic factors. Some of these in broad terms include the availability, distribution, access and utilization of social infrastructure and natural resources. Variations in the concentration and distribution of these resources by locality and by socioeconomic groups are also driven by government action to a large extent, in the policies, programmes and projects pursued.  These are pro-urban, drawing the population to such urban areas.

Rural-urban migration and urbanization, a process by which an increasing number of people become permanently concentrated in relatively small areas forming cities, are considered phenomena that are probably inevitable. As the population of Ghana progressively increased over the years, so has the urban share due to rural urban migration in particular. Ghana Statistical Service reports indicate that in 1931, 9.4% of the total population lived in urban settlements, it increased to 13.9% in 1948, 23% in 1960, 28.9% in 1970, 31.3% in 1984, 43.9% in 2000 and 50.90% in 2010. Thus, Ghana became more urban than rural in 2010, happening a decade earlier than projected as studies projected it to occur in 2020. Accra, Kumasi, and Takoradi have been witnessing significant increases in population that is induced by northern-southern and rural-urban migration.   

Theories of migration have offered explanations on the paradoxical relationship of accelerated rural-urban migration in the context of rising urban unemployment. Rural-urban migration is contributing to a growing share of the population of cities despite arguments of lower fertility rates in urban areas as compared to rural areas. Whereas it can be argued that Ghana is currently not significantly affected by what has recently been described in migration and urbanization literature as urban exceptionalism in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), governments and cities need to be conscious of it and take precautionary measures. The urban exceptionalism in SSA was sparked by an observation by the World Bank in 2000 that African cities are not serving as the engines of economic growth and social development that cities of other continents have been since the industrial revolution, but rather a part of the causes and symptoms of the economic and social crisis that have engulfed the continent. This eminent departure from the usual pace, pattern and implications of SSA urbanization is termed exceptionalism. So, urbanization is rather characterized by increasing poverty, congestion, slums, poor health, unemployment and low economic growth, which are often transferred from the rural sector to the urban sector by migrants. Among the 10 regions of Ghana in 2010, unemployment rates were highest for both males (7.4%) and females (8.2%), and overall (7.8%) in the Greater Accra region. The highest rural unemployment rates were 5.4% and 6.9% for males and females respectively were also in the Greater Accra region. Furthermore, there are 56.1% of first-time job seekers in the Greater Accra Region who are likely dominated by migrants, apart from having the highest proportion of slum dwellers in the country. With the region being the smallest in land size but the second largest in population, it has the lowest population density in the country and given the trend of the influx of people into the region, both the region and the capital city need urgent policy attention.

The 2010 population census indicates that 35% of the population were enumerated outside their places of birth and represent the migrant population, over half of which were inter regional moves. Greater Accra, one of four regions which showed positive net-migration, recorded a gain in population of over one million people during the 2000 – 2010 intercensal period.  Since independence, the region consistently leads in annual population growth rate in the four intercensal periods except 1970 to 1984 when it placed second. The effects of these growth rates in population are arithmetic increases in the population density of the region. With a total land area of 3,245 square kilometers representing just 1.4% of the total land area of the country, the population density of the region in 1960 was 167.0 km, increased to 278.4 km in 1970, 441.0 km in 1984, 895.5 km in 2000 and to 1, 235.8 km in 2010. This trend has existed for a while unrecognized or unattended to and a prognosis of the trend is that land and environmental crisis and disasters are not far from hitting Accra.


Policy Recommendations

Urban and capital city bias policies in the past and present in Ghana continue to spur migration; leads to urban growth, urban giants and agglomeration effects in Accra. It is reported by the International Organization for Migration (OIM) that slum settlements represent one third of the urban population in all developing countries, a trend which is likely to continue for Accra and other major cities.

