Why millions of people choose to live in urban squalor?

As international development practitioners, we have had many occasions to visit slums in Africa or anywhere in the world. Personally, my more difficult time was in Port-au-Prince and in this specific context; poverty in the countryside has seemed to me almost Arcadian by comparison. The rural poor may lack nutrition, health care, education, and infrastructure but they can farm still in settings that not only are more bucolic, but also represent the condition of most of humanity for most of history.

With life so squalid in urban slums, why would anyone want to move there?

This is an interesting question that Charles Kenny has tried to address in his article “In Praise of Slums” published in the Foreign Policy magazine. In this new blog, we propose to describe and discuss some of his major ideas, highlight the missing aspects, if there are some and finally we will focus on one of our main centers of interest, i.e. the nutrition.

According to Charles Kenny, there are two reasons for choosing to live in urban slums

1- Because slums are better than the alternative

Most people who’ve experienced both rural and urban poverty choose to stay in slums rather than move back to the countryside. That includes hundreds of millions of people in the developing world over the past few decades, including 130 million migrant workers in China alone. They follow a well-trodden path of seeking a better life in the bright lights of the city and in this new century, the probability of living a better life is better than ever. In the case of China, world economic supremacy and extensive industrialization can explain this result. For some African countries that are currently experiencing a sustained economic growth, it can be the same.

2 – Start with the simple reason that most people leave the countryside: money

Everyone is after the same thing…. Prosperity!

Moving to cities makes economic sense. Rich countries are urbanized countries, and rich people are predominantly town and city dwellers.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 600 cities worldwide account for 60% of global economic output (http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/mgi/research/urbanization/urban_world). While 600 cities will continue to account for the same share of global GDP in 2025, this group will have a very different membership. Over the next 15 years, the center of gravity of the urban world will move south and, even more decisively, east. By 2025, 136 new cities are expected to enter the top 600, all of them from the developing world and overwhelmingly—100 new cities—from China.

Slum dwellers may be at the bottom of the urban heap, but most are better off than their rural counterparts. In fact, while about half the world’s population is urban, only a quarter of those living on less than a dollar a day live in urban areas. In Brazil, for example, where the word “poor” conjures images of both Rio’s vertiginous favelas and indigenous Amazonian tribes living in rural privation, only 5% of the urban population is classified as extremely poor, compared with 25% of those living in rural areas (http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/web/rural-poverty-portal/country/home/tags/brazil).

But is it much of a life, eking out an existence in today’s urban squalor!

According to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), urbanization could be an emerging humanitarian disaster (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp0810878).


Because it grows too fast! To give you an example, the capital of Botswana, Gaborone, will grow from 186,000 to 500,000 inhabitants by 2020. According to United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat), all population growth from now on will be in cities: the urban population is projected to grow to 4.9 billion by 2030, increasing by 1.6 billion while the rural population shrinks by 28 million.

According to the NEJM’s article, this transition is happening chaotically, resulting in a disorganized urban landscape. Although many expect urbanization to mean an improved quality of life, this rising tide does not lift all boats, and many poor people are rapidly being absorbed into urban slums. The UN-Habitat reports that 43% of urban residents in developing countries such as Kenya, Brazil, and India and 78% of those in the least-developed countries such as Bangladesh and Haiti live in such slums.

In fact, urbanization could be a health hazard for certain vulnerable populations, and this demographic shift threatens to create a humanitarian disaster. The threat comes both in the form of rising rates of endemic disease such as pulmonary diseases, diabetes and hypertension and a greater potential for epidemics and even pandemics like cholera. Indeed, increasing the population density in cities without proper water supplies and sanitation increases the risk of transmission of communicable diseases.

Countries like Ghana and Ethiopia because of their current and projected economic growth and the will of their governments to reduce the impact of poverty may be able to respond adequately to this demographic shift by offering not only the needed access to health services but also the necessary infrastructures like housing, and water and sanitation. These two countries are among the four African countries that are going to reach some of the MDGs in 2015. Progresses are there! Regrettably, for other countries like Haiti, it may take evermore. Kenya is another example (see below).

But slum living today, for all its failings, is markedly better than it was in Dickens’s time.

