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A view of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, as seen from Kinshasa, capital of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo Oct. 19, 2005.

David Lewis/Reuters/David Lewis/Reuters

According to Harvard's Edward Glaeser, "Cities are the best path we know out of poverty."

This is echoed by prominent economist Paul Romer, who has made the richly documented case that humanity's urbanization over the past 10,000 years has been the main driver of human progress.

He argues that the present century is the one in which the urbanization trend finally reaches into every corner of the globe, and the world's population will stabilize at 10 billion to 11 billion people, with 70 per cent to 80 per cent of them living in cities.

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But alas, it is not sufficient to shepherd people into growing urban areas for them to participate in the economic benefits of urbanization. I was put in mind of this the other day when I read a piece by a journalist detailing the challenges he faced flying out of Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Kinshasa is a city of some 12 million people and the third-largest in Africa, so its challenges are emblematic of the obstacles to cities bringing widespread prosperity to that continent.

When I lived in Kinshasa, more than 30 years ago, hardly anyone flew out of the local airport. When I left, I took the African Queen-like ferry across the Congo River to Brazzaville, where you could connect to French international flight networks.

Apparently it is slightly better now in Kin, as the locals call the city. Now there are 11 international flights a day. Still a paltry number for any self-respecting city of 12 million residents, for one of the ways cities create wealth for their inhabitants is through dense networks of connections with other cities. There are 1,400 flights a day through London's Heathrow and 1,100 through Toronto's Pearson.

And it is not just airline schedules.

When I lived in Kinshasa, almost no one had a telephone. Copper wire was so valuable that even if you could get a phone connection installed, (in itself a minor miracle), the chances were that scavenging gangs would quickly rip out the connection.

Making an international call was a hilarious undertaking. Since the country never paid its bills to the national telecom companies in other countries, international operators would never accept calls from Congo. You had to go down to the main telephone exchange and bribe an operator to start calling every country in the world until they came across an operator that hadn't got the memo that calls from Congo were verboten. Mobile telephony has surely improved things, but not nearly enough.

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These tiny examples illuminate the larger principle about much African urbanization, namely that unlike, say, China or South Korea or even much of Latin America, Africa is urbanizing without globalizing; Africans are getting only a tiny part of the benefit that growing cities might confer on them.

Fixing this will perhaps be the single most important thing that could be done to help pull Africa out of poverty and connect it with global opportunities. But that means focusing on the right problems and the right solutions.

The biggest obstacle African cities face in realizing their full potential is the weakness of the institutions on which they are based. Yes, people come to cities because there are more jobs, higher levels of specialization and therefore higher wages, educational opportunities, infrastructure and other advantages. But mostly they come because successful cities have rules of behaviour that protect the investment that companies and individuals make to improve their business and their lives.

If organized gangs can take what you have worked so hard to create, why invest in your education or your business? If the government can bulldoze your little shanty on a whim or ownership isn't even available because slumlords backed by violence control vast slums, how can you build a stable life? If water, sewer and electricity hookups are a luxury available only to elites, how can you avoid epidemics or connect to the Internet?

What makes cities in the West such magnets for people from all over the world is that property rights are clearly defined and enforced – when your safety and security is threatened, you can call the police and they will come and they won't extort you; if you sign a contract, it will be enforced pretty evenhandedly on the parties. We have created the certainty needed for investment to be made in the provision of services such as water, sewers, electricity and data pipes, not to mention education, transport and health care.

Lagos, Kinshasa, Nairobi and other emerging African megacities show that the continent is getting the easy part right, with urban dwellers doubling every 20 years.

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But services and institutions are falling behind. Institution-building will determine whether those cities can realize the promise of prosperity, too.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: http://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/

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