Governments and aid agencies fail to tackle urban poverty because they fail to understand it, according to a new book, Urban Poverty in the Global South, published on 12 December 2012.
The book, a fruit of more than 20 years of research, paints the most detailed picture to date of how a billion-plus poor people live in towns and cities worldwide.
The authors, Professor Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite – both of the International Institute for Environment Development (IIED) – show how policymakers and development organisations underestimate urban poverty, and why this can lead to poor policies that fail to address injustice and inequality.
The book also challenges the idea that economic growth alone can eliminate that poverty, as many successful economies show little sign of decreasing poverty in their urban centres.
Mitlin, also from the University of Manchester, says: “If we want to build a better world we have to understand better what the urban poor experience. We have to understand what it means to have little income and face income, spatial, social and political inequalities.
“Only then can governments, development agencies and community organisations work with the urban poor to improve their options.”
One in seven people worldwide live in poverty in urban areas, and most of these live in the global South – mostly in overcrowded informal settlements that lack adequate water, sanitation, security, health care and schools. People there endure poor living and working conditions, low incomes and inadequate diets, which all add to large health burdens or premature death.
On top of these problems, the urban poor have little voice and few means to influence the policies and pressures that work against their interests.
Governments and aid agencies often fail to understand and provide for the urban poor because of the way they define and measure poverty, using systems based on the ‘US$1 per day poverty line’.
This greatly understates the scale and depth of urban poverty because in so many cities, non-food needs such as accommodation, water and access to toilets, schools and employment cost much more than a dollar a day.
Set a poverty line too low and poverty seems to disappear, especially in high cost locations. Such simplistic measures also take no account of the full dimensions of what poverty actually means to people who live it.
“The fates of the billion-plus people who live in poverty in towns and cities worldwide will have a major impact on human development,” says Satterthwaite.
“But until decision-makers better understand how and why urban poverty exists, their actions will only ensure that it persists.”
In 2013, Mitlin and Satterthwaite will publish a follow-up book about what the world knows and solutions on tackling the problems facing the urban poor.
Photo by Fatuma Camara. Two Senegalese cross a flooded street in the capital Dakar.