Migration Flows, New Growth Demand New Ways to Do Urban DevelopmentJanuary 22, 2013 By Patricia Weiss Fagen
A majority of the world population now lives in urban settings, but many of the most rapidly growing cities are unprepared to accommodate their new citizens. Newly swollen municipalities in poor and institutionally fragile countries are especially disadvantaged by poor planning and management, deficient public services, and citizen insecurity.
“This urban expansion is not a phenomenon of wealthy countries,” wrote the editors of a 2007 Wilson Center Comparative Urban Studies Project publication. “Almost all of the growth will occur in unplanned and underserved city slums in parts of the world that are least able to cope with the added demands.”
“Urban poverty and slum growth are local problems, but their nature and scale demand a global response,” they concluded.
Three dynamics combine to create the current urban challenge:
Migration flows: In addition to natural population growth and over and above longstanding rural-urban migration driven by the search for better opportunities, urban populations are being added to by flight from pervasive conflicts and environmental crises in rural areas.
In this category are refugees in host country cities, returning refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), demobilized combatants, victims of criminal- and gang-related violence, victims of natural disasters, and rural populations whose livelihoods have been destroyed by legacies of conflict and neglect. Urban planners have rarely included them in long-term development scenarios because of a longstanding yet unproven assumption that people who were forced to move to cities by such circumstances will sooner or later return to their rural homes or will continue to live in separate enclaves outside of the core cities. To the contrary, however, even in countries where agricultural projects have been initiated and post war rural communities improved, return rates are low due to the difficulties of agriculture, land ownership, and rural life generally and the real and perceived advantages of urban living for jobs, education, and services.
In reality, there are no sharp lines separating “forced” or “crisis” migrants” from the so-called “economic migrants” except that, to a larger extent, the latter move voluntarily and plan the steps they take. In both categories, poverty and unmet needs prevail. The situation faced by large numbers of generally traumatized people forced to abandon their homes is especially dire because they lack safety nets or strategies for security and livelihoods.
Weak absorptive capacity: Cities today, are unable to serve the functions they have served historically. Urban areas are experiencing dramatic growth that is decoupled from economic growth. People fleeing environmental deterioration at home find themselves in cities suffering from severe environmental crises themselves, including the effects of climate change. People fleeing violence and its aftermath have little choice but to settle in crime-ridden and violence-prone neighborhoods and distant shanty towns.
Urban migration is seen as a path to survival for victims of protracted conflicts, environmental deterioration, violence, loss of land and property, and agricultural policy failures. But, as numbers increase, the new migrants are forced to settle in slums and, even more frequently, in peripheral shantytowns surrounding municipalities. There, they find violence, lawlessness, unemployment, and squalid living conditions similar to those they fled.
Weak governance and institutions: Municipal authorities frequently are unable or unwilling to offer good government to the marginal neighborhoods and slums under their jurisdictions. Municipal institutions in the fastest growing cities are typically weak and/or corrupt. To be sure, government structures in major cities in the wealthier countries often share similar characteristics, but in new towns and cities, and especially in shantytowns, institutions, if they exist at all, are likely to be frail.
Basic public services, such education, sanitation, and safety, are poor, while possibilities for stable employment are few. The absence of state regulation opens the way for local bosses and strongmen to regulate access and manage the distribution of urban resources, including land, services, and security. All this further contributes to a sense of insecurity and lack of community cohesion among residents.
State of Urban Development
The unmet needs of swelling urban populations are recognized widely. Humanitarian agencies in particular acknowledge the daunting challenges they face in meeting basic needs of new vulnerable urban populations. Academic and policy papers have abundantly documented current realities and recommended action. Nevertheless, policy and programmatic responses have been fragmented and feeble, especially in those places where security and human wellbeing are most at risk.
