Reducing urban poverty – lessons not learnt?

What have we learned from over five decades of initiatives meant to reduce urban poverty? And what, if any, benefits have been felt by the estimated one billion, and counting, residents of informal settlements and tenements in urban areas in the global South?

David Satterthwaite's picture Diana Mitlin's picture
David Satterthwaite is senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements group, and Diana Mitlin is professor at the University of Manchester and research associate at IIED
10 August 2021
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
Aerial view of informal settlement

Jamestown slum in Accra, Ghana (Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Around one billion people are residents of informal settlements and tenements in urban areas in the global South, with most living in poor and overcrowded conditions lacking access to basic services.

So why have so few of these people actually benefited from poverty reduction initiatives? Why have most aid agencies given this such a low priority?

Part of the reason is that most measures of poverty do not include living conditions and access to basic services. There is an urgent need to rethink how urban poverty is defined, set and applied, and by whom and for what.

A previous blog highlighted how much the scale and depth of urban poverty is underestimated in most official statistics. Most poverty lines are income-based and set far too low in relation to the cost of food and non-food needs. Mention is often made of people living in poverty yet the poverty definitions and measurements take no account of housing and living conditions.

There is also the lack of engagement by governments and international agencies with those designated as ‘the poor’, meaning those on low incomes and with other sources of disadvantage. The definition and setting of poverty lines make little or no provision for consultation with them.

So there is no scope for them to challenge the inaccurate and often unfair stereotypes being used by politicians, local government officials, the media and other bodies in discussions of poverty. And there’s no opportunity for them to hold governments and international agencies to account for the inaccuracies.

This is the latest in a series of blogs and interviews, curated by IIED senior fellow David Satterthwaite, examining different aspects of global urban change. 

Seeing through a new lens

It may be difficult for those who are used to equating poverty with income or consumption-based criteria to accept the broader view. But it brings many important changes. It helps shift official perceptions of ‘poor people’ from being seen as ‘objects’ of government policy to being seen as citizens with rights and legitimate demands – and capacities to act.

A fresh lens can bring clarity about the different deprivations that make up poverty and who is impacted. It can reveal opportunities for addressing them – as well as their many economic, social and political underpinnings. It also helps identify the groups who are more vulnerable, more at risk or who face discrimination.

Urban governments, NGOs and grassroots organisations generally have relatively little scope to directly increase incomes, but they could address other aspects of poverty – for instance, improving or extending provision of essential services (good quality water, sanitation, solid waste collection, health care, schools, electricity and so on), increasing access to assets such as decent housing thus reducing expenditure on rents, safety nets or improving housing conditions.

And these reducing health-related expenditures and so improving incomes. Or through political change that would allow low-income groups to negotiate more support – or less harassment.

Some pointers for addressing urban poverty

It’s important to recognise the multiple roles that housing and neighbourhoods can play in urban poverty – and in poverty reduction.

Housing in urban contexts generally has more influence on the incomes, asset bases, livelihoods, vulnerability and quality of life (and health) of low-income groups than external poverty reduction specialists recognise.

Housing not only provides accommodation and access to basic services but also provides:

  • A location for getting to and from income-earning sources or possibilities, and accessing services. Some low-income groups have to put up with low quality accommodation because it is close to income-earning opportunities. Transport costs are often a significant cost in individual or household budgets – so reducing these can mean more disposable income
  • Safer and more secure housing also provides residents with greater protection against the loss of their household assets from eviction or extreme weather, and
  • For many, a location where income-earning activities take place as in home-based work or income raised by renting out space. They benefit from the reliable provision of electricity, good quality water supply and toilets and regular waste collection as the primary defence against most environmental health risks.

So there is an urgent need to recognise and act on the very large (and mostly preventable) health burdens suffered by the hundreds of millions of urban dwellers living in poor quality accommodation.

These burdens are more serious in urban contexts than rural because of the larger and denser concentration of people and their associated waste.

Making decent housing affordable

One way of achieving this would to be to reduce the cost of housing and inputs into housing (land, tenure, materials, credit, infrastructure and so on). An example would be helping low-income people by giving them access to vacant or under-utilised land on which they can secure their homes, incrementally developing shelter if and when it is affordable.

The key point is that good local governance, including support and space for urban poor organisations and federations, can considerably reduce poverty, even if people’s actual incomes are not increasing.

The knock-on effects of poverty reduction measures can be powerful. For instance, improved basic service provision has health benefits, reduces time burdens and fatigue, and increases real income (as a result of less time off work through illness or injury coupled with lower medical costs).

Recognition for what matters

Key routes to effective poverty reduction include:

  • Recognising the importance of what city and municipal governments can do to support poor residents and address poverty – and the importance of what urban poor groups can do (individually and collectively)
  • Recognising how competent, accountable, adequately-resourced urban governments can contribute enormously to poverty reduction.

    This is both by what they provide or ensure provision for (the now familiar list of water, sanitation, household waste collection, health care, schools, rule of law, documentation) and in how they work with low-income groups. Incompetent, unaccountable, inadequately resourced urban governments enormously increase urban poverty and reduce or even remove health advantages of urban dwellers over rural dwellers
  • Recognising and acting on key roles and space for the urban poor and their organisations, include a greater understanding of their competencies and capacities.

    A real commitment to work with the urban poor by local governments can remove one of the most profound aspects of poverty – the lack of voice/recognition, as well as the lack of government accountability, and
  • Providing flexible finance through local institutions to engage with and support community-led development, as in the work of the Akiba Mashinani Trust in Kenya.

And measuring what matters

Commitment to a dramatic improvement in the local documentation of all aspects of poverty, both in depth and coverage so that each local government and its citizens and civil society organisations have the basis for key decisions and actions, is important.

Organisations and federations of informal settlement residents, such as Slum Dwellers International, have demonstrated their capacities to help governments do this in hundreds of cities.

The mapping and enumeration of informal settlements provides detailed data on the different aspects of poverty in each settlement – and often for each household. This is the level of disaggregation needed for planning poverty reduction.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals call for more disaggregated data – but they do not recognise the importance of community-led data gathering and its key role in getting action and forging partnerships with local governments. In other words, indicators that drive needed change.

About the author

David Satterthwaite is senior fellow in IIED's Human Settlements research group

Diana Mitlin is professor at the University of Manchester and research senior associate at IIED

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