30 March 2011

Urban Denial

We know the world's population is urbanising rapidly. Is poverty also urbanising? 

Type in urban poverty trends into Google Scholar and top of the list is a paper that I co-authored, published in World Development in 1999. Not very encouraging. If you scan the World Bank and DFID web sites for urban work there is not much.

The one thing I did find is a powerpoint from 2009 by Judy Baker of the World Bank, presenting numbers (although where they come from I don't know) on the urban share of total poor (less than $2.15 a day 1993-2002) which show the numbers increasing for Latin America (no surprise), but also for South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In the latter region the share of poverty in urban areas rises from 24% in 1993 to 31% in 2002--nearly one ppt per year.

For India we have a paper by Datt and Ravallion from 2010 which shows the share of India's poor living in urban areas rising from 25% in 1985 to 35% in 2005 or 0.5 ppt a year. So why no major emphasis on urban poverty in the development agencies (or research organisations?). Is it because:

  • urban poverty and rural poverty are so similar in nature? (they are similar in many ways but some key differences revolve around environmental externalities due to population density, violence, and fragile tenure)
  • the policies and programmes needed to reduce urban poverty are similar to rural poverty? (again, some are, but some --such as municipal public goods provision--need to be very attuned to urban contexts) 
  • there is now a rural bias? (Michael Lipton, a guru, will not like me saying it, but have we gotten lazy about assuming urban bias still prevails-those who shout loudest are in urban areas near policymakers and they get their needs met first)
  • all the 40 and 50 year old development professionals were taught to understand rural poverty and not urban poverty? (I think there is something to this--I have fond memories of Bruce Johnston's Integrated Rural Development)
  • the data on urban poverty are so weak and non-existent? (they are pretty poor--just check out these World Bank data pages)
  • of path dependency? (yep, its so easy to keep on doing what we are doing). 
It is probably all of the above and more. So we need to wake up to urban poverty. It is growing as a share of overall poverty--in all regions. Compares to rural poverty it has different manifestations and determinants. It has different solutions. The rural model will not always apply to the urban. Let's not be urban deniers any more.


Lawrence Haddad said...

So, apologies for the formatting of this post..there is a gremlin that will not let me make it look prettier.

Two comments received so far by email..

1. Its a disciplinary thing (with a suggestion to see Caroline Moser's work--which I know well)--presume this means that urban studies and urban policy have been ghettoised...

2. The International Development Select Committee did a report on this in 2009 which urged DFID to do more on urban poverty--so they are way ahead of me on this--interesting that the report does not seem to have had much traction in DFID up to this point

Thanks to both contributors for these comments

Lawrence Haddad said...

Some readers kindly told me that the source for the Judy Baker data is from Ravallion, M., S. Chen, and P. Sangraula. 2007. “New Evidence on the. Urbanization of Global Poverty.” Policy Research Working Paper. 4199

Also recommended is a book "Arrival City" by Doug Saunders (2010) which takes a positive view of the dynamism of new arrivals in cities.

Anonymous said...

The Judy Baker presentation you mention is part of a larger programme of WB work (see refs below). I don't know how much influence that's had on other parts of the WB though.

The IIED, especially David Satterthwaite and Diana Mitlin have done some work on it http://www.iied.org/human-settlements/key-issues/urban-poverty-0

There is a 'right to the city' movement, campaigning for all urban dwellers to be able to enjoy the full range of freedoms and services that the city provides, and calls for some kind of UN declaration, but as far as I know this hasn't been taken up very widely. There are also associations like Shack/Slum Dwellers International and Habitat International Coalition.

With regard to the MDGs, there is a target to improve the lives of a 100 million slum dwellers. But in my view this reduces urban poverty to the issue of quality of habitation - which is important but not the only issue. Similarly, UN-HABITAT is the main agency that concerns itself with the urban poor. To me the important thing is to think about how the urban poor are doing in terms of all the other goals.

The ODI and CPRC have done work on spatial poverty traps that potentially includes slums http://www.odi.org.uk/resources/download/4533.pdf.

A recent paper (Jones and Corbridge) considers just the question you ask about urban bias.

So there is work going on, it's scattered, and people are focusing on urban areas for disparate reasons which means there is no coherence of purpose. As you suggest there isn't much communication between the disciplines (economics, geography/urban studies, education, etc.) that work on this and it doesn't seem to have worked its way properly into development studies (which might allow better interdisciplinary work to happen). Also, as the Jones and Corbridge paper points out - there is a surprising lack of agreement on what urban means: apply the Peruvian definition of urban to Bangladesh and it becomes a majority-urban country. Within developing countries the urban poor are often seen as the 'undeserving poor' (see for example Naomi Hossain's work on elite views of poverty).

As a way forward I would try to characterise the field of research using the following (fairly obvious) stylized facts:
- the urban poor will soon be a majority of the world's poor
- urban poverty is connected to rural-urban migration (though by no means all urban poor people are migrants)
- urban poverty is often accompanied by severe housing problems, health risks, and poor access to services (but not all urban poor people live in slums)
- urban poverty is spatially concentrated and in proximity to wealth, raising special issues around power, access to services and cost of living
- people living on the edges of cities are even more marginalized than those in the centres
- urban poverty is poorly measured due to difficulty getting the right poverty lines and (I speculate based on looking at a couple of survey datasets) failure of household surveys to cover urban slums adequately
- economic development is strongly associated with urbanization, and urbanization nearly always seems to involve rising urban poverty, at least in the short term

Assuming there's some degree of agreement on these, they could perhaps serve as touchstones from which different disciplinary perspectives could develop research questions.

Anonymous said...

another book to watch out for is: Edward Glaeser. Triumph of the City: How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier. Macmillan.