The negative effects of climate change for rural and marine livelihoods are far more widely cited than the serious and visible impacts of climate change in cities. The World Bank and the larger development agencies do take seriously the state of urban deterioration. It is fair to say, however, that the development agencies have a less than adequate understanding of the trajectories propelling rural environmental or conflict victims to migrate to cities and thereby accelerate urban expansion and further environmental deterioration. Moreover, to the average development expert, slum dwellers and squatter settlements are obstacles to, rather than participants in, development planning.
Residents of poor urban neighborhoods and settlements – an increasingly higher proportion of all people – have few friends. Humanitarian agencies respond to victims migrating due to conflict or disaster, but the responses are short term. Humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations, moreover, are at a disadvantage because they have long trained staff to assist victims of crises in rural communities, refugee camps, and other such manageable spaces, not those living in cities.
Expand Comprehensive Approaches, Strengthen Rural-to-Urban Pathways
A “stove piped” approach to attention and assistance continues to impede progress. Planning is either for agricultural or urban development; shantytowns are either a security or humanitarian priority, to be addressed either by relief or developmental assistance. The segmentation precludes viable and comprehensive strategies that encompass multiple rural and urban needs. Different approaches are in order.
Diane Davis on social interaction and urban resilience
On the humanitarian side, agencies that have worked with women, children, poor farmers, and refugees have experience in promoting community trust and collective actions. These skills are badly needed and could be mobilized to help slum dwellers work together as advocates and actors on their own behalf. Local efforts are essential to make health care delivery, sanitation projects, and educational benefits available and accessible. Presently, humanitarian projects too often create tensions because they target only one or another needy group. While it is essential to target special needs (e.g. those of refugees, recent IDPs, vulnerable segments of the population, ethnic minorities, etc.), assistance must be delivered in ways that do not divide poor communities.
On the development side, urban planners justly want to upgrade infrastructure, remove people living in environmentally fragile areas, encourage formal employment, and create investment opportunities. Achieving these goals by removing people from their fragile habitats without engaging them in the process of improvement and/or offering viable economic alternatives has produced tragic results.
At the level of the nation state, separate funding and strategies for urban as opposed to rural development planning impedes national development. Moreover, that dichotomy omits adequate planning and funding for medium and small cities and market towns. Yet, smaller urban settlements are one potential way to bridge the separation between rural village life and life in a megacity. The market towns and small cities dotting the countrysides of many developing countries have received growing numbers of destitute people from farms and villages, and are largely failing to absorb them productively. If they were better venues for small-scale enterprises they could help link agriculture and trade and serve to keep people of rural origin closer to home while still living more urban lifestyles.
Another way to encourage rural-urban connectivity is to formalize and monetize urban-rural family and community contacts so as to more effectively channel rural production to urban markets. Rural origin migrants almost always maintain contact with – and often support – relatives who remain behind in poor rural areas. Thus the offspring of subsistence farmers from Liberia or Mozambique who are living in Monrovia or Maputo carry on exchanges of family produced agricultural products for material goods purchased in cities. Investment projects that encourage such people to form small enterprises and promote domestic trade could enhance livelihoods all around.
As many small projects in war-torn countries have shown, urban slum dwellers, squatters, even youth with violent pasts, have proven able to turn their experiences to useful ends. But this process requires changing stereotypes, investing in long-term capacity building, and expanding the access of people hitherto excluded from education, health, housing, and security. Above all, humanitarian agencies and governments need to change their perceptions of how rural-to-urban migrants behave and broaden their understanding of the best interventions to help them achieve their highest potential – for their own sake and the cities and nations of tomorrow.
Patricia Weiss Fagen is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. She also served several years at the UNHCR and published on topics related to refugees, internally displaced persons, and post conflict reintegration.
Sources: Disasters, UK Office of Science, UN Refugee Agency, U.S. Institute of Peace.
Photo Credit: “Tel Aviv Cityscape,” courtesy of DigiDreamGrafix.com. Video: Sean Peoples/Wilson Center.
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