Incidents of building collapse are worryingly common in large African cities. One study counted 54 building collapse deaths and 122 injuries in Kampala, Uganda, between 2004 and 2008. Another identified 112 cases in Lagos, Nigeria, from 1978 to 2008. Cities in Ghana and Kenya, too, have recorded similar fatal incidents. This isn’t a uniquely African problem; it also occurs in Asia’s rapidly urbanizing areas. Buildings collapse either during construction or when they’re already occupied.
It’s often suggested that such problems in African cities stem from authorities’ non-enforcement of building safety regulations. Substandard materials and incompetent builders abound.
This argument has some merits. Nonetheless, lax regulation cannot be the only or even the primary reason for the scale of dangerous construction practices on the continent. In my PhD research at RMIT University, Australia, I set out to learn more about the root of the problem, focusing on Ghana as an example.
The results of my research go beyond the issues of materials, skills and regulatory enforcement. They reveal the historical-institutional context of harmful building practices in Africa – how the interplay of colonial, externally imposed changes with local conditions have created an environment in which dangerous building practices are often the only choice some people have.
Today, around 40% of Africa’s population – about 500 million people – live in cities. This is projected to rise to more than 1.4 billion people in the next few decades. Building safer, more resilient African cities requires understanding the roots of the building safety problem in order to reach the systemic, long-term solutions needed.
The Legacy of Structural Adjustment Reform
For on-the-ground perspectives of the building problems at hand, I interviewed architects, contractors, surveyors, structural and civil engineers, and other construction experts in Ghana. I also interviewed authorities from Accra and Kumasi, where most of Ghana’s building collapses happen. My interviewees captured most of the known issues in the sector: builders use substandard materials, ignore safety requirements and offer construction jobs to unskilled people.
But it’s clear that deeper, systemic factors are also at play.
When Ghana’s economy tumbled in 1983, the military government at the time approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for help. The help came under the condition of “structural adjustment” of Ghana’s economy. Most developing countries that applied for support from the World Bank and IMF were made to sign onto similar programs.
Structural adjustment reforms involve a series of economic interventions. But in Ghana – and elsewhere – the underlying idea was that removing governments from the provision of public goods by privatizing many government enterprises would help to reduce expenditures and balance the budget, along with removing tariffs and opening up trade to make markets more competitive. For Ghana’s housing sector, this meant the removal of tariffs on imported building materials, the withdrawal of state grants to housing agencies and the introduction of tax holidays for private real estate companies. These and other similar interventions were designed to attract private companies into the housing sector. The assumption was that private companies would provide more and cheaper houses and, therefore, serve the housing needs of the poor better than the state could.
Sadly, this model instead added to existing problems and contributed to new ones.
At that time, Ghana’s post-colonial authorities hadn’t dismantled the planning systems and regulations the British had left behind. In fact, they still adhere to these today. This is a problem because these regulations encourage the use of expensive imported building materials. It is estimated that about 80% of Ghana’s building materials are imported.
Land prices have increased, too. For instance, in the 1980s and 1990s, the price for building plots in prime cities in Ghana increased by more than 1000%. This happened as private and often foreign real estate companies moved in as a result of the structural adjustment-related policies.
Costly building materials and the increasing price of urban land have made housing more and more expensive. While private firms receive tax breaks to provide “affordable housing,” they aren’t delivering. They continue to build in locations and at prices that cater to the wealthy instead of serving the poor.
Ghanaian private real estate companies’ dollar-priced houses are affordable only to high earners, including staff of foreign embassies and transnational corporations in addition to wealthy Ghanaians. The majority of the population has been excluded from the market. Structural adjustment and privatization of the housing sector didn’t cause this directly, but it intensified the housing scarcity and inequality created by Ghana’s colonial and early post-colonial governments.
Accelerated Demand for Buildings Worsens Construction Climate
As shown above, irrespective of the form of governance – colonial or self-rule, military junta or civilian – and ideological foundation – state or market-led economy – formal housing policies in Ghana tend to benefit a privileged few and, therefore, neglect the majority of the population.
This failure of formal housing policies to accommodate the majority of people has sent most Ghanaians to the informal sector. This sector lacks both government-sponsored finance schemes and services provided by banks, so low-income informal home builders are forced to cut corners. They also build as and when they can afford to. Buildings may take years to complete – long enough to develop structural problems even before work is completed, partly because materials and incomplete sections are exposed to deterioration from weather.
Meanwhile, cities continue to experience rising demand for buildings, and the pressure of this accelerated demand is worsening the already precarious construction climate by encouraging even more perilous construction and building use practices.
So, not only are buildings poorly constructed, but once money for materials is available, some are done with great haste. Additions are made to old structures and some are converted to uses not intended in the original designs. According to one architect I interviewed,“The reason [the collapses happen] in the urban areas is that there is high demand [for buildings] and there is pressure. So, the wrong thing is done hurriedly – at lightning speed.”
Problems such as corruption and political interference further undermine authorities’ already under-resourced capacity to bring things under control. The result is an atmosphere in which inappropriate construction practices thrive in ways that undermine public safety.
The Way Out of the Problem
It is often suggested that enforcement of building regulations by national and city authorities would address the problem. But that is a surface-level take. Ghana’s building safety challenges are largely about inefficient allocation of public resources – through housing policy and the organization of the economy generally – for the private gain of a privileged few. The low-income majority are left to fend for themselves.
The rapid urbanization of cities in the global south presents an opportunity for investment in the construction and real estate sectors to deliver positive impacts to the economy, the environment and equity. But in African cities, unless both national and local policies are changed to reflect the needs of the majority and bring down the cost of housing, the construction of unstable infrastructure and the perpetuation of unaffordable housing will continue.
For this to change, public housing schemes must be designed to actually serve the low-income majority and obsolete regulations and building standards need to be repealed. Encouraging local production of less costly, alternative building materials could also bring down construction costs, stimulate local economies, and contribute to safer, more stable buildings in African and other cities similarly situated in the global south.
Festival Godwin Boateng is a postdoctoral research fellow at The Earth Institute of Columbia University.