According to Charles Kenny, “urban quality of life now involves a lot more actual living. Through most of history, death rates in cities were so high that urban areas only maintained population levels through constant migration from the countryside. In Dickensian Manchester, for instance, the average life expectancy was just 25 years, compared to 45 years in rural Surrey. Across the world today, thanks to vaccines and underground sewage systems, average life expectancies in big cities are considerably higher than those in the countryside; in sub-Saharan Africa, cities with a population over 1 million have had infant mortality rates one-third lower than those in rural areas. In fact, most of today’s urban population growth comes not from waves of villagers moving to the city, but city folks having kids and living longer.”

The comparison with Dickens’s time is quite powerful! Fortunately, conditions are better. It would be interesting to bring another layer of social context and to compare the living conditions of rural populations in developing countries with those of the peasants of Dikens’s time. Have they improved also? Unfortunately, we could not find any pertinent information regarding this specific point.

However, Birchenall showed in his article entitle “Economic Development and the Escape from High Mortality” (http://econ.ucsb.edu/~jabirche/Papers/development.pdf) that while mortality in cities in developed countries during the 20th century declined drastically due to health interventions, mortality in cities started to decline once death rates in rural areas were already declining. In fact, agricultural changes associated with economic development initiated the escape from high mortality and provided the conditions for higher population and higher income in the world. As food availability increased, anthropometric and epidemiological evidences indicate that people in developed countries became taller, heavier, and less susceptible to infectious diseases, especially to diseases in which nutritional status has a definite influence. According to Birchenall, the contribution of per capita income to the world mortality decline from diseases sensitive to nutrition can be as large as 45%. The contribution to the overall mortality decline and to the decline of all infectious diseases is close to 30%.

Access to health, economic development and more importantly good nutrition (quantity as well as quality) were the pillars of the escape from high mortality for the developed countries over the past two centuries. Normally, an historical analysis can show us the appropriate path to follow. Are we observing the same pattern in developing countries? This is an interesting question.

Why are the different elements that can explain a better quality of life?

The latest analyses show ed  that one of the element is a better access to services

Data from surveys across the developing world suggest that poor households in urban areas are more than twice as likely to have piped water as those in rural areas, and they’re nearly four times more likely to have a flush toilet (http://www.prb.org/pdf09/64.2urbanization.pdf).

In India, very poor urban women are about as likely to get prenatal care as the non-poor in rural areas. And in 70% of countries surveyed by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, school enrollment for girls ages 7 to 12 is higher among the urban poor than the rural poor.

That said, modern slum dwellers – about one-third of the urban population in developing countries — are some of the least likely to get vaccines or be connected to sewage systems (http://www.unhabitat.org/pmss/listItemDetails.aspx?publicationID=1156).

That means ill health in informal settlements is far more widespread than city averages would suggest. In the slums of Nairobi, for example, child mortality rates are more than twice the city average and higher, in fact, than mortality rates in Kenya’s rural areas. But Nairobi’s slums are atypically awful, more an indicator of the Kenyan government’s dysfunction than anything else.

In most developing countries, even the poorest city dwellers do better than the average villager. Banerjee and Duflo (http://economics.mit.edu/files/530) found that, among people living on less than a dollar a day, infant mortality rates in urban areas were lower than rural rates in two-thirds of the countries for which they had data. In India, the death rate for babies in the first month of life is nearly one-quarter lower in urban areas than in rural villages. So significant is the difference in outcomes that population researcher Martin Brockerhoff concludes that “millions of children’s lives may have been saved” in the 1980s alone as the result of mothers worldwide moving to urban areas (http://htc.anu.edu.au/pdfs/Brocker1.pdf). An interesting statement!

But who are the hungry – the rural or the urban population?

According to the latest Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics, there are 925 million hungry people in the world and 98% of them are in developing countries.  They are distributed like this:

578 million in Asia and the Pacific

239 million in Sub-Saharan Africa

53 million in Latin America and the Caribbean

37 million in the Near East and North Africa

And 19 million in developed countries

Three-quarters of all hungry people live in rural areas, mainly in the villages of Asia and Africa. Tremendously dependent on agriculture for their food, these populations have no alternative source of income or employment. This is critical when there is only one raining season. If the crops production is compromised because of the lack of rain, then the farmers may migrate to cities in their search for employment, swelling the ever-expanding populations of shanty towns in developing countries.

