If you are an expatriate and have the luxury of choosing the country to be deployed to, you may as well pick Vienna, the capital of Austria.
For eight years in a row, it has been ranked the world’s number one city offering quality living for expatriates by Mercer, an international human resource consultancy, in its 19 Annual Quality Living Survey released this week.
But one can see why the Austrian capital offers quality life. The country is rich in history and art, offering a vibrant culture scene; its rents and public transport costs are relatively cheap compared with those in other Western capitals.
Vienna prides itself of being place where the cafe society was invented. Nowhere has the art of relaxing over coffee or hot chocolate been elevated to such heights, or accompanied by such good cake and quite so much whipped cream.
From the survey, Vienna is closely followed in the category of quality of life by Zurich in Switzerland and Auckland in New Zealand, Munich in Germany and Vancouver in Canada.
In Africa, only five cities, three of them in South Africa, feature in the top 100 ranking of quality living.
These are led by Port Louis in Mauritius, topping the Africa chart and taking position 84 globally.
Durban is ranked highest in quality of living in Africa and is ranked 87th globally, closely followed by Cape Town at 94 and Johannesburg at 96.
Durban is friendly for expatriates because it offers easy access to properties, permits, international schools and unusual services like where to get prescription drugs for pets. The city has an online community for international workers where they share experiences and recommend places to get good service.
There are no internationally agreed standards on what constitutes a liveable city, however, Mercer says international workers are keen on a country’s infrastructure when determining the quality of a city they are moving to.
Expatriates also look at a city’s supply of electricity, drinking water, telephone and mail services, and public transportation as well as traffic congestion and the range of international flights available from local airports.
Why East African cities fail
It is in these qualities that many cities in the region fail. Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam suffer frequent power outages, along with some of the worst traffic gridlocks on the continent, with Nairobi residents spending almost six hours a day in traffic, costing the economy Ksh37 billion ($370m) annually.
“Before I moved to Kenya, I had no idea that errands could consume so much of my life. Recently, I had to apply for a new Congolese visa, which meant going into Nairobi’s city centre. Getting there means enduring some of the worst traffic in the world,” The Economist’s Africa correspondent Daniel Knowles wrote recently. “A journey that should take 15 minutes in smooth traffic can take several hours.
“But even more mundane things take time. Without a proper postal system, if you need to send something to somebody, you have to deliver it yourself. Online shopping hasn’t really taken off, so when you need groceries you have to go and get them. And everything involves driving around and so getting stuck in traffic jams.”
Such indeed is the life of many expatriates who have moved to Kenya. Take Jacky Habib, a journalist from Canada attached to a media house in Nairobi as an Aga Khan Foundation fellow. She says that safety is a concern in Nairobi, especially after dark. She relies on private transport in the evening.
She does not also feel completely safe either in the streets of Nairobi and will not carry her laptop when walking in the city.
Cities in East Africa also lack efficient public transport systems with none of them having a light commuter train service, a popular and inexpensive means of transport in developed and recently many visionary developing countries.
In Nairobi, Kampala and other East African cities, the common means of transport for the urban middle class are loosely regulated minibus taxis that run on no schedule or fixed fare.
Recently, Dar es Salaam launched a rapid bus transit system after remodelling major city roads and has reduced commuting time across the city by more than half.
Nairobi’s commuter train system is nothing near world class. It only serves one side of the city, is slow by any international standards and only makes four trips a day — two in the morning and two in the evening — with no guarantee of reliability.
“Most Nairobians walk to get around,” notes Mr Knowles, an observation only an expatriate finds strange. For a majority of Kenyans, it is the only option.
Kigali in Rwanda, has some semblance of order in its traffic management, but its public transport is insufficient. The city is clean, security is commendable by the region’s standards but rents are high because of a scarcity of international standard housing. Kigali is well connected to the major international airports of Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg, but it still has to compete with Nairobi and Dar es Salaam for connectivity.
All cities in East Africa suffer from water scarcity, and water service is one of the major criteria used by expatriates when ranking cities.
The world over, infrastructure is a big attraction not just for expatriates but also for local populations. According to the Mercer report, Singapore has the best infrastructure in the world, followed by the German cities of Frankfurt and Munich that tie in second place.
Baghdad and Port au Prince have the worst city infrastructure. This can be explained by the fact that Iraq is basically still a war zone and Port au Prince has still to recover from the devastating earthquake of 2010; also, Haiti is the poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere.
Singapore’s infrastructure is centuries ahead of that of countries in Africa as the country restricts the number of cars on its roads to control traffic and air pollution and encourages commuters to use bicycles and the public train. Taxis are a popular form of public transport as the fares are relatively cheap compared with those in other developed countries.
In the Middle East, Dubai is ranked highest for quality of living across the region, followed closely by Abu Dhabi, also in the United Arab Emirates.
Dubai has a huge number of immigrants — although the almost six million people that come as workers cannot exactly be classified as expatriates — but its efficient public transport of bus and light train, makes commutes easy for both workers and tourists.
“Cities that rank high in the city infrastructure list provide a combination of top-notch local and international airport facilities, varied and extended coverage through their local transportation networks, and innovative solutions such as smart technology and alternative energy,” said Slagin Parakatil, a principal researcher at Mercer responsible for the quality of living research.
“Most cities now align variety, reliability, technology, and sustainability when designing infrastructure for the future,” he added. None of the East African cities appear in the top 100 cities conducive for expatriates, considering most urban areas are crowded, hard to navigate and lack proper roads, are inadequately served by public transport, with poor public administration and local authorities bedevilled by corruption.
The other standards used to rank cities by international workers is a country’s political stability, media freedom, availability of international schools and sewerage systems, not forgetting minor things like availability of household appliances.
Mr Parakatil said: “A city’s infrastructure, or rather the lack thereof, can considerably affect the quality of living that expatriates and their families experience on a daily basis. Access to a variety of transport options, being connected locally and internationally, and access to electricity and drinkable water are among the essential needs of expatriates arriving in a new location on assignment.
“A well-developed infrastructure can also be a key competitive advantage for cities and municipalities trying to attract multinational companies, talent and foreign investment,” he added.
Not surprisingly, African cities dominate capitals offering the lowest quality of life with Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo, N’Djamena in Chad, Khartoum in Sudan and Bangui in the Central African Republic ranked the four lowest cities for quality of living on the continent.
A country’s development helps companies determine their expatriate compensation packages rationally, consistently and systematically using reliable data.
They assist by providing incentives to reward and recognise the effort that employees and their families make when taking on international assignments. They remain a typical practice, particularly for difficult locations.