When Germany industrialized rapidly from the end of the 19th century through the first few decades of the 20th century, it also urbanized quickly.
Today, it is Europe’s economic engine and the world’s fourth-largest economy. But a tiny, poor African country is still pipping Germany in the ranks of urbanized societies: Djibouti.
The country with the area of New Jersey sits on the Horn of Africa at the mouth of one of the world’s most important waterways — the Red Sea — and 77 percent of its 940,000 citizens live in cities. That’s 1 percent higher than Germany, according to the World Bank.
What makes Djibouti unique, though, is how it combines urbanization with such poverty that its per capita gross national income is one-fortieth of Germany’s.
Indeed, no other nation in its lower-middle-income status — 54 countries with an annual per capita GNI between $1,025 and $4,035 — is as urbanized. Djibouti, with its latest reported per capita income of $1,030, barely even makes it to the lower-middle-income band; even war-torn Yemen is more affluent.
And while Djibouti’s GNI ranks 165 in the world, every country more urbanized than it ranks in the top 100.
That seemingly baffling contradiction has an explanation, though, and it lies in a combination of geography, climate, politics — and geopolitics. The country is highly urbanized “out of necessity,” says Ahmed Soliman, a researcher at London’s Chatham House who specializes in the Horn of Africa.
Small, rocky and with little rainfall, the country has less than 386 square miles of arable land. “The country has little rural productivity,” says Soliman. That Djibouti, like many other countries, is rurally underdeveloped only exaggerates the population flow to the nation’s few urban hubs.
Other poor countries aren’t as urbanized because “a dependence on agriculture keeps much of the population dispersed across the arable landscape,” says Gordon McGranahan, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, U.K, whose work focuses on the correlation between urbanization and development.
Urban Djibouti, on the other hand, is in the global spotlight like never before. Located on a crucial artery of global trade, the country has emerged as a hub for naval and military bases of countries looking to secure their interests while battling piracy and terrorism.