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Charter Cities Podcast Episode 58: Heba Elhanafy and Matthew McCartney on Africa’s Bad Urban Laws

On today's Charter Cities podcast episode, host Jeffrey Mason is joined by colleagues Heba Elhanafy and Matthew McCartney to unpack the New Africa's Bad Urban Laws project. This initiative dissects laws in African cities hindering growth and community well-being. Additionally, Jeffrey reminds listeners of the upcoming Africa's New City Summit in Kigali, Rwanda. The team dives deep, discussing the reasons for and effects of detrimental urban laws, using instances like Zambia's land ownership as an example. Tune in for an insightful discussion on urban policies in Africa.


Key Points From This Episode:

  • How urban laws negatively affect African urban environments across fiscal, administrative, and spatial planning
  • The project exposes bad urban laws and questions their persistent existence in African cities
  • Bad urban laws persist due to misunderstandings, political interests, and distributional benefits
  • How Zambia’s outdated land ownership laws, rooted in colonial times, benefit a few and hinder economic development
  • Egypt’s attempt to modernize land laws led to unique urban challenges affecting millions
  • Urban physician reforms laws with expertise; urban politician navigates political realities for urban changes
  • Interactive map showcases bad urban laws, allows user contributions for more awareness
  • CCI’s research aims for awareness through interactive maps and practical urban reform


“On Africa’s Bad Urban Laws project: ‘An effort to collect, categorize and analyze laws, policies and practices in cities throughout the continent that have a negative impact on growth, communities and quality of life.’” — @JeffreyMason [0:00:39]

“But I think in our paper we discovered that there exist lots of different reasons why bad laws exist? Sometimes, yes. It’s about a lack of skills or understanding the capacity building and the use of satellite technology to check for property taxation is a new technology. And the understanding of that is something that a lot of governments in the Global South would probably be grateful to have that capacity. But quite often bad laws exist because bad laws benefit certain people.” — @MatthewMcCartney [0:06:09]

“So I think kind of Matt wrapped it up on why those bad laws exist. And I want to also tackle part of your question on why they persist so much. So, for instance, let’s look at one of the laws that we studied in Zambia here. And it’s practically the land ownership law. And if you don’t know, almost over 80% to 85% of the land here in Zambia is customary law.” — @HebaElhanafy [0:07:42]

“On the Role of the Urban Physician: ‘Making bad laws better is like surgery. An expert cuts them away, changes them.’” — @MatthewMcCartney [0:15:40]

“So we want to kind of extend the invitation for practically everyone else to kind of contribute to this laws. I don’t think X amount of people, me or Matt or even the amazing interns I’ve had are able to kind of put all those research together.” — @HebaElhanafy [0:20:38]

“I think this is a really cool way to involve researchers and sort of the broader interested public and maybe some of our listeners in your project.” — @JeffreyMason [0:21:09]

Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

Africas New Cities Summit

Charter Cities Institute

Charter Cities Institute on Facebook

Charter Cities Institute on Twitter


Jeffrey Mason: I’m Jeffrey Mason, research manager at the Charter Cities Institute. Joining me on the podcast today are my colleagues Heba Al Elhanafy and Matthew McCartney. They’re here today to discuss CCI’s new Africa’s Bad Urban Laws project. An effort to collect, categorize and analyze laws, policies and practices in cities throughout the continent that have a negative impact on growth, communities and quality of life. Also want to remind listeners about the inaugural Africa’s New City Summit taking place on November 16 to 18th in Kigali, Rwanda. We’re very excited about this event, and we hope you can join us there. You can learn more at Thank you for listening, and I hope you enjoy today’s episode.

Jeffrey Mason: Thanks for joining me, Heba and Matt.

Heba Elhanafy: Thanks for having me, Jeff.

Matthew McCartney: Good to be here, Jeff. Three continents.

Jeffrey Mason: We’ve got some good coverage. Let’s start off. What is the Bad Urban Laws project?

Heba Elhanafy: Okay, yeah, can go. So let’s put the bad words to the side and let’s talk about what is urban laws. So urban laws here we define it as a set of policies, the laws, the decision, the practices that govern practically the urban environment. So here we look at examples from all over Africa that we deem as bad. What then comes to the second part, what bad means? I think bad means that it has some sort of a negative connotation to the urban environment. So this is what kind of bad urban laws or how we started bad urban laws.

