Book challenges policymakers with new portrait of urban poverty

Governments and aid agencies fail to tackle urban poverty because they fail to understand it, according to a new book that paints the most detailed picture to date of how a billion-plus poor people live in towns and cities worldwide.

News, 11 December 2012

Women sort plastic bottles for recycling in Seema Puri, Delhi.

Urban Poverty in the Global South draws on more than 20 years of research. It shows 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.

"If we want to build a better world we have to understand better what the urban poor experience," says co-author Professor Diana Mitlin of the International Institute for Environment and Development and the University of Manchester. "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 co-author David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development. "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 we know about what to do to tackle the problems that face the urban poor.


Diana Mitlin (
David Satterthwaite (

Notes to editors

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see:

Diana Mitlin is an economist and social development specialist working at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and a Professor at the University of Manchester, UK, working at the Global Urban Research Centre, the Institute for Development Policy and Management and the Brooks World Poverty Institute.

David Satterthwaite is a Senior Fellow at IIED and a Visiting Professor at the Development Planning Unit, University College London, UK. He is also editor of the international journal Environment and Urbanization.

Publisher’s page


"This is a very important book.  Urban poverty is seriously underestimated by dollar a day measures and national poverty estimates; it is neglected in terms of policy and action; and it is often sidelined in academic research and debates about development.  This is really foolish – as the future of poverty is urban. This book lays out in detail the ways in which present measures of poverty underestimate urban poverty and presents the data on urban poverty and inequality, and especially urban health deprivations.  It demonstrates that research policy and action to improve the lives of low-income urban dwellers are a global priority.  Read this book and your understanding of poverty will be transformed.  I cannot recommend it highly enough."
David Hulme
Professor of Development Studies,  
Head of Institute for Policy Development and Management,
Executive Director, Brooks World Poverty Institute
CEO, Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre, University of Manchester

"With urban poverty growing at least as fast as booming urban populations, this is a challenging and constructive book. It challenges claims of global progress  on poverty based on ‘dollar a day’ poverty lines - these  ignore the real costs and consequences of urban poverty. It challenges urban governments to meet their responsibilities - urban poverty has a local dimension which can and must be measured and tackled if urban poverty is to be reduced. And it shows how the challenges can be met."
David Piachaud, Professor of Social Policy, London School of Economics.
"Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature moves the discussion of the multiple dimensions of poverty out of the realm of theory and academic discourse, where the bulk of the literature has been concentrated, and shows how the recognition of multiple disadvantages can reframe and energize pro-poor policies and programs. Mitlin and Satterthwaite do more than outline the general principles that should guide the next generation of policy: they  offer detailed, specific insights grounded in long experience with the urban poor of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This book moves the field forward."
Mark Montgomery,  
Professor of Economics, Stony Brook University,
and Senior Research Associate, Population Council.