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Do we care about urban poverty?

Adam Parsons
01 April 2010

While the United Nations recently claimed victory for the Millennium Development Goal on slums, the global population of slum-dwellers continues to grow. It is time for governments and civil society to give the problem of urban poverty the attention it deserves.

Thousands of people and various world leaders have now returned from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, following the largest international meeting of civil society and policymakers on the future of cities. The broad theme of the fifth World Urban Forum, ‘Bridging the Urban Divide’, went to the heart of the problem of rapid urbanisation: the inequalities between rich and poor. As the United Nations Human Settlements Programme emphasised in their latest report launched to coincide with the Forum, the number of city-dwellers is expected to rise to two-thirds of humanity by 2030, and unless drastic action is taken the global slum population will probably grow by six million people each year (over 115,000 people each week).

Shocking as these statistics may be – 115,000 people a week is, after all, equivalent to more than 11 people moving into a slum each minute – there is remarkably little attention paid to the issue of urban poverty in the media. The World Urban Forum may have attracted almost 14,000 people to its week of dialogue and seminars, including an ending address from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, but few newspapers had anything to say beyond citing Latin America as the most unequal continent in the world. Despite the popularity of films such as Slumdog Millionaire and City of God, many people still remain unaware of the growing prevalence of extreme urban poverty. Compared to the unprecedented focus on global poverty and other development issues such as climate change, we can ask if public attention is sufficiently awakened to the reality of slums in developing cities.

The United Nations has long taken up the cause of sounding fearful annual warnings about the future of urban slums. It is UN-HABITAT, the UN agency tasked with promoting the goal of adequate shelter for all, that many commentators and academics blame for resurrecting the old-fashioned and discredited terms “slums” and “slum-dwellers” in the first place, most notably through the Cities Without Slums campaign launched in 2000 and its epochal global assessment in 2003, The Challenge of Slums. This report, which is still the most far-reaching official audit of urban poverty to date, showed that 924 million people were living in slums in 2001, a number expected to double to two billion people by 2030 “if no firm action is taken”.

The Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, Anna Tibaijuka, has tirelessly led the public approach of the organisation in drawing attention to the enormous scale and extent of urban poverty in the world, stating in 2003 that: “Awareness of the magnitude of slums in the world is key.” If the collected warnings from her speeches over the last decade are heeded, it suggests that epochal measures are required in the world’s burgeoning cities if we are to avert an even greater tragedy of urban poverty in coming decades. In a speech on World Habitat Day 2009 in front of President Barack Obama in Washington D.C., for example, she emphasised that the number of urban residents will rise to six billion people within the next forty years. “Regrettably, most of that growth will occur in the world’s urban slums where poverty, deprivation and exclusion combine to offer hundreds of millions little more than misery and suffering,” she said.

After decades of reports citing the continuing trends of expanding slums and divided cities, the latest UN study on urbanisation takes a distinctly more sanguine outlook on the fight against urban poverty. Last year, the State of the World’s Cities report for 2008/2009 was publicised with a series of press releases hinged on gloomy facts: three million people are added to cities of the developing world each week; one out of three people living in cities of the developing world lives in a slum; and American cities are as unequal as those in Africa and Latin America. This year, the State of the World’s Cities report for 2010/2011 reports a far less pessimistic trend by claiming that a total of 227 million people have moved out of slum conditions globally since the beginning of the century. In terms of the Millennium Development Goal “to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum-dwellers” by 2020, they state that governments have collectively surpassed this target by 2.2 times already.

There is still little cause for optimism, however, as the absolute number of slum-dwellers worldwide has increased by 55 million since the target was first conceived in 2000. In other words, any housing efforts made by governments to improve living conditions over the last decade were more than countered by the rural exodus to cities and population growth within urban settlements. Meanwhile, the benefits of urbanisation distinctly “favour the empowered, mainly the local and regional economic elite”, says the report. New UN-HABITAT data on malnutrition in urban areas also shows that people in cities and towns are increasingly going to bed hungrier each night than their country folk. The broad trends of economic marginalisation and exclusion, if anything, continue to spiral in the wrong direction.

Even if the Millennium Development Goal on slums is achieved in the next decade, ‘Target 11’ still only accounts for about one in 10 of those living in inadequate or insecure housing. By 2020, if the population of slum-dwellers continues to grow by the expected six million people a year, this MDG fails even to factor in the needs of the remaining 789 million people who could live in slums by that date. Of all the eight international development goals, the target on slums is clearly one of the least inclusive pledges. Whatever the statistics turn out to be, who is to judge what constitutes a “significant improvement” in the life of any slum-dweller if the trends of poverty, exclusion and inequality are continuing to deepen for millions of others across the developing world?

Whether or not the number of global slum residents doubles in the next 15 or 20 years, as previously anticipated by UN-HABITAT, there is still little or no planning for how to accommodate this “surplus humanity” or provide them with essential services. This is the bottom line for most cities in the developing world: governments are unable to cope with the rapid growth of urbanisation, the scale of the problem is far from being addressed by existing pledges on development, and not enough attention is given to urban poverty compared to other humanitarian concerns.

It is time for both governments and civil society to take up the mantle of not only improving the lives of a small proportion of slum-dwellers at a later date, but of rapidly alleviating any incidence of human deprivation across the rural areas, towns and cities of every nation. If we are to learn anything from the global assessments of urbanising cities and low-income settlements, it is that extreme urban poverty can no longer be tolerated in any form or under any circumstances. And focussing exclusively on statistical projections diverts attention from the real issue: that urban poverty needlessly results from short-sighted policy, a lack of public awareness, and the unjust distribution of power and resources across the world.