Jeffrey Mason: And that could encompass matters of the economy or quality of life or any of these dimensions?

Heba Elhanafy: It can be any law or any policy that kind of had a negative effect on the urban environment. I mean, we tried to kind of put them in three main categories, which is the fiscal policies, the administrative policies, and special planning. Because we thought that would make sense in a sense of those are the kind of like three main things that shape the urban environments. But the effects of that, it touches everything.

Jeffrey Mason: Why this project? Why did we start this project?

Heba Elhanafy: So first off, if you haven’t known me in real life, I love to rant. So this was kind of like my rant outlet, and I also like to kind of blame governments and policies for everything that is wrong with the world. So that was kind of like the second reason. I was like yeah, this government this year made a really bad decision, and now we’re stuck in traffic for 4 hours. So it was kind of a way for us to kind of rant and shout about it. But most importantly, I feel, and Matt can also talk about this a bit more, that we talk a lot about new startup cities as new cities with new laws or with better laws. But this idea of laws and why are they bad and how do they really, really affect the urban environment, how do they really affect economic development, how do they affect everyday life? I don’t think we have delved into it as an institute enough, and I just wanted examples of how bad this shit is. So, yeah, I think that’s kind of why we felt that this was important to tackle. I don’t know, Matt, If you have any other thoughts.

Matthew McCartney: Yeah, I think why this project? So there’s two levels to it, I think. The first level is Heba’s kind of gloriously, irreverent effort to catalogue these bad laws. I mean, the funny ones, the ones that make you furious, and to present them in an interactive map. That’s the kind of the first, I mean, what are they, the bad laws? And then the second part of the project, which takes us more into the academic side, was to think about, well, why do they exist? Property tax, for example. Economists regard property taxes as a particularly efficient way and a particularly equitable way of raising tax revenue. And we see cities like Nairobi choking in congestion and bad infrastructure. Yet property taxes only raise 0.01% of GDP in Kenya, so why not raise more revenue from property tax? So just cataloging the laws leaves us with a big question about why these laws continue to exist when, as he ever said, these are bad laws. Why don’t politicians and voters get together and serve everybody’s best interests by amending these bad laws? So the second stage, the academic, was to classify them into different sorts of bad laws and to think about the different reasons for their existence and then the related constraints to making those bad laws better.

Jeffrey Mason: So, let’s get into this. What are some of those reasons why these laws exist and so many of them seem to be so persistent? We can get into some of these examples. Many of the ones raised in the project, they often date even before decolonization or shortly after decolonization. So we’re talking about maybe half a century or more at this point.

Matthew McCartney: I think that’s a particularly interesting question because there’s a very dominant narrative about why these bad laws exist and what needs to be done to reform them. So big organizations like UN-Habitat or the World Bank or the OECD have been producing big policy papers with a very explicit aim of reaching lawmakers, political leaders, city mayors and so on in the Global South with advice on how to reform these bad laws, on how to make these bad laws better. And their very clear narrative is that this is really a lack of understanding that these big policy papers seek to explain, seek to inspire, and thus equip policymakers to change laws, to make bad laws better. It’s a kind of simple narrative of a lack of understanding, a lack of skills, a lack of understanding of modern economics, let’s say, and that once grasped these concepts, policymakers will be equipped to change those laws. But I think in our paper, we discovered that there exist lots of different reasons why bad laws exist. Sometimes, yes, It’s about a lack of skills or understanding the capacity building, and the use of satellite technology to check for property taxation is a new technology. And the understanding of that is something that a lot of governments in the Global South would probably be grateful to have that capacity. But quite often, bad laws exist because bad laws benefit certain people. The poorest people not having property rights can benefit wealthier people because property developers find it easier to clear people out of the way in order to build a shopping mall. Sometimes laws have big distributional impacts. So the recent banning of Ocado taxes or motorbike taxes in Lagos, in Nigeria, could be justified because of its poor transport and congestion and dangerous driving. But a very clear beneficiary of this was the bus companies that now have much bigger queues and can charge higher prices. So there’s a distributional question or a political issue there. The Ocado drivers are losing, the bus drivers are gaining. So sometimes this is about distribution issues. But we discovered bad laws exist for lots of different reasons, and we need to think about very different strategies to make bad laws better depending on why they exist.

