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close this bookThe Human Settlements Conditions of the World's Urban Poor (HABITAT, 1996, 233 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentList of acronyms
View the documentComments on country groupings
View the documentData notes
Open this folder and view contentsI. Introduction
Open this folder and view contentsII. The concept and scale of urban poverty
Open this folder and view contentsIII. The urban economy
Open this folder and view contentsIV. Recent trends in the human settlements conditions of the world’s urban poor
Open this folder and view contentsV. Reaching the urban poor
Open this folder and view contentsVI. Reducing the human settlements problem of the urban poor
Open this folder and view contentsVII. Agenda for future work
Open this folder and view contentsVIII. Conclusions and recommendations
View the documentBibliography


More than one billion people are currently living in absolute poverty, with incomes too low to meet their daily requirements in terms of food, clothing and other basic needs. A similar, or even larger number of people do not have access to safe and healthy shelter. The latter half of the twentieth century has seen the continuous transfer of the world’s population into urban areas. In 1950, less than 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban. By 1995 this figure has increased to 45 per cent. Within the next ten years, more than every second human being will live in cities and towns.

We are, however, not only living in an urbanizing world. We are also living in a period which can best be described as the age of the ‘urbanization of poverty’. By 1985 some 330 million urban dwellers in developing countries had incomes so low that they were characterized as living in absolute poverty. Ten years later, in 1995, the figure is estimated at 430 million. At the same time, more than 600 million urban residents in developing countries live in health-threatening houses and conditions characterized by lack of basic services such as piped water, sanitation and health care.

There is a considerable regional variation to this general picture. While three quarters of the poor in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in North Africa and the Middle East, live in urban areas, a similar proportion of the poor live in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa. The trend, however, is general. Rapid urban growth in all regions is accompanied by a relative (and in most cases also an absolute) increase in the number of urban poor. The explosive growth of informal settlements in many sub-Saharan cities is a visible manifestation of this.

There are many reasons for the increasing ‘income poverty’ and ‘housing poverty’ in urban areas. One of these is the process of urbanization itself. When this occurs at a time of world-wide economic recession - and as we are increasingly realizing that present policies for human settlements development fail to cater for the special circumstances of the groups affected by extreme poverty - it is not surprising that a large proportion of the 65 million people that are added to the urban populations of developing countries each year end up unemployed or underemployed, living in very poor shelter conditions.

It is against this reality that the Fourteenth Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements requested the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) to report to the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) on the human settlements conditions of the world’s urban poor. This publication has been prepared in response to that request to present recommendations on how to address the shelter problem of the poorest groups within the context of enabling shelter strategies.

The dual problems of urban poverty and inadequate human settlements conditions in developing countries constitute two of the most fundamental challenges to politicians and policy-makers throughout the world. The growth of the informal sector is a symptom of the inability of the formal sector to absorb the labour potential of an increasing number of urban dwellers. Yet, the informal sector is also the most important arena for shelter provision, and in many cases the only arena open to the urban poor.

The Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000 (GSS) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1988 to address these issues. It calls for the introduction of enabling shelter strategies: for facilitating the actions and potential of all participants in the shelter delivery process. This implies a change from policies of government intervention to policies of enablement. Yet, as is acknowledged in the GSS, this process of liberalization embodies certain dangers to the urban poor. Increased demand for land and housing is accompanied by increased ‘commercialization’ of these markets. As choice is a positive function of income, many among the poor may end up with no choice at all. Thus, although liberalization is a necessary condition for the success of the GSS, it is by no means a sufficient one.

This is not an argument for abandoning the enabling approach. Yet, if we are to improve the human settlements conditions of the poorest groups it means going beyond enabling shelter strategies. Enabling shelter strategies does not imply that the public sector should withdraw from shelter provision completely. In fact, it is only by enabling the “not-so-poor” to help themselves, that governments can make resources available for direct assistance to the poorest groups.

These circumstances serve to highlight the strategic significance of the Habitat II Conference - the ‘City Summit’ - in seeking genuine, worldwide support for a global strategy which seeks to improve shelter conditions and the quality of life in urban areas, whilst at the same time combatting the problems of urban poverty effectively.

The challenge ahead, for Habitat 11 and the world community at large, is truly staggering. Yet, as human beings, we cannot afford to fail.

We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Mr. Richard Groves, of the University of Birmingham, in preparing the background report on which this publication is largely based; and of Mr. Inge Jensen, of UNCHS (Habitat), in developing the research design, co-ordinating the activities and preparing the final publication.

Dr. Wally N’Dow
United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat)
United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II)