Cover Image
close this bookVolunteer Participation in Working with the Urban Poor (UNDP - UNV, 64 p.)
close this folderI. Urbanisation: recognition and response
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentUrbanisation and poverty
View the documentResponse to urbanisation
View the documentRecognition of ''Self-help'' initiatives


The twentieth century growth of the urban population in developing countries is unparalleled in human history. If current trends continue, it is expected that two-thirds of the world's total urban population will live in developing countries by the year 2000. Resource scarcity, social service and infrastructure needs and demands will magnify the already enormous socio-economic and political pressures in urban areas.

Cities in developing countries are increasingly unable to provide their growing populations with productive employment in the "formal" sector, adequate social services or housing. As a consequence, a mammoth "informal sector" has blossomed, which is beginning to dominate developing country economies. Even though there may be material improvement in some rural migrant lives, the general trend is a transfer of poverty from rural to urban areas.

It has been the churches and a few local NGOs -- rather than governments, international aid agencies, or international NGOs - which have worked in low-income urban communities for decades, particularly in Latin America and in some Asian cities. Initially this assistance focused on welfare work, but it has expanded to include micro-development schemes. Governments and municipalities, recognising their limitations in meeting the needs of urban low-income groups, have increasingly acknowledged the importance of the private sector and the communities' own initiatives in meeting basic needs. International organisations and VSAs are also recognising the importance of building upon local initiatives.

Urbanisation and poverty

People have traditionally moved to the cities in search of higher income and greater job opportunities, or to benefit from better urban services of education, health and infrastructure.

Civil war, persecution, drought, natural disasters and even the incapacity of the soil to support a community have forced people to seek refuge and support in urban areas. The growth in urban population is not, however, primarily due to migration from rural areas (except in Africa); two-thirds of this expansion is due to the net increase in births taking place in the cities.

Nearly half of the absolute poor in developing countries are urban inhabitants, largely concentrated in the slums and pavements of the inner cities, as well as in periphery squatter settlements and shanty towns. By accretion or through invasions of vacant land, the greatest population growth is taking place in these periphery urban areas. Usually, the locations are unhealthy, dangerous and overcrowded. It has been the "self-help" initiative of these low-income groups, however, which has ensured their survival -most new settlements in developing countries, for example, have been constructed by these groups themselves, often illegally, defying existing living standards and lacking basic utilities and services.

The causes and consequences of poverty in urban areas are numerous, a detailed analysis of which cannot be covered in the scope of this discussion1. In general, poverty in urban areas is the result of the interplay between local, national and international forces which determines resource flows, the distribution of income, the structure of the labour market and the possibility of integrating a growing population into the development process2. Because structural adjustment measures continue to have a major impact on urban poverty, the importance of social structures and policy environment cannot be overemphasised.

1 For a solid discussion of the dynamics and causes of poverty, see Gerry Rodgers, ed. Urban Poverty and the Labour Market (Geneva. ILO, 1989).

2 Generally, the "poor" are an heterogeneous group, a subgroup of which may be classified as "destitute" (those who are unable to purchase a minimum "food basket," defined in relation to nutritional criteria and variety in consumption). The characteristics and causes of poverty may; vary widely between regions, making it cliff cult to make broad generalisations. (Rodgers, 5-6; 68, 123.)

Today, the common problems of poverty are more central to policy concerns than differences between the rural and urban sectors. Policy-makers and development organisations are finding that the links between rural-urban and formal/informal sectors need to be studied more comprehensively for each individual urban settlement. In addition, the unique history and growth of each urban community merit attention, as do the dynamics of its social organisation. The phenomena of changing sex-ratios in urban poor settlements, increase in women-headed households (50% and higher in many countries), and the growing numbers of street children (an estimated 30 million in Latin America alone), all need to be better understood as part of the wider development context. It is impossible, therefore, to work from generalisations about the urban sector when forming policy prescriptions.

