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New Book challenges policymakers on urban poverty

By Ronald Musoke

Governments and aid agencies have failed to tackle urban poverty in many developing countries mainly because of their failure to understand it, according to a new book released by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

The book, Urban Poverty in the Global South – published Dec.12 draws on more than 20 years of research and shows how policymakers and development organizations underestimate urban poverty – and why this has led to poor policies that have in turn failed to address injustice and inequality.

The book also challenges the idea that economic growth alone can eliminate poverty, as many successful economies show little sign of decreasing poverty in their urban centres.

“If we want to build a better world we have to understand better what the urban poor experience,” says co-author Prof Diana Mitlin, an economist and social development specialist at the IIED.

Mitlin says governments, development agencies and community organizations can only work with the urban poor to improve their options if they start comprehending what it means to have little income and live with income, spatial, social and political inequalities.

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.

The book argues that 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 co-author David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow at the IIED.

“But until decision-makers better understand how and why urban poverty exists, their actions will only ensure that it persists.”

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