Urban poverty

Posted: 26 January 2008

In most urban centres of Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, between a third and a half of the population have incomes that are too low to allow them to meet their needs. And in the world's poorest countries, nearly 80 per cent of urban dwellers live in slums.

The World Bank estimates that, worldwide, 30 per cent of poor people live in urban areas. By 2020 the proportion is projected to reach 40 per cent, and by 2035 half of the world's poor people are projected to live in urban areas.

The Bank also estimates that there were 495 million urban poor by the year 2000. But this is certainly an under-estimate. The World Bank measures urban poverty by using a 'dollar a day' poverty-line - so that people with incomes of above $1 a day are assumed not to be poor.

But the income needed to avoid poverty - to afford enough food and to pay for shelter and other necessities - is a lot more than a dollar per person per day in most cities. And measuring poverty based only on people's incomes takes no account of the number suffering from other forms of deprivation, including unsafe housing, lack of water and sanitation, lack of civil and political rights and inadequate protection from the law.

Credit: UN-Habitat

According to UN-Habitat's report The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, nearly 1 billion people - one in every three of the world's urban population - are slum dwellers, and in 30 years' time that number is likely to double if no serious action is taken.

The report's figures for the developing world are even starker: 43 per cent of the urban population of all developing countries combined live in slums, and over 78 per cent of the urban population in the Least Developed Countries live in slums.

Up to 600 million people in urban areas in developing regions (nearly 28 per cent of the developing world's urban population ) cannot meet their basic needs for shelter, water and health from their own resources. Up to half the population of cities in some of the world's poorest countries are living below official poverty levels.

There is evidence that one-third of slum dwellers in Africa and South Asia live in extreme poverty. Aspects of poverty in urban areas:

  • Inadequate income (and thus inadequate consumption of necessities including food and, often, safe and sufficient water; often problems of indebtedness with debt repayments significantly reducing income available for necessities).
  • Inadequate assets (including educational attainment and housing) for individuals, households or communities.
  • Inadequate shelter (typically poor quality, overcrowded and insecure).
  • Inadequate public services (piped water, sanitation, drainage, roads, footpaths) which increases health burden and often work burden.
  • Inadequate basic services such as day care/schools/vocational training, health-care, emergency services, public transport, communications, law enforcement.
  • Limited or no safety net to ensure basic consumption can be maintained when income falls; also to ensure access to shelter and health care when these can no longer be paid for.
  • Inadequate protection including laws and regulations regarding civil and political rights, occupational health and safety, pollution control, environmental health, protection from violence and other crimes, protection from discrimination and exploitation.
  • Without a voice within political systems and bureaucratic structures, leading to little or no possibility of: receiving entitlements; organizing, making demands and getting a fair response; and receiving support for developing their own initiatives.
Urban pollution, Africa. Credit: UN-Habitat

Efforts to reduce urban poverty are increasingly driven by the urban poor themselves, supported by local NGOs. Among the best known examples are the savings and credit schemes and housing programmes of the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan/cooperatives of women pavement dwellers in India, supported by the Indian NGO SPARC, and the South African Homeless People's Federation and the supporting NGO, People's Dialogue on Land and Shelter.

The method developed by the Indian NGO SPARC has been followed (with local adaptations) by many other NGOs. It has two key components:

  • developing pilot projects with low income groups and their community organisations to show alternative ways of doing things (building or improving homes, running credit schemes, setting up and running public toilets, organising community-determined resettlement and so on).

  • engaging local and national officials (and staff from international agencies) in a dialogue with communities about these pilot projects and about how they can be scaled up (or multiplied) without removing community management.

Related links:State of the World's Cities Report 2001.The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements, UN-Habitat 2003.