Slum-dwellers worse off than rural poor

Posted: 29 June 2006

City populations are generally thought to be healthier, more literate and more prosperous than rural populations. However, a new report from UN-HABITAT shows that the urban poor suffer from an urban penalty: slum dwellers in developing countries are as badly off if not worse off than their rural relatives.

City squalor. Credit: UN-Habitat
City squalor. Credit: UN-Habitat
City squalor. Credit: UN-Habitat
"For a long time, we suspected that the optimistic picture of cities did not reflect the reality on the ground," said Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka, UN-HABITAT's Executive Director. "This report provides concrete evidence that there are two cities within one city - one part of the urban population that has all the benefits of urban living, and the other part, the slums and squatter settlements, where the poor often live under worse conditions than their rural relatives. It is time that donor agencies and national governments recognized the urban penalty and specifically targeted additional resources to improve the living conditions of slum dwellers. "

The State of the World's Cities Report 2006/7 shows remarkable similarities between slums and rural areas in health, education, employment and mortality. It shows how in countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti and India, child malnutrition in slums is comparable to that of rural areas. In many Sub-Saharan African cities, children living in slums are more likely to die from water-borne and respiratory illnesses than rural children.

Women living in slums are also more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than their rural counterparts. These differences are attributed to the poor living conditions in slums, which expose women and children to a variety of health hazards and force girls and women to engage in sexually risky behaviour.

The report also cites studies from both developed and developing countries which show that job applicants residing in low-income neighbourhoods or slums are less likely to be called for interviews than those who reside in better-off neighbourhoods, which impacts their ability to escape poverty.

  • For example, in Ethiopia, child malnutrition in slums and rural areas is 47 per cent and 49 per cent respectively, compared with 27 per cent in non-slum urban areas.
  • In Brazil and Côte d'Ivoire, child malnutrition is three to four times higher in slums than in non slum-areas.
  • In most Sub-Saharan African countries, HIV prevalence is higher in urban areas than in rural areas; in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia HIV prevalence among urban populations is almost twice that of rural populations.
The report also debunks some commonly-held beliefs about people living in slums. Contrary to popular perception, young adults living in slums are more likely to have a child, be married or head a household than their counterparts living in non-slum areas. In Uganda, for instance, 34 per cent of young men living in slums head a household compared with 5 per cent of young men living in non-slum urban areas. The report shows that, the share of women-headed households is greater in urban areas except in Africa where more rural women head households.

A global scorecard on slums developed by UN-HABITAT shows that countries such as Egypt, Thailand and Tunisia have not only managed to reduce slum growth in the last 15 years but have made considerable investments in improving slums. These countries developed either specific slum upgrading and prevention policies or have integrated slum upgrading and prevention as part of their broader poverty reduction policies and programmes.

What comes out clearly in this report is that slum formation is neither inevitable nor acceptable. "Running the poor out of town" - through evictions or discriminatory practices - is not the answer: rather, helping the poor to become more integrated into the fabric of urban society is the only long-lasting and sustainable solution to the growing urbanization of poverty."

The report comes at a time when the world is entering a historic urban transition; in 2007, for the first time in history, the world's urban population will exceed the rural population. Most of the world's urban growth - 95 per cent - in the next two decades will be absorbed by cities of the developing world, which are least equipped to deal with rapid urbanization. The majority of migrants will be moving to small towns and cities of less than one million inhabitants. Already, more than half of the world's urban population lives in cities of fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, and almost one-fifth lives in cities of between 1 and 5 million inhabitants.

To view or dowload the report, go here.