Action from UN's Habitat III key to lift urban millions out of poverty

News, 17 October 2016
Nearly 200 million people are living in cities around the world with no access to electricity – most are in sub-Saharan Africa. The lack of something so basic and necessary is keeping them in poverty and hindering cities' potential to be the economic powerhouses they can be.

Just 0.03 per cent of the money spent annually on fossil fuel subsidies could provide 200 million people in cities with access to the grid (Photo: Pexels, via Google licence)

This week, the International Institute for Environment and Development's (IIED) urbanisation experts are in Quito, Ecuador for the United Nations' Habitat III meeting, which is being held from 17-20 October. Its aim is to set a new global strategy around urbanisation for the next two decades.

According to IIED's latest report, 'Cities as engines of economic growth: the case for providing basic infrastructure and services in urban areas', it would cost US$1.37 billion a year over the next 30 years – just 0.03 per cent of annual fossil fuel subsidies – to provide each of these 200 million people with the access to the grid that they need to develop and thrive.

This includes the capital, operating, maintenance and financing costs of the generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure.

By spending less than one per cent more a year, this vital electricity could be generated using renewable sources. This would reduce carbon emissions and help to avoid the dangerous impacts of climate change. 

"Habitat III presents the world with an opportunity to make cities benefit all who live in them," said IIED director Andrew Norton. "Governments need to do more with public finance to direct the private sector to important social and environmental investments – such as renewable electricity for the urban poor. This is vital to helping move people out of poverty and to tackling climate change." 


Comparison between what it would cost to reduce poverty for 200 million people in urban areas and expenditure in the UK (Image: Nick Turner/IIED)

To make this possible there needs to be a greater commitment to finance energy and other basic services. It is important that national governments provide such incentives as tax rebates, power purchase agreements and feed-in tariffs to mobilise the necessary private investment.  

Access to electricity and other basic services is key both to improving the health of the urban poor and to creating new opportunities to generate an income.

Investment in urban wellbeing and productivity is crucial to enabling cities to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. And using renewable technology is necessary to their being able to achieve the commitments in the Paris Agreement.


Comparison between what it would cost to reduce poverty for 200 million people in urban areas and global expenditure (Image: Nick Turner/IIED)

For Habitat III to be effective, national governments need to work with local authorities and local organisations if it is to produce action and not just words.

Sources for the animations




Sarah Colenbrander (, researcher, Human Settlements research group

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