Jeffrey Mason: Heba, did you want to jump in here? Maybe you can talk about some of the other interesting examples that you found.

Heba Elhanafy: So I think kind of Matt wrapped it up on why those bad laws exist. And I want to also tackle part of your question on why they persist so much. So, for instance, let’s look at one of the laws that we studied in Zambia here. And it’s practically the land ownership law. And if you don’t know, almost 80% to 85% of the land here in Zambia is customary law. And this law was not bought by the Boss Independence government, it was actually bought by the colonial government. I read somewhere that there were only 24 English, I don’t know, like people who governed all of Zambia. And how they did that is that they gave most of the land rights to the chiefs. They made sure that chiefs were aligned with them. And this is how kind of we got the customary laws in Zambia. And if you look at the same way we look at many other countries around Africa, and we look at the implementations of where that law kind of takes us today. We look at the gender kind of like gap of owning land, where most of the land is assigned by chiefs to men, not to women. The lack of land titling. So I can have like millions of acres of land somewhere, but I don’t have a title to it, so I can’t really build anything or it, or I can’t have the value from it without going back to the chief. In a way, it kind of protected indigenous land, but on the other side, it kind of limited economic development for 80% of the country here, right? Or didn’t really allow for the most productive use to fall into this land when it’s kind of like still in the hands of very few people. I was just in a meeting with the UN-Habitat last Friday, and they did kind of like very interesting research, especially on land ownership here and land titling, and they kind of came back, and it was very quantitative, but they came back to the kind of very results that the whole country is talking about. So there are so many examples of laws that have existed for over 50 or 40 years, 60 and 70. In some examples where we see kind of their persistence is causing more harm, but they created already that kind of effect of certain stakeholders who are benefiting so much from it that it’s hard to kind of make those changes.

Jeffrey Mason: And something else, Heba, that I found interesting when reading through some of this research, I think you can speak to this one as this example that I’m going to reference is from Egypt, and of course, you are our resident Egypt scholar. Egypt, they made these reform efforts to try to more formalize land title and try to modernize and formalize a sort of messy, informal, kind of disorganized, almost really non-existent system when it came to land and registration, property registration and planning at face value. Right, that seems like a good thing. But can you talk about why even a good faith, a serious attempt to modernize these very complicated systems can still cause a lot of problems and why it’s difficult?

Heba Elhanafy: Okay, so Jeff, first of all, I love that you called me our resident Egypt scholar. I think I might change my title from urban researcher to Resident Egypt scholar or Egyptian scholar. I think it sounds cooler. So, of course, I think one of the kind of very early examples that I was thinking about when we were doing this or when we were starting this project is Mess, which is Egyptian kind of like birding regulations and land titling and these kinds of all of those things. And it also speaks a little bit to how those laws form very unique urban environments. So if you look at currently the urban environments in Egypt, and you look at the 70% informal, quote-unquote, settlements, most of those informal settlements, well, not most, 90%. Some estimates drive it higher. 95% have access to electricity, around 85% have access to water. Most of those settlements are 14 stories high, 15 stories high. And then you look back like, how did that happen? Right? When you look at back at the rest of sub-Saharan Africa or even the rest of the north, the informal settlement is still quite low-density, and this goes back practically to the regulations that govern those buildings again and again. So if you look at in the 1960s, this is when kind of like the first urban movement started happening post-independence in the Sterilization era, people just kind of came, and the government was like, oh, you know what? Those are the workers that are going to go to the factory to let those people stay here. And when we talk about those people, we talk about millions or thousands of Egyptians at this point. So those thousands of Egyptians just came, they built their own houses and got married and have some more thousands of Egyptians. And then in the 1990s law that allowed those informal settlements without even having land titling but allowed electricity and water to come in practically drove those lands into kind of like an informal market situation where a lot of people just came in, and a lot of those properties that were, like, one or two stories high maximum were flipped into the 14 stories high, the ten stories high informal settlements that we’ve seen today. And while on the surface, as I mentioned before or whenever I mentioned anywhere they formed settlements in Egypt, 80% or 70% of them have water, have electricity, they all have gas. It’s very mixed-use, and it’s very dense. And these kinds of things, it looks like it’s doing very well, which I agree it’s doing very well in a certain aspect. But on another aspect, the land titling is not finalized. So the legging of those houses or the legging of those apartments is still not something that is in the formal economy. So the taxes don’t go to the formal economy. It doesn’t really contribute to any economic development. So, as you mentioned, while there were so many attempts and so many times to make those people’s lives better or to end informality or these kind of things, it has always there are thousands and thousands of people, and we don’t know what to do with them. And then you look at another issue of kind of where those informal settlements lie, and they lie on one of the most valuable land in Cairo and in the whole continent. And it should be from an economic perspective, it should be kind of allocated to another use. But again, where are you gonna put those people? And if you transfer them somewhere else, then they don’t have access to the job opportunities, the services and the amenities that brought them to that place in the first place. One bad law or one kind of bad decision, or one kind of bad policy can have effects for years and years and years and try to make them right or do whatever is always very difficult, especially when it affects thousands of years of life. So that’s why they persist, kind of.

