Cover Image
close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 13, Number 3, 1991(UNU, 1991, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentCities in the 21 st century - The urban half
View the documentThe pathology of the city
View the documentNew strategies for urban poverty
View the documentLopsided modernization and the urban poor
View the documentUrban transport and urban growth
View the documentThe hub of Japan
View the documentThe land game
View the documentShaping Tokyo for the future
View the documentSeoul: Still a metropolis in the making
View the documentAsia's growing urban rings
View the document"A giant supermarket..." - Is there anything good about mega-cities?
View the documentThe emerging world city system
View the documentUNU update

New strategies for urban poverty

By Om Prakash Mathur

There is much anecdotal evidence about the misery of poverty in big urban centres anywhere in this world - and it is no respecter of a nation's relative affluence. The poor, the lost and the homeless can be found in disquieting numbers living out their tragic daily existence in Calcutta, Bogota, Paris or New York.

One puzzling lack, asserts Om Prakash Mathur, is in the attention paid to the plight of the urban poor by major research institutions and government policy makers. Too often, it would appear, policies aimed at poverty alleviation focus only on national statistics. Such strategies, he argues, ignore the special dimensions of urban poverty. Poverty in the cities cannot be simply lumped into the blur of national statistics.

Dr. Mathur, an urban planner specializing in urban management, is the Director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs in New Delhi, India. The following is excerpted from the paper which he presented to the Tokyo Symposium on the Mega-City and the Future. - Editor

Concern for urban poverty in the developing countries is of a comparatively recent origin. Some claim that the turning point was the annual address in 1975 by the then World Bank President Robert McNamara, where he drew attention to the fact that in the developing world "the urban poor exist in thoroughly squalid conditions, afflicted by malnutrition, devoid of rudimentary sanitary facilities, lacking employment, possessing minimum shelter if at all."

Until this address, or perhaps more accurately the early 1970s, public policy responses did not distinguish between rural and urban poverty, and paid little attention to urban poverty issues. Most developing countries worked under the assumption that urbanization was necessary, that it was central to any economic transformation, and postulated that economic transformation will itself trickle down and gradually spread out to the different population and income groups. The potential adverse consequences of urbanization were overlooked. Government interventions in the urban arena were aimed essentially at removal and clearance of slums, considered until then the main manifestation of poverty in urban areas.

1970s, Painful Awakening

The 1970s, however, opened under totally different sets of conditions and circumstances - with countries painfully recognizing that urbanization and the manner in which it had come about was not an unmixed blessing. On the one hand, urban areas - and particularly those gigantic sprawls coming to be known as "mega-cities" - could result in massive economic gains and productivity. But they were equally the centres of large scale poverty and deprivation. More concretely, if we look at it in a historical perspective, it appears that the development of urban public policy responses grew out of three simultaneously operating forces:

1. The failure of the developing countries to anticipate the scale and pace of urbanization, and their relative unpreparedness to address urbanization issues;

2. The inability of the formal sector to expand and correspondingly absorb the increasing urban labour force; and

3. The incapacity of the formal institutional systems to expand the infrastructure - particularly basic urban services - to meet the needs of fast growing urban populations.

Two Schools: Lessen "Pull," Direct "Push"

There were two principal schools of thought about the problem of burgeoning urbanization and urban poverty in the developing countries. One stressed policies designed to lower out-migration from rural areas. This was one of the main justifications for the rural development policies of the 1980s. A second policy response was urban decentralization and development of small and intermediate-sized cities. The most common instruments were fiscal incentives designed to alter the location of investment and the subsidization of urban infrastructures in smaller cities.

Neither of the two policies seemed to have any impact on the problems arising out of urbanization. Such efforts were frequently undertaken with little systematic rationale. The doubts that rural development or industrial decentralization policies could solve the fundamental urbanization problems led many developing countries to conclude that large urban agglomerations were a fact of life. They were unlikely to disappear. The realistic question thus was what to do about the poor population in such cities.

Should there be policy interventions analogous to those designed to deal with rural poverty - or should there be different policy packages? (It should be noted here that urban poverty levels seem to be appreciably high in countries that also have high incidence of rural poverty. In countries like Bangladesh, Guatemala, Haiti, Ethiopia, Nepal, Burundi, Lesotho, the Philippines, and Madagascar, both urban and rural poverty rates are extremely high, exceeding 50 per cent. This places such countries in situations where they have to make difficult investment choices between urban and rural poverty.)

Facing up to the fact of the growing number of the poor meant, among other things, improving urban housing, generating employment, and expanding urban water supply, sewage disposal, and other health and education services.

First Priority - Shelter

The principal emphasis in the anti-poverty strategies in most developing countries was on shelter for the low-income groups. Most typical were so-called "sites and services" projects - where land parcels fitted with rudimentary urban services were provided to poor people who then constructed their own dwellings or contributed to their construction. Another emphasis was on upgrading existing slum settlements, employing largely self-help methods.