An integrated and sequential approach is required if we are to address this migration and development nexus confronting Ghana as a country and Accra in particular, has by far rung enough alarm bells. To confront the rural-urban, north-south migration phenomena in Ghana, identification and development of some towns as growth poles (in the north especially), capital infrastructure such as road, transport, irrigation and energy systems, and markets are required. These should be pursued alongside increasing and decentralizing authority to local governments. Human capital development is also essential. As the economy is dominated and characterized by the informal sector, streamlining the linkage between education, vocational training and employment and industry should be enhanced. The Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) seems to be inconsistent with its decongestion agenda and should get its act right with that and complement government efforts in other sectors and localities that directly bear on the issue. Despite the contribution all these can make to address the issues, priority should focused on the following:

Resource redistribution to other regions and capitals where the pool of migrants originate into Accra is one way of controlling not only the population concentration but also the urban unemployment and underemployment associated with Accra. It has to be recommended that creating rural jobs such as modernizing rural agriculture, supported with cottage industries to support value addition as is currently happening with rice production in the Volta Region where farmers produce, process, package and market. Evidence of this succeeding exists when in the 1984 census the Northern Region recorded a positive net migration which was largely attributed to the government’s attempt to promote the growing of rice in the region which is believed to have attracted people to the region to take advantage of the opportunity. The initiative could however not be sustained and the region reverted to the status quo of negative net migration. The key policy take here therefore is to initiate and sustain such initiatives, focusing on developing quality capital infrastructure with complementary structures and good management regimes. The Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA) initiative should be a ground starting point if only implementation will be effective and in ways that will reduce or shorten the rural-urban and northern southern migration trajectories.

The AMA’s inconsistency with its decongestion exercises needs a policy-oriented look. Such operations should be institutionalized and not made to be determined and approached according to the ideals of administrations in governance that are often influenced by electoral political considerations. As a complementary intervention to other policy recommendations, a comprehensive decongestion policy with guidelines, procedures and methods is required to complement or replace the current AMA bi laws which have proven to be inadequate and ineffective in dealing with the situations. This should be aided by a taxation system for targeted groups to replace the current flat and basic rate of GHc 0.20 per head. This should be specially aimed at discouraging further migration for kayeye and other hawkers, downsizing the current population of such groups by using the tax system to eliminate uncompetitive ones to return home and raising income from the taxation eventually can be used to provide better services and infrastructure for the markets for the remaining competitive traders, hawkers and kayaye.

Specific and targeted interventions both at the localities serving as the major contributors of migrants and the migration fields – the clusters of migrants from specific regions, tribes, and groups into certain neighborhoods, suburbs or small towns of the city – in the major cities especially Accra. Initiatives such as the return migration model targeting return Ghanaian Migrants from Libya developed and implemented by the OIM can be adapted and improved as one measure to look into extreme and genuine cases of decongestion and return migration (where migrants move back to where they came from or home), with a defined period for such an exercise, whilst exploring other innovative strategies to complement and make it work. This kind of intervention will contribute to halting new migration streams, fields and cases or promote return migration, or achieve both sets of objectives. The new National Urban Policy, launched by the President on 28th March 2013, can be a good starting point for this intervention, and if need be, an internal migration policy or guide should be added. This will expand opportunities for the mass of migrants to contribute better to economic growth, the potential we can tap for development, which the Global Migration Group (2010) defines as a process of improving the overall quality of life of people and expanding the range of opportunities open to them.



Migration has been, and will continue to be a double-edge sword – it can be a source of development or underdevelopment; the way it goes depends on the nature and type of migration, and how it is regulated with socioeconomic policy and programme interventions. On the positive side, migration can result in a chain of development – from the individual, household, community and ultimately, accrue to a country as a whole. Therefore, it is prudent to consciously and pragmatically intervene to take advantage of the opportunities offered by migration, at the same time foiling its negative repercussions. The opportunity cost of doing nothing is a continuation of the progressive rise in urban slums, unemployment, and social degradation the consequences of which add more to the ever increasing development burden of the nation. For Accra, the consequences can be more environmentally devastating if the influx of migrants is not checked because being flood-prone with decreasing population density makes the region more susceptible.



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