Introduction Introduction Chapter 5 Chapter 5
Chapter 1 Chapter 1 Chapter 6 Chapter 6
Chapter 2 Chapter 2 Notes for Indicators Notes
Chapter 3 Chapter 3 Notes for boxes Notes for boxes
Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Indicators Indicators
CHAPTER 3 Printer Friendly printer friendly version
Chapter 1 Rethinking Policy on Urban Poverty

Wrong Way Streets and New Avenues

Trying to Keep the Masses Out: A Failed Strategy

Addressing the Shelter Needs of the Poor

A Quantum Leap: Meeting a New Scenario for Shelter

Regulating Urban Land Markets: Mission Impossible?

Advocacy, Votes and Action: The Need for Leadership

Adding a Dose of Realism

Preparing for the Future

Trying to Keep the Masses Out: A Failed Strategy

National governments have tried two strategies to restrict the rapid expansion of urban settlements for the poor: a) ambitious schemes to retain people in rural areas or to colonize new agricultural zones; and b) regulating urban land use, backed up either by evictions or, more frequently, by denying essential services such as water and sanitation.(11)

In doing this, policymakers implicitly reason that slum dwellers should not have moved to the city in the first place, and that assisting slum dwellers contributes to over-urbanization. Consequently, they attempt to make cities less attractive for potential migrants.

Since most poor people in low-income nations still live in rural areas, it seems intuitively sensible to keep rural-urban migration down to a level consistent with the availability of urban jobs and services. In many cities around the world, the more lively debate in the corridors of power has been not over how best to assist the urban poor, but over how to prevent them from arriving, settling or remaining.

However, the arguments that portray excessive rural-urban migration as a cause of urban poverty are typically based on a number of misconceptions:

  • Rural-urban migrants are primarily responsible for urban poverty. The main component of urban growth in most nations is not migration but natural increase (that is, more births than deaths), as noted in Chapter 1. Migrants are generally not more concentrated among the poor.(12)In addition, many residents of poor settlements are not rural-urban migrants, but poor people displaced from other parts of the city.

  • Focusing on urban poverty can detract attention from rural development. Treating “rural” and “urban” poverty as somehow separate and in competition with each other for resources is not only a conceptual mistake, but a remarkably short-sighted view of the problem. In fact, successful rural development generally stimulates and supports urban development, and vice versa.(13)In addition, successful rural development may actually generate more rural-urban migration. Conversely, urban growth is a powerful stimulus to food production, especially by small farmers. Access to flourishing urban markets contributes both to the reduction of rural poverty and to urban food security.

  • Population growth in cities is what causes slums. It is true that city growth is often accompanied by the rapid expansion of unplanned and underserved neighbourhoods with high concentrations of poor people; but this is largely the result of lack of attention to the needs of the poor—a matter of vision and governance (see next section).

  • The poor are a drain on the urban economy. On the contrary, the urban poor are essential to the economy of cities and to national development. Many certainly work in the informal sector. But the informal sector is not just a messy mix of marginalized activities, as it tends to be viewed; much of it is competitive and highly dynamic, well integrated into the urban economy and even into the global economy. The informal sector accounts for as much as two thirds of urban employment in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa and plays a crucial role in urban households’ responses to crisis. It is also a main source of employment and income for poor urban women.

  • Migrants would be better off remaining in rural areas. When migrants move to urban centres, they are making rational choices. Even if urban working and living conditions present many serious difficulties, they are perceived as preferable to the rural alternatives—otherwise migrants would not keep coming. Measures to curb migration can easily make both rural and urban poverty worse, not better.

  • Anti-migration policies can limit urban growth. There is little evidence that restrictive planning regulations or poor conditions in urban areas have appreciably reduced rural-urban migration. By making conditions worse, they have made it more difficult for the urban poor to climb out of poverty and held back positive efforts to prepare for urban growth.

In short, mobility is a strategy that households and individuals adopt to improve their lives and to reduce risk and vulnerability. Additionally, in many regions, people are forced to leave rural areas: Population growth and environmental change have depleted the natural resource base and its capacity to support local residents. Moreover, insecurity due to civil strife also compels many rural people to flee to the cities or their environs.(14)Thus, for many, moving to the cities is not only rational but sometimes the only way to survive.

Despite many serious and continuing difficulties, urbanization clearly improves lives, in the aggregate. Migrants and the urban poor also contribute to urban and national economic growth. Policies should recognize mobility’s role in development and poverty reduction. The real issue is not that cities grow fast, but that they are unprepared to absorb urban growth.

Direct controls on rural-urban migration can also increase rural poverty by reducing transfers of money and goods to rural households from migrant relatives. In most low-income nations, remittances and earnings from urban-based non-farm activities constitute a growing proportion of income for rural households. Such interaction between rural and urban areas is likely to increase over time and should be supported.(15)Poor households that manage to diversify their income sources in different locations and economic sectors are generally less vulnerable to sudden shocks and may be able to move out of poverty.

Attempts to control rural-urban migration infringe individual rights and hold back overall development. They are difficult to enforce and usually ineffective. Not surprisingly, they have had a long history of failure, as Box 14 illustrates.



The history of attempts to control rural-urban migratory flows is couched in frustration. Most centrally planned economies attempted it, particularly by limiting migration to the capital city, with little or no effect.(1)Many post-colonial governments have inherited the draconian measures of colonial regimes to prevent urban growth. Efforts to redirect migration flows and to stanch urban concentration often reflect technocrats’ lack of under­standing of why migrants move. Explicit government policies systematically attempt to promote de-concentration. By contrast, their implicit and unin­tended policies, which generally conform to market forces, almost invariably strengthen concentration.(2)

This has led to the observation that: “. . . [S]ocieties that allow the free movement of people within their borders are likely to see a reduction of poverty in rural areas. Those that attempt to control migration, or limit or reverse movements to towns and cities, are likely to see little change or a deterioration in conditions. For example, internal movements of population were tightly controlled in both China and Viet Nam until the reforms from 1978 and 1986, respectively. Poverty in both these countries has dropped sharply over the subsequent decades.”(3)

Finally, laissez-faire attitudes and wishful thinking about urban growth are equally detrimental. Presuming that further growth will not materialize because things are going badly is, to say the least, imprudent:

“. . . Urban growth and expansion is ubiquitous. Cities that experience population and economic growth inevitably experience urban expansion too. This in itself is an important finding, because it is quite common to hear of urban planners and decision makers speaking of their cities as exceptions to the rule, asserting that other cities will grow and expand and their city will not, simply because it is already bursting at the seams, and because they think that further growth is objectionable.”(16)