Compared to sites and services and slum upgrading, the employment generation components of anti-poverty strategies were small. Following the basic needs strategy, several developing countries emphasized the linkages between services - such as water supply, sanitation, primary health, education and nutrition - with poverty alleviation, and established separate programmes for the provision of services. These programmes were directed mainly at women and children, considered by many as the "poorest of the poor."

The experience gained in several countries, however, shows that public policies and programme interventions have made at best a marginal impact on the urban poverty problems in the developing countries. Sites and services projects have reached few poor people over the years, and the justification for such projects is questionable. It remains controversial whether sites and services projected are, in fact, affordable to the poor - with considerable evidence that market forces tend to operate against the poor in such situations. The shelter projects remain unaffordable to low income groups without subsidies. In addition, access to shelter and urban services is hampered by public regulatory policies, including planning laws and regulations, building standards and rent controls.

Community-based Approaches

The last few years have seen increasing reliance in several developing countries on community-based approaches. In a sense, these constitute a reaction to the poverty alleviation efforts of the 1960s and early 1970s, when it became clear that cities on their own could not solve the problem of services or shelter effectively by slum clearance, relocation and public shelter policies. Most governments then turned to policies involving development of sites and services, the upgrading of slums and - more critical - the promotion of self-help and community participation in poverty alleviation programmes.

Yue-man Yeung, in his study of the linkages between urban services and "people-based" mechanisms to achieve them,* pointed out that "the gradual realization of the ineffectiveness of a service delivery model, i.e. government provided services, has promoted experimental and innovative efforts to mobilize people's resources towards improving the urban living environment."

* Yue-man Yeung, "Provision of Urban Services in Asia: The Role of People-Based Mechanisms," Regional Development Dialogue, Vol. 6, No. 2, United Nations Centre for Regional Development, Nagoya, Japan, 1985.

According to him, the main rationale of the experimental community-centred approach is to make use of community resources for the delivery of basic physical and social services. Such attempts, he found, require new community-based styles of management characterized by popular participation. The services provided in most urban situations - and particularly in the congested mega-city atmosphere - are often unevenly distributed, and skewed in favour of high-income communities. (See Ignacy Sachs, "Improving Life in the L-City," WORK IN PROGRESS, Vol. 10, No. 1). It is therefore a pragmatic strategy for the urban poor to organize themselves and arrange to provide and manage the needed services to themselves - in the process preserving indirectly scarce capital for the government to pursue other developmental purposes that might also benefit the poor.

Lessons from Community Participation

Several lessons have emerged from the evaluation of poverty alleviation programmes that are currently operating on a community participation basis in several countries.

First, it is evident that the nature and extent of community participation varies: between those where the government has a definite say as to the content and manner in which urban services are to be improved and those where the slum settlements organize themselves to make available those services which the government fails to deliver.

Second, most people-oriented programmes require strong leadership, which may be formal or informal. Almost all studies point to the need for improvement in leadership qualities.

Third, one of the main responsibilities of community leaders is to help the poor articulate their needs in a more effective and organized manner. In several urban poverty programmes, for example, the package of services does not reach the lowest socio-economic groups. The real needs and problems of poor communities are quite different from those provided under the programmes.

Fourth, and final, the activities provided under the various programmes are generally not diversified enough to cater to a broad spectrum of needs. As studies point out, this is a consequence of the bias which tends to favour physical and visible services at the expense of social services specific to individual communities.

Poverty and the Mega-Cities: The Future

Almost all projections indicate that the urban population of the developing countries will increase from approximately 1.38 billion in 1990 to about 1.97 billion by the turn of the century - and cross the 4.0 billion mark by the year 2025. One of the distinguishing features of this growth will be the rise of mega-cities on the global space.

In several countries, the demographic weight of mega-cities is already large and overwhelming. Mexico City now accounts for over 30 per cent of the country's total population; the population of Buenos Aires is nearly 42 per cent of the urban population of Argentina. Seoul contains 37.5 per cent of the Republic of Korea's total urban population.

It also seems evident that the urban poverty situation will worsen over the years. - and that the mega-cities of the third world will encounter bigger pressures, particularly in respect of social services. This is evident in various studies of the young. At the present time, 44 per cent of Bangkok's population is under 19 years of age; in Cairo it is almost 48 per cent.

With these sorts of burgeoning young populations, the provision of education and health services is bound to become a major challenge for the developing countries. But a serious reality to be faced is that these countries themselves have placed low priorities on precisely these two areas. In nearly 40 per cent of the countries for which data are available, health expenditures are less than 1 per cent of GNP - and in most of the rest it does not exceed 2 per cent.