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Breaking the Cycle of Urban Poverty

In Jakarta, Indonesia, a program to convert sediment from gutters into bricks is transforming a public health hazard into a resource that fills a social purpose while generating income for the community. By Stephen Dale

Millions of people around the world live in informal urban communities where a lack of resources leads to degradation of the environment. Deteriorating environmental conditions, in turn, create more poverty.

When participants from IDRC's eight "Focus Cities" met to compare notes, they mapped out ways in which small practical gains could start to reverse that cycle — providing incomes for individuals and families while helping to create cleaner, healthier neighbourhoods.

It’s a story that is replayed so frequently, in so many different locations across the globe that it has become almost an archetypal image of life in the developing world.

Facing diminished economic prospects, rural people move to the city in search of new opportunities. But once there, they are at risk of becoming trapped in a downward cycle. Living in poverty — without access to proper sanitation, clean water, or garbage collection — means the marginal lands they occupy may become unhealthy living environments. These worsening environmental conditions, in turn, damage residents’ health and entrench the stigma and isolation of living in informal settlements, making it all the more difficult to escape from poverty.


“We’re trying to break that cycle,” declared Naser Faruqui, former leader of IDRC’s Urban Poverty and Environment program, speaking at the inaugural “Learning Forum” that brought together the far-flung participants in IDRC’s Focus Cities Research Initiative.

Team members from eight focus cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America spent five days in Ottawa mapping strategies, setting benchmarks for progress, and examining how the similarities and differences among those eight urban landscapes (Cochabamba, Bolivia; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Dakar, Senegal; Jakarta, Indonesia; Kampala, Uganda; Lima, Peru; Moreno, Argentina; and Soukra, Tunisia) create potential to craft new responses to urban poverty and environmental decay. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to produce some new, practical models for achieving social and environmental progress — models that could be replicated in the neighbourhoods of other developing-world metropolises facing similar challenges.

An oft-repeated theme at the learning forum was the need to stay focused on tangible gains. As Faruqui told the assembled teams, “In every case, you are working toward real outcomes.”


In Dakar, Senegal, he elaborated, this means “trying to ensure that a waste picker on the Mbeubeuss landfill site can make a living by recycling materials in a healthier way,” The Kampala, Uganda team is “exploring how to ensure a widow can feed her family through urban gardening or through rental income, because her home is no longer flooded [when rains inundate the low-lying areas where poor neighbourhoods are often built].” This same practical orientation is expressed in the Colombo, Sri Lanka project through work on new ways of “preventing wastewater from overflowing and contaminating the neighbourhood.” (More details from a selection of Focus City projects are contained in the link below, “Voices from the Focus Cities.”)

By building consensus around such practical goals, the Focus Cities teams hope to encourage positive momentum in circumstances where the combined burdens of poverty, deteriorating physical conditions, and lack of political voice have often seemed too entrenched and too onerous to overcome.


As keynote speaker David Satterthwaite told participants at the forum, the world has, to a large extent, turned its back on the urban poor, even as developing countries have seen poverty become increasingly concentrated in urban areas. Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow in human settlements at the UK’s International Institute for Environment and Development, based in London, painted a bleak statistical portrait of the prospects faced by the estimated 750 million to 1.1 billion urban-dwellers worldwide whose incomes are inadequate to fund their basic needs. (Click on link below to listen to an interview with David Satterthwaite)

Of that group, more than 680 million have insufficient access to clean water and more than 800 million lack proper sanitation. Infant mortality rates in urban areas in a number of countries run as high as a staggering 1 in 10. Satterthwaite points out, however, that this number is sure to be higher in poor settlements, since these composite urban figures also include affluent neighbourhoods where infant mortality rates are lower.

Another stark indicator of the difficult conditions in urban areas is female life expectancy at birth, a statistical benchmark that is higher than male life expectancy, which in cities in many countries ranges between 40 and 50 years. Again, Satterthwaite observes that figures that include wealthy and middle-class neighbourhoods mask the true situation in informal communities, where life expectancy can be assumed to be much lower.


Why haven’t the disastrous conditions afflicting millions of urban dwellers prompted a stronger international response? Satterthwaite believes one reason is that official poverty statistics — often based on a single indicator like the price of a basic food basket — have drastically understated the extent of urban poverty in many countries. These official poverty lines, he says, “are not based on the income you need to pay for rent, for water, for sanitation, for keeping your kids at school, and for healthcare.”

Dindo Campilan, a New Delhi-based researcher working for the International Potato Center, agrees that any plan to combat urban poverty must address the full array of needs that exist in informal settlements.

“In rural areas, you can grow your own food, and probably you can access water, but the urban poor have fewer assets,” says Campilan, a rural agricultural and evaluation specialist, now collaborating on the Focus Cities Initiative. “A household in this new urban context is in most cases a few square metres of dwelling that’s completely disconnected from all the urban environmental and social services.” (Click on link below to listen to an interview with Dindo Campilan)

The good news, says Satterthwaite, is that community groups around the world are rising to these challenges — often “doing outstanding work” despite minuscule budgets. He cites a homeless women’s group in Harare, Zimbabwe, that parlayed an $18 000 loan into homes for 300 households; a resource centre in Karachi, Pakistan, uses its $4 000 annual budget to teach people how to build homes and design drainage systems.


A persistent problem — one that provides another explanation for the international community’s inability to adequately address urban poverty — is that few urban-based citizens’ organizations are eligible for funding from international donors. This is partly because the existing international development “funding architecture” is based almost exclusively on the links between donors and national level recipients. In addition, many of the most energetic and innovative urban organizations cannot fulfill administrative requirements such as filling out forms in the donor’s language.

The Focus Cities Initiative, by contrast, aims to include community groups as full partners in implementing solutions in underserved, impoverished neighbourhoods. A prerequisite to becoming a Focus City was that a process of productive dialogue already be in place between the municipal government and local organizations, and that elected officials be involved in and committed to the project. Having allies in government — and by extension, a political voice — is seen as a pivotal asset for marginal communities that, more commonly, are subject to neglect (and sometimes open persecution) by local authorities.

Gaining even basic entitlements requires that informal communities not be viewed as illegal or illegitimate, says Dindo Campilan. “Not having legal entitlement to be in the dwelling you occupy creates a domino effect,” he explains, “because it means you have no formal right to access water, electricity, sanitation or social services.”

On the other hand, entering into a civic dialogue can tap into a wellspring of initiative. In some Focus City communities, this has been expressed in the way that community members have been able to transform yesterday’s environmental burdens into today’s economic resources. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, for example, women have made and sold beautiful handcrafted stationery using the wastepaper that once clogged their community’s streets. Meanwhile, in Jakarta, Indonesia, a program to convert sediment from gutters into bricks is transforming a public health hazard into a resource that fills a social purpose while generating income for the community.

“What is most important in my community,” David, a waste picker from Cochabamba told the forum, “is to participate in something that will help us provide for our families.”

Vivien Chiam | ResearchSEA
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