Students Present Ideas for Reducing Urban Poverty

Last week, the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a workshop entitled Reducing Urban Poverty: A New Generation of Ideas.  Graduate students were invited to submit papers addressing problems of the global urban poor.  Three outstanding papers were selected and their authors were invited to speak at the workshop.

The workshop felt especially appropriate as it was held on November 1st, the day after the United Nations predicted the global population had reached 7 billion.  More than half of our 7 billion live in cities and, as the population continues to grow, so does the percentage of the total population living in urban areas.  This rapid influx of people into cities puts immense pressure on local governments to provide necessary infrastructure and services.  To ensure human security and environmental sustainability, urban priorities must be incorporated into the global development agenda.  Through discussions of new ideas for urban policy, these students introduce important insight into how to address the unique challenges posed by dynamic urban communities

Fatimah Wajahat, a graduate student at Florida State University, explored the link between tenure security and home improvement.  Home improvement itself was treated as a metric by which community development and security could be measured.  By conducting interviews in a squatter settlement in Lahore, Pakistan, a city of 7 million people and 350 squatter settlements, Wajahat challenged the pervasive idea in international development organizations that tenure security is fundamentally dependent on property rights.  This theory assumes that there is no incentive for home improvement and thus, no home improvement will occur, without granting tenants official property rights.

This is not the case in Lahore.  Wajahat found that tenure security is more dependent on the perception of security, regardless of legal tenure status.  If tenants feel secure in their community, they will invest in it.   This perception of security can come from many sources- national identification cards, getting mail, census recognition, presence of an identifiable community leader, access to basic services like electricity, water, and gas, opportunities or employment, education, and health care, and anything else that contributes to the perception of permanence.  In the community with which Wajahat was working, most people thought a legal title to their land to be of little importance and too expensive to pursue.  Nevertheless, these people are investing in their homes.  Permanent structures continue to grow, even when titles are unobtainable. 

Wajahat recommends a more flexible system of tenure recognition that would avoid the bureaucratic hurdles and wasted money involved with the titling process.  The state must also realize its limitations.  In areas of very rapid and unplanned population growth, it would be enormously expensive for both government and tenants to undertake a project in which all developing land was parceled and titled.  Though the issuance of property titles is a very definable and concrete way to provide a community with tenure security, it is not the only way.

Access to quality health care, mentioned as one way to work towards greater tenure security, was the focus of Lesli Hoey’s research.  Hoey, of Cornell University, points out a seemingly counterintuitive rural bias that exists in health care distribution programs in developing countries.  Researching the Bolivian Zero Malnutrition Program, Hoey discovered that there is a higher concentration of malnutrition in urban areas than in rural ones.  She claims that officials in charge of food distribution programs often make a false assumption that the urban population is generally healthier.  Due to this assumption, funds end up allocated inequitably to the rural poor.

Hoey cites several reasons for the rural bias.  In urban areas, there is generally a mix of healthcare providers.  The large numbers of private providers, NGOs, federally-funded hospitals, and other various clinics may seem on the surface to be providing robust care, but, in reality, are too uncoordinated to provide adequate services.  Some services are redundant, others completely absent.  This disjointed reality means that urban dwellers may not know where to go to receive health care or may not benefit from specific initiatives, such as the Zero Malnutrition Program. 

Rural areas, on the other hand, often have a single health care distributor, which ensures that specific programs know where to focus their attention and local residents know where to go to benefit from these programs.  This simplified system is more efficient and can take better advantage of assistance provided by both governmental and nongovernmental initiatives. 

To solve the problem of urban healthcare distribution in cities throughout developing world, Hoey says that it is first important to recognize the rural bias that has cropped up in many countries’ systems.  National programs must not think of and treat the in-need population as homogeneously distributed throughout the country.  Urban areas pose unique challenges- transient populations, uncoordinated distribution systems, and a lack of sufficient education.  In order to take best address national health problems, it is necessary to find a better way to get to the people in urban areas.

Many of these same issues play into urban food insecurity, as Daniel Warshawsky of the University of Southern California, discussed in his presentation.  Warshawsky looked at the food insecurity in Johannesburg, South Africa as an example of the broader food scarcity in many areas of the global South.  By searching for what kind of institutions are involved in food security in Johannesburg, it became apparent that a major obstacle to providing growing populations with food security is the extreme lack of coordination among many programs.  There are many state programs in the form of social grants, school food programs, and food price controls, but no organization to provide oversight and coordination.

Because there are so many operating food programs, a lot of money ends up having very little impact.  There is no policy in place to bring disparate programs together.  The institutions already in place are ineffective due to inefficient processes to distribute money and a lack of personnel to take care of technical necessities like grant-writing.  Furthermore, many of the food programs currently in place have been initiated through the efforts of out-of-touch corporations.  In South Africa, this means big agribusiness.  Though these large corporations may have the means and intention to help, they are disconnected from on-the-ground realities.  Imposing agribusiness principles on small-scale food distribution has proved to be ineffective in improving food security.  Despite high activity of other civil society groups in South Africa, Warshawsky found no unified food movement.  In order to address the problem, he calls for more research into a more centrally-controlled and transparent food security system. 

These talks by a “new generation” of urban thinkers underscore the idea that urban policy must be flexible enough to keep up with the ever-mutating shapes of the urban community.  The form of the city changes quickly- too quickly for old ways of bureaucratic documentation and authorization to keep up.  Though no single organization can handle the major issues of keeping the urban population safe and healthy, it is absolutely necessary to keep the programs informed and coordinated, so that they can evolve with their urban populations.


As "The Rise of the Megacity"

As "The Rise of the Megacity" continues, such approaches as stated above will be needed to maximize the potential within each place, and enhance the experience of the city that spurs such movement in the first place.


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