Increasing urban populations put a strain on resources and leave many on the fringes of society. What can NGOs do to give them a voice?
More people now live in cities than in rural areas around the world, and that number is climbing. Today 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, but by 2050 the urban population is expected to rise to 62% in Africa, to 65% in Asia, and to 90% in Latin America.
While rates vary from continent to continent, the causes of rural to urban migration are pretty much the same across the world: people believe there’s the chance of a better life in the city. “People come [to the city] to find economic opportunity, modern amenities, access to education and to make a shift from working in agriculture to working in the service industry,” says Shirish Singh, head of Practical Action’s urban water, sanitation and waste programme in south Asia.
Climate change is another factor, while in Latin America – the most urbanised continent in the world, with 80% of the population living in cities – the growing industrialisation of farming means that rural communities have been driven off their land and into the cities, where one in fourlive in slums. In fact slums around the world are swelling rapidly. The number of slum-dwellers reached 863 million in 2014 – an increase of more than 200m since 1990.
The result is ever more competition for space, jobs, water and energy: “There’s traffic and water pollution, poor sanitation and even the buildings don’t have efficient designs,” says Singh. “Another problem is waste management.”
A new set of challenges
So how can NGOs unpick all the different sub-trends of urbanisation? Public policy lags behind urbanisation, which often means that basic services, like schools, transportation, public spaces and land rights, are not delivered to the millions of people living in informal urban settlements. Slum-dwellers don’t get a say in the urban planning process either.
Urbanisation also poses a challenge for disaster-resilience. “NGOs really need think about how they will address humanitarian crises in urban centres as they’re so much more complex than some of the rural areas we’re familiar with,” says Alan Brouder, Oxfam’s urban adviser. “Natural and man-made disasters [including health epidemics like Ebola] require a fundamental understanding of the urban dynamic that I don’t think NGOs have really come to terms with yet.”
Starting the conversation
“I think NGOs are beginning to find a niche for ourselves in facilitating conversations that haven’t happened,” says Brouder. He says the best way to do this is through mobilisation; helping people who live in informal settlements to articulate their concerns to people in power. “In Nairobi [where 2.5 million people live in informality] we’ve mobilised 20,000 women who work in markets and 10,000 domestic workers to make sure their rights are protected,” says Brouder. “There’ll be different strategies depending on the sector; in some cases the strategy might be to lobby the government to ratify an international convention on the rights of domestic workers, whereas with the market traders their primary issue might be the security of land tenure, or access to water and sanitation, or securing loans for business.”
Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) focuses on giving voice to those living in informal settlements, linking up urban poor communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The idea is for slum dwellers to share knowledge and expertise so that they are not excluded from economic and political structures in their cities.
In Nepal, Practical Action have been trying to bring the informal communities into the country’s 14-step, bottom-to-top planning process. “Our main area of focus is to engage them in the urban planning process, and to get their needs addressed by the government,” says Singh.
In Latin America housing nonprofit Techo aims to get dialogue going, involving organisations like UN-Habitat and Habitat for Humanity with town hall and ministry representatives, slum leaders and the nonprofit’s own volunteers. The organisation also provides slum-upgrading programmes to provide access to electricity, water and sanitation. One such project in La Lima, Honduras to install solar panels on houses enabled communities to organise regular assemblies – usually at night – to discuss how to upgrade their basic amenities.
Disaster resilience is a growing concern
The Ebola outbreak in west Africa has had a huge impact on Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and Monrovia in Liberia. Typhoon Haiyan devastated Tacloban in the Philippines, and the four-year old Syrian conflict has brought millions of refugees to urban centres in Jordan and Lebanon, and NGOs have had to expand their focus from the refugee camps and adapt to the very different challenges in the cities. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) works in a number of host countries, including Jordan and Lebanon, providing reproductive health care, counselling and cash assistance to refugees, among other services. Mercy Corps helps refugees and host communities work together to mitigate tensions and find solutions to the various problems arising from limited resources.
In terms of preparing cities to be as disaster-resilient as possible, the UN’s office for disaster risk reduction launched its Making Cities Resilient campaign in 2010, urging local governments to raise disaster resilience awareness among citizens, invest in risk-reduction activities, and build more safely. To date, 2,517 cities have signed up to the campaign and pledged to work towards disaster resilience, the vast majority of them in the global south.
Singh believes that instead of discouraging urbanisation, “economic opportunities and modern amenities should be promoted in rural areas. Once such opportunities and facilities are available there, urbanisation will be minimised”.
Juan Pablo Duhalde, director of Techo’s Centre of Social Investigation agrees: “We must overcome the dichotomy between the urban and rural. Living in one is not better than the other. The focus should be the cohesion of all those living in a territory, based on respect and shared values.”
Supporting city institutions
There’s no inevitable consequence of urbanisation that is either positive or negative. “It all depends on institutions, governance, planning and coordination – it’s all politics,” says Brouder. Without sugar-coating the challenges ahead, he sees evidence of progression on an administrative level. “The development of new networks of city leaders and municipal authorities is important,” says Brouder. “They’re not international networks but they’re relationships between mayors, judiciaries, legislators or city authorities across different countries. These transnational networks have been really dynamic in the last few years on a whole range of subjects, so there are definitely positive signs ahead.”
This article first appeared on the Guardian on 26 March 2015.