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Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30


David Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow, IIED

Rachel Slater, Research Fellow, ODI

Camilla Toulmin, Director, IIED

Simon Maxwell introduced the series, which is a joint initiative between IDS, IIED and ODI, commenting that he hoped it would not only help the three institutions to learn from one other, but also help with wider knowledge-sharing, through a series of forward-looking discussions about the big challenges in development in the years to come.

Camilla Toulmin, chairing the first meeting in the series, then introduced the speaker, David Satterthwaite.

David Satterthwaite began by listing a number of statements of concern about urbanisation in the South, referring to an "urban population explosion" in "mega cities" with terrible environmental and health problems. He said that these statements shared two characteristics:

  • they all came from official reports of major development organisations

  • they were all wrong.

It is true, he said, that the world's population is increasingly urban, in low- and middle-income countries, and that these trends will continue, underpinned by two broad economic trends - industry and services now provide most of the world's GDP (since the 1940s) and economically active population (since the 1980s).

He said that while this is generally seen as a problem for development, in terms of poverty, health and environmental problems particularly, there are also:

  • strong associations between increasing urbanisation and rising per capita income

  • environmental advantages in urban areas linked to the economies of scale in providing services and infrastructure

  • advantages in ease of citizen mobilisation and proximity to authorities

He said that urbanisation is primarily driven by economic growth; in other words, by concentrations of profit-seeking enterprises in urban areas. These arise because of the advantages such areas provide in access to markets, labour, information, infrastructure, services, government. Other factors include:

  • the concentration of valued services and opportunities - notably education and government jobs

  • push factors from rural areas - economic, social or political change (including disasters and civil strife)

He presented evidence to show that the speed of growth of the world's urban population has accelerated over the last 100 years, and particularly dramatically since the early 1940s - not just in the South, but in the USA also.

However, he felt that there remain few true generalisations, and great diversity between countries in the scale, growth and distribution between centres of urban populations.

In particular he noted that many "mega cities" are seeing more emigration than immigration, e.g. Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Calcutta, Seoul - and only 4% of the world's population live in such cities (defined as having a population greater than 10 million).

He said that in fact many urban statistics are of doubtful accuracy. Firstly, international and inter-city comparisons are often misleading because of different criteria used to define city boundaries:

  • if India adopted Sweden's definition of 'urban', it would be predominantly urban

  • most major cities have several official sizes, depending on which boundary criterion is used

  • in general, urban populations are under-estimated more than over-estimated

On urban poverty, few poverty lines take account of the high cost and essential nature of non-food items, and thus the international $1-a-day poverty line makes little sense in rural areas. (But this does not mean that rural poverty is not severe or important.)

He summarised "what we know about urban change" as:

  • The wealthiest nations and fastest growing economies are the most urbanized

  • The growing importance of industry and services in GDP and in employment in all growing economies

  • Political independence often brings a major 'urban boost' as colonial settlement controls are removed, but this influence diminishes over time

  • It is fairly clear that higher per capita GNI is associated with higher urbanisation (despite the limitations of the statistics), and that half of the world's cities are in the world's top 10 economies

Satterthwaite stressed that urban change is always shaped by local factors and cannot be understood without a good knowledge of these. In Pakistan for example, the partition of colonial India, the independence of Bangladesh, the green revolution, the Afghan civil war and most recently the influx of Chinese manufactured imports have all been major influences on urbanisation and its political economy.

Urbanisation is not, in itself, a problem - neither in economic, environmental or poverty terms, nor in relation to rural areas. What is crucial is how urban change and urban areas are managed and governed, and how societies adapt to it.

He concluded by presenting IIED's research on urban issues, highlighting in particular:

  • Rural-urban linkages - it is vital to look at rural and urban issues in tandem

  • The 'local' dimensions of urban poverty reduction and the institutional means to support grassroots-driven initiatives to reduce urban poverty

  • The journal "Environment and Urbanisation" - this provides a forum for grassroots practioners of urban development in the South to report on their work and push the policy agenda

Rachel Slater opened her response by stating that she wouldn't critique this excellent map of urbanisation past, present and future, but rather look forward to the big policy challenges that may come in the future.

The first of these she noted was overcoming the rural-urban dichotomy, which she felt was vital and long overdue. Research at ODI confirms the close links between rural and urban livelihoods. Policies need to plan for mobile populations too.

Looking at factors that push people from rural to urban areas, she noted work by the Chronic Poverty Research Centre which found that:

  • Poor urban dwellers are very vulnerable to macro-economic changes/downturns

  • Inequality is a big problem

  • Informal work may offer escape from poverty where there are high concentrations of informal workers, but elsewhere it may act as a trap

Policy implications of this will relate to:

  • Managing the structure and type of labour opportunities

  • Reducing risk

Looking at specific sectors, she said that ODI work on water had shown that there were questions about supply-side approaches, the constraints of community-based approaches and the appropriate mix of public and private action.

On food, she noted that in Asia new urban diets are driving new health challenges in the form of a rise in non-communicable diseases (diabetes, heart conditions, etc), alongside continuing high rates of communicable diseases (e.g. typhoid). This change is not so pronounced in Africa.

Other useful areas suggested for additional research were:

  • what causes the growth of primate cities?

  • what we can learn from the historical experience of the North?

  • what do we know about how small towns can become engines of poverty reduction?

Final big questions she highlighted were:

  • Do we understand the politics or political economy of urbanisation well enough? (E.g. Why do some African governments, such as that in Ethiopia, seem very wary of urbanisation, and why do donors still not understand how closely linked rural and urban areas are?)

  • Does improved well-being for the urban poor require greater urban investment, or rural investment? The challenge is how to create real policy and investment synergies between the two areas.


Points covered in a lengthy discussion included:

  • The importance of looking at rural and urban areas in relation to each other, without losing sight of their differences.

  • The role of rural areas as safety nets: in Indonesia following the late 1990s crisis, they played an important role, but this would not be possible everywhere or for everyone - it would depend on the strength of agriculture, and whether people had, e.g. been pushed into towns to escape social discrimination in rural areas.

  • The shifts in politics and voting patterns associated with urbanisation: in Brazil, Lula's delivery for sections of the urban poor helped contribute to his re-election, however many African countries appear wary of urbanisation, perhaps because of political fears about concentrating low-income populations near to government, or because they have an ideological attachment to promoting a peasant development model, that rural dwellers may not actually want. South Africa is an interestingly different case, which is much more open to urbanisation.

  • The relationship between agricultural development and urbanisation: increases in the added-value of agricultural production with relatively equitable landholding could drive prosperous local urban centres, whereas plantation or unequal rural economies tended to do little positive to boost urbanisation

  • The role of decentralisation and municipal government: sometimes accountable and champion of the poor (e.g. some parts of Zimbabwe recently) but at other times not, and also questions about the financial burden of it for poor people (potential parallel with some rural areas).

  • An urban employment policy for the next 20 years: both presenters agreed that this was one of the big questions unanswered by research so far.

  • Investment in water and sanitation: debate over the merits of top-down vs locally-run provision, what works for what aspects of urban infrastructure, and sources of finance - private sector, local public, World Bank as a potential lender to municipal authorities, etc.


The opening meeting of the 'Development Horizons: Future Directions for Research and Policy' series was led by IIED and covered the topic of Urbanisation.