Who can we trust to measure urban poverty?

International definitions of the poverty line don't take into the account the additional costs of living in cities. Sarah Colenbrander says the urban poor can help institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank develop accurate, local, definitions of urban poverty.

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13 June 2017

Sarah Colenbrander is a researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group

A family living in a cemetery in Cebu City, the Philippines. A lack of affordable housing has led some 100 families to set up home among the mausoleums (Photo: Karl Fluch, Creative Commons via Flickr)

A family living in a cemetery in Cebu City, the Philippines. A lack of affordable housing has led some 100 families to set up home among the mausoleums (Photo: Karl Fluch via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The World Bank held its Annual Bank Conference on Africa on June 1-2. Africa remains the most rural continent, but it is experiencing extraordinary rates of urbanisation: the United Nations expects Africa's urban population to triple by mid-century (PDF). Only Asia is experiencing faster rates of urban growth.

By mid-century, towns and cities on these two continents will need to absorb an additional 2.25 billion people. Governments across Asia and Africa will require international support to meet the needs of this growing urban population.

The United Nations and World Bank will be at the forefront of these efforts, in line with their own mandates to end extreme poverty.

The only problem is the way that their definition of poverty excludes many of the world's poorest people.

Understanding poverty

What does it mean to be poor? Most can answer easily: not being able to afford enough food, a safe home, clean drinking water, health care and other basic needs.

The amount of money a person needs depends on where they live. London is more expensive than Orkney. San Francisco is more expensive than Cincinnati.

The World Bank has set the international poverty line at US$1.90 per person per day.

This poverty line is based on the cost of food across a number of low-income countries. It might be an appropriate indicator for people living in rural areas in these countries. But it doesn't recognise the need to pay for non-food needs, such as accommodation or drinking water.

In other words, the international poverty line does not recognise that anyone might live in a city.

Measuring income poverty

Cities are booming. India is projected to add 404 million urban residents by 2050; Nigeria is projected to add 212 million.

This makes it more important than ever that the World Bank recognises the additional costs of living in cities.

The best way to do this would be developing local poverty lines, based on the real cost of getting decent housing, basic services and secure tenure in an area. Local poverty lines would allow governments and development agencies to identify where poor people live and channel aid to them.

It isn't that difficult to measure local costs. The United Nations recognises that in Kenya, hotels in Nairobi cost more than those in Katui or Mwingi, and recommends higher per diems and stipends for its staff in this part of the country.

Development practitioners must demand as much economic rigour in our poverty assessments as we do in our per diem calculations.

Measuring access to services

Because of the different costs of different places, measuring income is a weak way to evaluate poverty. A better metric is whether or not households have access to safe, reliable and affordable services.

The United Nations has a poor track record in urban areas.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF are the main agencies responsible for measuring access to drinking water and sanitation. They collect data on the number of people with access to an:

  • "Improved water source": piped water into a dwelling/yard/plot, public tap or standpipe, tube well, borehole, protected dug well, protected spring or rainwater, and
  • "Improved sanitation": flush toilet, piped sewer system, septic tank, flush/pour to pit latrine, ventilated improved pit latrine, pit latrine with slab or composting toilet.

These water sources and sanitation systems will usually be sufficient in rural areas.

However, it is difficult to empty pit latrines in a hygienic way when people live in high numbers on small house plots – as they typically do in cities. The latrines may even overflow during heavy rainfall, meaning that boreholes, tube wells and dug wells may be contaminated with faecal matter.

Many urban households may therefore have access to an "improved" water source – but that doesn't mean that the water is safe to drink.

The United Nations routinely underestimates how many people lack access to clean drinking water or hygienic sanitation. This means that most United Nations agencies overlook the urban poor when advocating to governments or planning development programmes.

Data from the urban poor

From Accra to Ahmedabad and Mumbai to Manila, organised groups of the urban poor are collecting extraordinarily detailed data on life in informal settlements.

These community-led enumerations record how many people live in each household, what amenities they have, where they came from, where they work, how much they earn, how much they can save, how much the land costs and more.

This vital evidence could be used to develop local poverty lines (PDF).

The Homeless People's Federation Philippines, for example, has used community-generated data to map households living in hazardous areas such as roadsides, steep hills or floodplains. The National Community Savings Network in Cambodia has documented the low-quality food available in informal settlements, meaning that many of the residents struggle with serious malnutrition.

The members of these grassroots organisations might earn more than $1.90 a day – but many are still chronically poor and vulnerable to a wide range of risks.

If the World Bank and the United Nations are serious about reducing poverty, they need to know where the poor can be found. Their current measurements can’t tell us that – but the urban poor can.

Sarah Colenbrander (sarah.colenbrander@iied.org) is a researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group. This blog originally appeared on the zilient.org website.

Further reading: Urban poverty in the global South: scale and nature and reducing urban poverty in the global South.

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Diana MitlinAugust 2017

The contradiction is that recent WB publications recognise how expensive housing and basic services can be - at least in African cities (see Lall, . Somik, V., J. Vernon Henderson, and Anthony J. Venables. "Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World." Washington: World Bank, 2017). And WB staff do lots with national poverty lines which often have allowances for the different prices in urban and rural areas; and sometimes between cities too. But until the non-food element of poverty lines is measured by what it takes to get safe and secure housing with adequate access to basic services, we won't make progress. Poverty line methodology is based on historical rural livelihoods; it is simply not "fit for purpose" when assessing the true costs of avoiding poverty in urban areas and dense rural settlements. Global success in reducing poverty is based on NOT measuring the numbers living in inadequate housing, living without water and sanitation services, and living in high density neighbourhoods without adequate protection against fire and flood. Such claims of global success ignore the voice of disadvantaged communities who are sharing their experiences with those willing to listen.

Sarah ColenbranderJune 2017

You're completely right, of course. Another excellent World Bank paper that explicitly focuses on the costs of living in urban areas is Nakamura et al. (2016) Is living in African cities expensive?

Yet despite some very good research and practice, the first target of the SDGs is "By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day." All but meaningless in an urban context. The desire for political kudos has trumped the need for poverty reduction.