The Urban Guru Website

LDCs need sustainable urbanisation policies

01/09/2004 00:00

Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are the Least Urbanized Countries (LUCs). UN-HABITAT’s State of the World’s Cities Report 2001 clearly established the strong and positive correlation between urbanisation and the level of economic and social development. The poorest countries are generally the least urbanised, the richest usually the most urbanised. There are very few exceptions to this universal rule (see graph). In the year 2002, LDCs had an average GDP per capita of PPP-USD 1,307 and an urbanization rate of 26.1 per cent. Other developing countries had a GDP per capita of PPPUSD 4,474 and an urbanisation rate of 43.9 per cent. The developed countries had a GDP per capita of PPP-USD 29,000 and an urbanisation rate of 77.3 per cent.

Aware of this correlation, why are governments and international agencies trying to reduce rural-to-urban migrations? Why are journalists, NGOs and charity groups so concerned at the growth of urban populations in Africa and Asia? Why are cities still seen as a danger or an obstacle to human development? Why are the pre-industrial views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on rural harmony prevalent in so many development forum which deal with Sub-Saharan Africa? 


Of course, we know. Urban development has been quite chaotic during the last 40 years and many developing cities suffer from unemployment, environmental degradation, lack of basic services, social exclusion, crime and the proliferation of slums. Therefore urbanisation has a bad image because all these problems seem to result automatically from rapid urban growth. Combating urban growth would then alleviate the problems: this appears to make sense. But it is wrong. The solution lies rather in better urban policies, better urban governance, and better integration of new populations in the urban economy. A good urban policy can be designed, implemented and made effective in any city, irrespective of its size and rate of growth, provided sufficient political, managerial and technical capacities are available. There are indeed many cases of well-managed mega-cities and poorly managed small towns around the world. There are also some cases of urban growth without economic development, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The real challenge is to combine local capacity-building and urban policy reforms in order to guide and efficiently manage the urbanisation process and to turn urban risks into urban opportunities.  Examples of cities which have been able to address this challenge successfully abound in countries as different as China, Thailand, Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa, Colombia or Brazil.  On the other hand, very few developing countries have been able to reduce rural-to-urban  migration through deliberate policies. This is very understandable as people migrate to cities in search of better employment opportunities and they often find those opportunities by creating their own jobs.  These jobs may be insecure, informal and exploitative, but they are more attractive than the prospect of fighting for survival on a minuscule piece of land in overcrowded rural areas.  Bad luck for J.J. Rousseau. The romantic village under the palm-trees on the bend of the river belongs either to the colonial ideology or to the leaflets of international tour operators. It is an appealing but obsolete myth. 

What has to be done now is to help Least Urbanized Countries manage their on-going and unstoppable urbanization processes and make full use of cities as engines of development. Many years have been lost because of the anti-urban bias of both governments trying to favour their rural constituencies and international agencies trying to keep people in the countryside in the hope of achieving food security. It is time to move from myth to reality and to give due priority to the urbanisation requirements of LUCs. This is the best way to increase their chances of meeting the Millennium Development Goals and to break the vicious circle of low urbanisation - low economic development. Providing more resources to support the sustainable urbanisation of LUCs will have a positive impact on rural development. Well-functioning cities - with adequate infrastructure and dynamic land markets – can easily absorb excess rural population. Because of the highest productivity of urban labour, they can support the expansion of national infrastructure through fiscal redistribution. And larger cities provide larger markets for agricultural products.  Improving agricultural productivity and promoting sustainable urbanization are in fact the two sides of the same coin, the two legs of sustainable development.  Rapid urbanisation can be managed for the benefit of both the rural and urban poor, it can bring about the much needed increase in human development in LDCs-LUCs. Political will and progressive strategies can make a difference and open a virtuous circle towards sustainable development.