In another four decades, urban residents will account for 66 percent of the population in developing countries, says the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).
Credit: UN Photo/DB
As climate change contributes to cyclical droughts and floods, many African and Asian countries are witnessing large numbers of people moving from vulnerable rural regions to urban centres. Poor countries have begun to respond to this movement of people. Some African countries, for example, are trying to promote rural development in a bid to stem the rural-to-urban migration.
This had been a goal of Brazil's military regime back in the 1960s. It had tried to stimulate economic activity in outlying regions and to reduce migration to its cities - but those efforts did not deter people from moving into cities. In fact, it led to the promotion of urban inequality, with large segments of the population inhabiting poorly located and poorly served informal settlements, the now-famous favelas.
Similarly, the former Soviet Union imposed an internal passport regime to restrict access to its urban areas as early as 1932. These controls forced many undocumented migrants to live in deplorable conditions.
The efforts and missteps of these and other BRICS countries (together they are: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) offer lessons on migration policy for the rest of the developing world, says a paper produced jointly by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
The BRICS, which have the world's fastest growing economies, have tinkered with every kind of response to rapid urbanisation. Collectively, their experiences reveal some dos and don'ts.
Don't try to block the inevitable movement of people from the rural areas to urban centres and then haphazardly try to make up for it later, as Brazil's subsequent democratic regimes later attempted.
A participatory budgeting process was initiated in cities, providing an opportunity for every resident to have a say on the municipal budget. But this approach requires an organized civil society and informed citizenry, conditions that take time to cultivate. "Although these practices have made real progress, the problems were too large to swiftly eradicate," says the paper.
Don't be ambivalent to urbanisation. South Africa's apartheid forced many black residents to live in confined, unsafe spaces at the periphery of cities.
Later, its democratic government decided to adopt a neutral stance to avoid the mistakes of the past, but it did little to "overcome the legacy of urban segregation", according to the paper. The government does not have a consistent national policy for planning or managing the process of urbanisation, which has created hostility towards informal settlements and backyard shacks.
India has also been largely ambivalent to urbanisation, which could leave the country unprepared to add an expected 400 million people to the labour force by 2050. At the moment, agriculture-related activities provide a living to less than half of India's current workforce, and this sector is unlikely to absorb many more people, which will compel many to seek work in cities.
Don't assume creating progressive policies, laws and municipal institutions will be sufficient. These measures - which are often only on paper - are not enough to "harness the potential of urbanisation", points out Ivan Turok, an urban planning expert and author of an IIED paper on urbanisation in South Africa.
The real task is to ensure these policies - formulated sectorally - work as a whole. For instance, if a municipal council attempts to provide better housing for informal residents, it has to take into account ownership rights, access to cheap transportation, distance to job opportunities, and availability of health services and education. Another critical issue to consider would be whether suburbs have an equal share in any municipal spending.
Don't exclude the voices of the poor. With municipalities in larger metros unable to raise enough taxes for maintenance, India has seen urban resident organizations enter into partnerships with the private sector for the provision of services in their localities, writes urbanisation expert Amitabh Kundu. Poorer suburbs, unable to contribute financially, are mostly excluded from such initiatives. More affluent residents' associations have even gone to the courts to remove informal settlements.
Do accept that the poor have the right to be in cities. After that, prepare in advance for their land and housing needs within a constantly updated vision of sustainable land use, write George Martine and IIED's Gordon McGranahan in a paper on Brazil. The most effective way to do this is to provide land and services for them before they arrive, rather than taking remedial actions that are much more costly to both poor city dwellers and the city itself.
Do invest in communities living in informal areas. Some South African municipalities have set up disaster-management units to help communities cope with the consequences of shack fires, flooding and other hazards. This has helped bring the number of disaster-related casualties down. Some have invested in infrastructure and services to improve its residents' quality of life.
Do help people living in informal settlements and unsafe housing acquire cheap land. A new government grant in South Africa supports the upgrading of existing settlements and the creation of new housing opportunities in better locations by subsidizing the acquisition, servicing and release of land for low-income housing.
The full article, including a Q&A on urbanisation with Gordon McGranahan, team leader on urbanisation at IIED, is available on the IRIN website.
This article by IRIN has been reproduced by PSN. Minor cuts and edits may have been made for the purpose of relevance and brevity.