At the present time, the poor of the world are urbanising very rapidly. In 25 years time poverty in the world will be overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon. Many people assume that this is the result of a massive movement of the rural poor to the cities. This is wrong. About a third of the growth is migration, mostly to smaller cities; the rest is population growth and town boundaries growing.

Most developing countries’ governments hate urbanisation. From 1996 to 2007, the proportion of governments reporting to a UN survey that they had policies to reduce migration to urban areas rose from 45 to 65 per cent for the world generally, and from 54 to 78 per cent for Africa. Similarly, most development agencies show little concern for urbanisation. This is deeply dysfunctional. Experience shows us clearly that cities tend to generate economic growth. In addition, it is easier in urban areas to put in place policies to deal with the climate crisis, encourage human development by providing educational and health care and encourage agricultural development by developing markets in cities and relieving the pressure to subdivide agricultural land. And yet both governments and agencies that wish to promote development are hostile or at best indifferent to the benefits of urbanisation.

This hostility to urbanisation must be at least partly explained by fear of the urban poor. Elites in developing countries resent and fear the growth of urban slums.

Perhaps those who run development agencies have a buried memory of the power of the urban poor. In Britain, the enclosure of land and the new jobs in factories generated a massive movement of population to live in squalor in the city. There was a lack of clean water and sanitation, child labour, exploitation and ill health. But the urban poor have more power than the rural poor. They are concentrated together and can therefore riot and organise. In Europe’s industrialisation they repeatedly threatened revolution. They organised themselves into trade unions in order to improve decent conditions at work and they organised and agitated for the right to vote so that they could demand decent housing, education and health care. It was the urban poor and the elite’s fear of the spread of disease, riot and revolution that civilised capitalism and gave birth to the welfare state. It  is interesting, even exciting, to speculate on the likely effects of urbanisation on the politics of Africa and South Asia.

It is possible that the political response to the growth of urban slums will be the kind of social exclusion that was the response in Latin America and the Caribbean, as they completed their Most developing countries’ governments hate urbanisation. Similarly, most development agencies show little concern for urbanisation. This is deeply dysfunctional. Experience shows us clearly that cities tend to generate economic growth. urban transformation. In these countries there was hostility from the social elite to the poor and indifference to their poverty. This leads to a failure to plan the growth of cities, to provide land and services to all citizens and to the constant harassment of informal commercial activities. This forces the urban poor to purchase these services informally and to create their own institutions outside government systems. Organised crime tends to thrive in these conditions. When there is no provision for urban expansion, the urban poor, with enormous energy and creativity, settle themselves near waste dumps, alongside railway lines, on steep hillsides, flood plains and pavements. Local authorities are hostile to such settlers and frequently their needs are provided for through corruption.

Many economists such as Ethan B Kapstein in Foreign Affairs July/August 2009, argue that urbanisation is key to the great improvement in economic development in Africa in the past decade. He sees the shift from rural to urban life as crucial for galvanising economic development as people with goods and ideas come together with those with capital. He also believes that in Africa urbanisation is forcing people of different tribes and language groups to interact in ways that do not occur in rural settings. He believes that this promises a politics that moves beyond the patrimonial reward systems that have shaped and constrained the development of African leadership.

All of this will play out with increasing intensity in Africa and Asia over the next 25 years. Progress is not inevitable. The growth of urban populations will not be halted whatever the policies of exclusion and neglect, but governments could damage the prospects for development that come with urbanisation if they get their policies wrong. In Latin America and the Caribbean, decades of deliberate exclusion contributed to high levels of crime and violence which affected whole cities and regions. Social democratic governments in Chile and Brazil are working to recover the damage this neglect did to the development of their countries. The question for the next 25 years is which route the new urban transformations will take. On current trends, we would have to be pessimistic and envisage more of the division, corruption and neglect that scars Nairobi and helped feed the violence that followed the 2007 elections. There are few reasons for optimism in respect of urban poverty currently.

But all the arguments for progress and the strength that concentration brings to the poor will create new forces. Perhaps their ability to demand change and threaten disease, riot and revolution will generate a similar social and economic advance to the one urbanisation brought to the people of Europe.

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