Jeffrey Mason: I think that’s a sort of great case study for some of the challenges of trying to reform urban policy. And I think that brings us nicely to an idea that we talk about in the research paper, the idea of the quote-unquote urban physician. The paper sort of contrasts the idea of an urban physician with the urban politician. So, Matt, I’m wondering if you could tell us what is this idea of the urban physician. What is it that they can do? What are they trying to achieve? What are their limitations? And what is their relationship to the urban politician?

Matthew McCartney: The urban physician is a way in which we’ve characterized an approach to urban law reform given by these big policy papers UN, habitat, World Bank, and so on. The approach they suggest is for an urban physician to make these policy changes, these policy changes or making bad laws better, work like surgery, that a policymaker needs to have a lot of education and skills, needs to be informed by outside expertise. And making bad laws better is like surgery. An expert cuts them away and changes them. And we agree that sometimes surgery is needed, that the urban physician is needed. So sometimes, for example, laws are badly drafted, or they’re ambiguous, or they’ve not been translated from English into the local languages, or they’re not available online. In those cases, it’s surgery, it’s a physician. The urban physician is needed to make bad laws better. But very often, an understanding of why laws exist means that we need more than the urban physician. So thinking about who benefits, who loses from existing laws. This is where we need the urban politician. An urban politician is needed to think carefully about prioritizing reforms to think carefully about the administrative burden of implementing reforms compared to existing constraints on capacity, to think about the political skills that are needed to build coalitions to support reform and perhaps to compensate those losing out or provide inducements for neutral groups to come out in support of reform. Heba’s point, it’s typically very difficult to protect the property rights of the poorest. There’s often a big administrative burden of locating who’s living in slums, who deserves compensation. These types of reforms can often be opposed by richer groups who don’t want the cost of land acquisition to be raised. They can clear people out of the way and build new developments at a lower cost if the poor don’t have property rights. And quite often, the poor are protected by politicians who offer them protection of their informal property rights in return for political support. And there’s a certain irony that those same politicians don’t want property rights to be formalized over the long term because they get votes for protecting informal dwellings. So protecting property rights for the poorest is very difficult. It makes a lot of sense in economics, but in practical terms, it’s very difficult. So one example of something the urban politician may do is think that in this context, it’s difficult to protect property rights. And we need another strategy. One of those that relies on compensation or inducements to support, is called land adjustment. You don’t protect the existing property rights of the poorest. What one does is when a slum is being redeveloped is to offer the poorest people compensation. So perhaps a flat in a new apartment block or a job in the new development. And that may be a more practical means of redeveloping a slum than going through the process of protecting property rights and then buying out the property rights of the poorest. So the urban politician is one who thinks carefully about the benefits and costs of existing property rights, thinks about existing capacity, prioritizing reforms, and about the political realities of unstaking any reform.

Jeffrey Mason: I think it’s in a very interesting, very helpful framework for thinking about the complexities of urban reform and urban policymaking. We’ve been referencing this research project, but I think Heba alluded to earlier there being an interactive component that we’ll be sharing as well. Heba, could you talk a bit about what that’s going to include?

