In the world's poorest countries, cities could be the Sustainable Development Goals test

Blog by
7 June 2016

Ahead of next week's dialogue event on the challenges and opportunities posed to Least Developed Countries by the Sustainable Development Goals, Gordon McGranahan examines how cities and urbanisation can contribute greatly to attaining development goals.

A street in Freetown, Sierra Leone: involving growing low-income urban populations in urbanising countries will help result in more inclusive urbanisation (Photo: bobthemagicdragon, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

The United Nations' 2030 Agenda presents a dazzling array of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), claims they are integrated and indivisible, and pledges that no one will be left behind.

From the vantage point of the world's poorest countries the targets behind these goals might seem almost surreal. Growth in GDP per capita needs to be seven per cent a year or more in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), even as inequalities are being reduced, and radical social and environmental targets are being achieved.

Really? Despite the fact that these LDCs will be in the midst of urban transitions that in wealthier countries were accompanied by rising inequalities and large-scale environmental degradation?

Are the countries of the world really uniting to help LDCs to implement these goals, or cynically just cheering on a futile endeavour, wherein the LDCs are meant to achieve the most with the least or be judged failures?

Prizes for all?

Despite the assertion that they are indivisible, the SDG targets look suspiciously like prizes you can only win and take home one of.

Do you want seven per cent economic growth per capita? Or would you rather get your consumption-based environmental burdens under control? Or how about providing everyone, including the poorest, with adequate water and sanitation?

Ask experts and advocates how the goals they are associated with are to be achieved, and they will explain, but give as a condition that the other goals be de-prioritised.

These trade-offs stand out especially in the world's poor countries, where the targets the most far reaching and urbanisation and urban growth are at their most rapid (see the figure below).

It is in the expanding towns and cities of the LDCs that the 2030 Agenda will either get torn apart or patched together. As a recent report by the Institute of Development Studies outlines, cities and urbanisation can contribute greatly to development goals, but much of their potential contribution is squandered.

Urbanisation and population growth: the urbanisation rate is the rate of growth in the share of the population that is urban. These estimates show urban growth rates and urbanisation rates in decline, but declining more slowly and from a higher starting point in the LDCs, with urban growth rates about three times those of other developing countries by the middle of the 21st century. Much of their urban growth is due to rapid overall population growth

Should urbanisation be curbed?

Some are tempted to discourage urbanisation, and may argue that this will lower urban population growth rates and help towns and cities to provide their growing populations with the urban facilities they need, enabling them to match the aspirations of the SDGs.

This would indeed involve a radical transformation. But in the past only the most draconian policies have managed to put a serious dent in urbanisation trends.

Most attempts by cities to discourage growth really just involve planning for the population they want, rather than the population they are going to have. And there is no reason to think future efforts to resist migration and growth will help achieve the development goals.

Indeed, the radical transformation needed is in the opposite direction: welcoming urbanisation, and grappling with the challenges it poses.

A big implementation challenge is reconciling the goals and targets in the SDGs. For Least Developed Countries, there are some principles which would help to reconcile and integrate these targets in their ever-growing cities.

How cities in LDCs can work with the global goals

  • Inclusive urbanisation: More inclusive urbanisation requires, among other things, planning for – and, perhaps more importantly, planning by and with – the growing low-income urban populations in urbanising countries. Inclusion can contribute to both economic and social goals, and managed well can help in the design more sustainable cities.

    This requires a major shift in approach, and one that cities will be hesitant to follow without more support from national governments and others. But without more inclusive urbanisation and cities, inter-goal conflict is likely to become intractable.
  • Strategic decentralisation: Decentralisation policies have not always succeeded in making local governments more accountable to urban citizens, let alone to aspiring migrants. Indeed, some forms of decentralisation have pushed cities to compete to attract investment, and keep out people with poor economic prospects.

    A more strategic decentralisation is needed if cities are to achieve social and environmental as well as economic goals.
  • Constructive engagement with informality: Informal settlements and informal economies have their problems, but formalising them by again trying to enforce the regulations that helped to create them makes matters worse. In many cities and towns a majority of the population lives in informal settlements, and the majority of workers are in the informal economy.

    But even where the shares are much smaller, those dependent on informality need to have a say and benefit from formalisation. Well managed formalisation should also benefit the overall economy and the capacity to mitigate environmental burdens.
  • The pursuit of well-being: Economic growth can be critical, but should not be viewed as a goal in itself. Improving human wellbeing, now and into the future, needs to become a more central and measured goal if cities are to facilitate the pursuit of economic, social and environmental goals in a unified way.

Does the importance of cities and urbanisation mean that rural development is a secondary issue? Not at all. More inclusive rural development is also critical. That should also ease the pressure on urban areas.

But trying to keep people from moving to cities is a poor basis for rural policy – and an even worse basis for urban policy.

As the SDGs begin to be implemented, the cities and towns of LDCs may prove to be the places where they are most severely tested. Hopefully they will also prove to be the places where the most grounded and integrated responses are forthcoming.

Gordon McGranahan ( is a research fellow at the Institute for Development Studies. This blog was orginally posted on the ESRC's STEPS Centre's website. On 13 June, McGranahan is among the speakers at a dialogue event discussing how the SDGs present challenges and opportunities for urbanisation in the LDCs.