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close this bookIFPRI Research Perspectives, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring 2000 (IFPRI, 2000, 16 p.)
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View the documentIMPROVING HUMAN NUTRITION THROUGH AGRICULTURE: THE ROLE OF INTERNATIONAL AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH
View the documentCONWAY SPEAKS AT 25TH ANNIVERSARY
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View the documentBIOTECHNOLOGY CONFERENCE
View the documentTHE URBAN POOR
View the documentUN REPORT ON NUTRITION
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THE URBAN POOR

COMPLEX PROBLEMS FACE DEVELOPING COUNTRIES AS URBANIZATION RISES

By 2020 more than half of the population in Asia and Africa and 80 percent in Latin America will live in urban areas. Reducing poverty, hunger, and malnutrition and improving living conditions can be more difficult in urban areas than in rural areas, according to IFPRI research fellows James Garrett and Marie Ruel in an article that appeared in the December 1999 issue of Choices.

“Policymakers and aid officials frequently know what tools and programs they can use to promote social and economic development in rural areas, where agriculture is key. But the urban environment is more complex and diverse,” they say. An IFPRI study shows that the number of poor and malnourished children in urban areas is growing in a number of countries, including India and China.

Other differences between rural and urban poor include:

· Urban dwellers purchase most of their food, while rural people, even those who do not live on farms, grow at least some of their food. Consumer food prices and the ability to earn a cash income are, therefore, much more important in cities. Because the urban poor often work in low-paying jobs where they earn and spend wages daily, they often can only afford to buy small quantities of food at a time, which means they generally pay higher per-unit prices than if they could buy in bulk.

· Because they work at jobs in diverse sectors, the health of the overall economy is more important to urban dwellers than the health of domestic agriculture, while the security of almost all rural people is tied to agriculture.

· Having secure housing is crucially important to the livelihood of urban dwellers. Their home is often the base for household enterprises and a foundation for an entire network of social support. Eviction threatens the mechanisms by which the poor survive in cities.

· Although land is scarce, 40 to 50 percent of urban people in Latin America and Africa farm, even if they do it illegally on public land. They may have only a few tomato plants or a small animal, but these can add nutrients to their diets and cash to their incomes.

· Many women work long hours in the streets or in factories, which makes it hard for them to prepare food and care for children. At the same time the money they earn helps to meet the children's needs. The nutritional status of city children depends on how well families, especially women, balance demands on their time.

· The typical urban diet is different from that consumed by rural families. On the one hand, it is more diverse and higher in protein. On the other hand, it is higher in fat and refined carbohydrates, which, combined with more sedentary lifestyles, can lead to chronic diseases and obesity. Foods purchased from street vendors frequently make up a large part of the food intake of urban dwellers.

· Although poor city dwellers usually live closer than rural people to health facilities, safe water supplies, schools, and sanitation facilities, they often cannot afford to use these services. Unsanitary and overcrowded conditions contribute to disease and death among children and cause illness among adults, threatening their ability to work and support their families.

To meet the challenges of urban poverty, governments and communities must work together to develop strategies. New measures must establish a viable food economy to which the poor can gain access, promote environmentally friendly urban agriculture, create infrastructure for a clean and healthy physical environment, and disseminate information about good health and nutrition practices.

Efforts to eliminate urban food insecurity and malnutrition must be broad based. Increasing people's incomes or food supply alone is not sufficient; such changes must be accompanied by improvements in education, health care, and the environment. The many actors in a community must coordinate their actions to address problems at different levels. Some problems, for example, are unique to each household (household incomes) while others affect an entire community (lack of water). Strategies must also support, and not replace, the poor's own dynamic strategies for coping with problems. Working together, the government, the private sector, and households can overcome the challenges of urban poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition in the next century.