Heba Elhanafy: Coming back to my point of I just want people to rant, and I want people to be aware of those really bad urban laws. I also want people to contribute. When we started this project, I had like a couple of laws at the back of my head from my school days or my research or my kind of like living 24 years straight in Egypt. That was a lot of law I had to know or live. So practically, the interactive part is that we’re putting all the load, which is around like 30 laws I think, or 28 laws on a map. So this time, we’re focusing on Africans, we’re putting them on a map. You can also download those laws separately. They’re going to be separate documents that are cataloging those laws. But there is also an interactive map where you can go just stand on city or in a certain country, and then really bad laws going to pop up for you. So you don’t even have to read the documents. And what’s really cool is that we also included a button where if you know a bad urban law that is bugging you in your city, you can submit it. We’re going to review it, and then we can also post it there. Just to go back a little bit on the history of this research, this has been in the making for about two years now. I think every intern that had interned for an urban research internship has contributed in one way or another to this project. Some have added a lot of knowledge of, like, hey, Heba, this law really sucks, let me research it and add it. Or they have contributed in one way or another. So this is a collection of the work of a lot of people. Thank you all. So we want to kind of extend the invitation for practically everyone else to kind of contribute to these laws. I don’t think x amount of people, me or Matt or even the amazing interns I’ve had are able to kind of put all those research together. So we’re just kind of extending an invitation for everyone to do so. It’s going to be a really nice, kind of like night where you can go into the map, just click and read all those really bad laws and decide for yourself if they’re bad or not as well, because some of them are interesting.

Jeffrey Mason: I think this is a really cool way to involve researchers and sort of the broader interested public and maybe some of our listeners in your project. So please come join the waiting room to see the urban physician. Before we wrap up, Heba, beyond rolling out this sort of interactive tool, could you just talk a little bit more about sort of the future of CCI’s research in this space?

Heba Elhanafy: Currently, I’m talking to you, as Matt mentioned, we’re currently now in three different continents. I’m in Lusaka, which is going into summer, and we’re burning in heat. But as we grow and as we have more projects on the ground, especially in Africa, we want to kind of understand the space better. And not just understand better, but fill on those gaps that are often that we see in research, whether it’s urban or otherwise. So I think this is a good start for us to look at the policies, the laws, the kind of things that govern. And then, when we talk about the future or building the cities of the future, we understand what went wrong. And this can help us guide our technical assistance to the city that we’re working with, even in our research, it can help us guide based things on the ground and as well as we want to really highlight the importance of what good governance does to the city and what bad governance does to a city. The idea of a shorter city doesn’t come from somebody’s mind, and it doesn’t have really anything connected to the ground. No, we see those bad laws and we see the effect of them that have every single day. We have to live through those laws, and we have to live through their effects. And I hope that this project kind of highlights this. And Matt, I’ll throw it to you. What are you hoping for this project to achieve in the future?

Matthew McCartney: I think we’ve got a nice balance here, that we’ve got the outreach or engagement side in the interactive map, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to play with that. And I think these laws, some of these laws, are fascinating. They’re funny, they make you furious. I mean, one of my favorites that I discovered through this project is that roofs in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, have to be built to withstand six inches of snow. Because when these were originally devised by a British civil servant, he copied the urban planning laws from Nairobi from his hometown in England, which was Blackburn, for the interested listener, which is prone to snow, and these laws in some form still persist in Nairobi. So I think the interactive map is going to be lots of fun, and I’m looking forward to learning about more of these crazy bad laws. But I think there’s also a danger, if we’re just focusing on an interactive map, is that we can generate an overwhelming list of bad reforms and generate a sense of hopelessness, compare a huge list of bad laws to the limited capacity of many governments in sub-Saharan Africa. So I think an important part of this project, and this is also what we do at CCI, is that we’re engaging in assisting governments in reforming particularly urban planning laws. That we are using the results of this project to devise strategies for reform and to help governments think carefully about the political, social context of their countries in order to prioritize reforms, in order to work out a strategy for making those bad laws better. I think in terms of outreach and in terms of using these results in a practical way to go forward, I think this project is nicely balanced between the outreach and then using that to generate practical advice for policymakers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Jeffrey Mason: That’s fantastic to hear. This really is a comprehensive research project that does aim to affect change on the ground. So thank you both, Heba and Matt, for joining me today, listeners. You can check out Africa’s Bad Urban Laws research paper as well as the interactive map on the CCI website. Thank you both for joining me today.

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