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

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.