FAO calculates that around half of the world’s hungry people are from smallholder farming communities, surviving off marginal lands prone to natural disasters like drought or flood. Another 20% belong to landless families dependent on farming and about 10% live in communities whose livelihoods depend on herding, fishing or forest resources.

The remaining 20% live in shanty towns on the periphery of the biggest cities in developing countries. Something we need to keep in mind is the fact that the numbers of poor and hungry city dwellers are rising rapidly along with the world’s total urban population. In this context, continued efforts are needed to reduce urban disparities and inequities associated with poverty.

Without any surprise – the more vulnerable are the children and the women!

An estimated 146 million children in developing countries are underweight – the result of acute or chronic hunger (UNICEF, 2009).  All too often, child hunger is inherited: up to 17 million children are born underweight annually, the result of inadequate nutrition before and during pregnancy. Furthermore, if we look specifically the urban situation: research indicates that urban infants suffer growth retardation at an earlier age than their rural counterparts, and that urban children are more likely to have rickets. While the urban diets are often more varied and include higher levels of animal protein and fat, rural diets may be superior in terms of calories and total protein intake. Average food consumption is lower and estimates of undernutrition generally higher in urban areas. However, physical malnutrition in children is markedly worse in the rural population, possibly because urban dwellers, of whatever social group, have lower energy demand than subsistence farmers.

Several associated factors account for nutritional deprivation among slum dwellers. One problem is the inability to adapt to new staples and a new structure of food prices. Food purchases of the urban poor are heavily dependent on competing demand for unavoidable non-food expenditure such as transport to work, housing and remittances to relatives in the countryside. The urban poor seldom have easy access to central markets due to public transport costs and are thus compelled to buy their food in small quantities from local shops at higher prices. They may have little time to prepare food, no suitable space for cooking and no money for fuel. As a result, the poor often rely mainly on small-scale local vendors to prepare meals with little regard for hygiene or food safety. When I was in Port-au-Prince, I saw a gigantic accumulation of white containers in the different canals and rivers that cross the city – demonstrating the importance of the “take-out  system” despite the high level of poverty.

On the other side, women are the world’s primary food producers, yet cultural traditions and social structures often mean women are much more affected by hunger and poverty than men. A mother who is stunted or underweight due to an inadequate diet often give birth to low birth weight children.

According to UNICEF, around 50% of pregnant women in developing countries are iron deficient. Lack of iron means 315,000 women die annually from hemorrhage at childbirth. As a result, women, and in particular expectant and nursing mothers, often need special or increased intake of food.

One major issue in urban undernutrition identified by most UN agencies is that of time constraints on urban women. They are more likely to be household heads, particularly in Latin America, and often lack social support networks found in rural areas. For many low-income female workers who leave home early in the morning and return late at night, bottle feeding of infants has become an absolute necessity. But commercial milk powders are often unhygienically prepared, creating a positive threat to infants’ health. In some urban communities, large scale introduction of bottle feeding has already changed the type and incidence of protein-energy malnutrition. Marasmus, a severe form of protein-energy deficiency, is becoming more frequent among younger children in urban areas. In four Bangkok slums, the prevalence of protein-calorie malnutrition was attributed to failure to breastfeed, early weaning and inadequate artificial feeding.

Slum life remains grim.

HIV prevalence rates are twice as high in urban areas of Zambia as they are in rural areas, for instance, and the story is worse with typhoid in Kenya. Slum residents are also at far greater risk from violence, outdoor air pollution, and traffic accidents than their rural counterparts. And the closer conditions in slum areas get to a state of anarchy mixed with kleptocracy, the more health and welfare outcomes tend to resemble those of Dickensian Manchester.

But all things considered, slum growth is a force for good. It could be an even stronger driver of development if leaders stopped treating slums as a problem to be cleared and started treating them as a population to be serviced, providing access to reliable land titles, security, paved roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and clinics.

As Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser puts it: “slums don’t make people poor — they attract poor people who want to be rich. So let’s help them help themselves”.

Definition: What is a slum?

A slum household is a household that lacks any one of the following five elements:

Access to improved water

Access to improved sanitation

Security of tenure

Durability of housing

Sufficient living area




http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp0810878 http://econ.ucsb.edu/~jabirche/Papers/development.pdf


http://www.wfp.org/hunger/who-are# http://www.fao.org/hunger/en/


If you would like to read more interesting articles from Charles Kenny,

go to: http://charleskenny.blogs.com/


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