Response to urbanisation


Many developing country governments have watched mushrooming settlements engulf former vestiges of gracious living and seize all available living space at a breathtaking pace. For the most part, these swelling settlements have been perceived as a housing and infrastructure problem, which on many occasions prompted a "bulldoze and eradicate" solution. Housing construction schemes have often been far too expensive to assist large numbers of low-income groups. Likewise, government efforts encouraged by large international funding agencies to develop habitable areas and provide and upgrade services have usually been beyond the means of most states to support on a large scale. In addition, urban policy plans usually failed to reflect actual socio-economic conditions, especially of low-income urban groups. Ultimately, the role of the State appears to have been confined to supplying selected services in accordance with limited budgets, and modifying policies and legislation as necessary.


Severe expenditure and staff cuts during recent periods, especially following structural adjustment programmes, have constrained the ability of municipalities to respond to the needs of urban low-income groups as well. Small and shrinking municipal governments in developing countries generally have become increasingly discouraged with their inability to meet the widening range of needs and services for an exploding clientele.

International Organisations

Even though organisations such as UNICEF, WHO, OXFAM, USAID and the ILO began to target low-income urban communities in the 1970s, international organisations generally made a conscious effort to counter what they perceived as the "urban bias" of developing country governments in favouring centralisation, capital city investments and improvements, and the supply of services to urban elites. VSAs and international NGOs added other arguments: that hardcore poverty was still to be found in remote rural areas, where the productive potential of the agrarian economy had yet to be tapped; and that the political sensitivities and cultural complexities of the urban areas were too great for individual foreigners to be effective. In recent years, however, there has been a perceptible shift in this anti-urban bias as international organisations have increased their efforts towards urban sector development, especially for low-income urban communities. Nevertheless, the resources devoted to this growing segment of the population remain low.

Community Associations

Inadequate government investment and services in many developing countries have forced low-income urban groups to rely on their own means to meet social service/infrastructure needs by contracting these services to private entrepreneurs and establishing their own community organisations. Urban associations have sprung up throughout developing countries, some of which function at the municipal level and deal with issues of housing, infrastructure and service provision, such as Villa El Salvador in Peru; others function at the neighbourhood level to address concerns of water and sanitation or child-care. The most common purpose of these associations is to give voice to the needs, collective interests and rights of these communities. Many have developed without government support (or because of nonsupport), and these CBOs are generally more effective in organising self-help initiatives than organisations brought together under officially-sponsored development projects. As a social movement, it has developed furthest in Latin

America, outside the sphere of regular trade unions or political parties.

Recognition of ''Self-help'' initiatives

From city to city, particularly in Africa, the movement towards private sector involvement in meeting basic needs is growing. Informal sector activity has also increased, sometimes replacing traditional activities of the public sector in health services, transport, waste removal, drinking water supply, and even the supply of land. Structural adjustment measures supported by major donors have accelerated this process, especially since government-provided services have been subsidised. At the same time, government expenditures on housing, seen as a "welfare" rather than economic concern, suffered cuts.

It has been the governments, coming to terms with their own limitations, who have recognised that most of the efforts required to provide housing and services to low-income urban groups will have to come from these groups themselves and from the private sector. The "self-help" initiatives of communities, marked by the increase in private sector activity, show signs of providing effective and appropriate responses to their needs and concerns.

What happens to the balance between efficiency and equity when these services become privatised? The general experience is that the low-income communities "pay more for less." Generally, low-income urban communities with the least amount of resources are more likely to be left out of privately arranged and marketed services because they simply cannot afford them. Nevertheless, public service delivery rarely is more equitable than private service delivery. For example, when a huge demand surplus effectively introduces rationing, the mechanism of elite "connections" is likely to rule. In the end, many communities in developing countries find that within their given situations, it is preferable to place their faith in service arrangements that are accountable directly to the users.

Despite the shortcomings of the private and public sectors in providing services and other needs, the importance of community-based initiatives in addressing concerns and voicing needs to policy-making levels and other relevant parties cannot be overstated. When working from this community-based perspective, the livelihood and particular vulnerabilities, as well as existing "self-help" efforts, should be understood before designing any programme intervention so that responses may be complementary to existing community efforts.