Museologia Social e Urbanismo XIII

  1. Cities as sites for poverty and poverty alleviation

Lecturer: William Cobbett, Director, Cities Alliance, Brussels.

Discussion prompts:

  1. How can cities be made the beacons for global poverty reduction?

I’m William Cobbett, better known as Billy to my friends and colleagues and I’m the Director of the Cities Alliance which is a global organisation based in Brussels, Belgium. I do not like the concept of urban poverty because you can’t divide the human challenge and the global challenge. So for me the real challenge is what’s the best way of reducing poverty and do not reduce it to a spatial form. No one talks about urban human rights and rural human rights and so I would make the same analogy. [1]

And so if we frame that the global challenge in the following way, “Can we achieve sustainable economic growth to lift the whole world’s population out of poverty?” and “Can we do this in an environmentally sustainable fashion?” Given that the majority of the world’s population will be living in cities, however you define the cities, however small, however large they are. Focusing on the efficiency of cities and what contribution, positive and negative, they make to economic growth, to resilience and climate change becomes not an urban issue but the central developmental challenge of our time because we’re talking about fixing the problem where the population of the world lives. The threat that arises from urban poverty is from the wrong policy response, for if you start off by trying to constrain cities, prevent urbanisation and not recognise the impetus that drives poor people to come to cities and you see that as a problem rather than an energy that needs to be harnessed and captured, that’s our first and our biggest problem.

Look at the budget, watch the practices, see where the poor are, see how administrations treat the poor and then you’ll come to certain conclusions and this is not ‘a developing world’ phenomenon so-called. I would say this is true in Europe, I would say it’s true in North America and I would say clearly true in Africa and Asia, elsewhere. So the first narrative that we need to change, is not about urban and rural but it’s the policy response to the economic, social and other opportunities that urbanisation and that the transformation which is revolutionary. The vast majority of city growth in the world today is informal. It also, and this is the point that city Mayors and Managers don’t think about, but again the consequences are as certain as as anything is that we create parallel markets in the same city. So we end up with parallel land markets, we end up with parallel water markets, sanitation. Per litre or per square meter the poor will pay more for the same service in the same city than the rich do.

It’s a global phenomenon. It’s a necessary consequence and it’s one of the first tangible costs that is paid by the urban poor or the urbanising poor which would be more accurate as describing them. The cost is borne by them as a direct consequence of the failure of either the public authority to have the capacity to provide the services which they should, or in fact the desire to provide their services. So many governments choose to ignore the populations and provide no services thinking that it will discourage settlement. It does nothing of the sort, it just guarantees the slump and it guarantees that already poor people who live in worse conditions, it also guarantees the inefficiency of that city.

So if I convince the Mayor that he or she should change their policies – What would be the starting point? And the starting point that I would almost always propose would be to look at the land markets: the availability, the location and the accessibility of land, land for settlement, land for recreation and land for economic opportunity is in our experience the single biggest bottleneck in most cities in the world. Land markets, if they’ve been not looked at for often a century, out-of-date planning legislation, captured by elites; The consequence of those and a range of other features is that the existing poor and the urbanising poor end up in the worst land. You look at all the transport arteries: canals, rivers, railways, roads; on the edge of all of those arteries you will find the poor. In the absence of the provision of land, the poor must go where they can.

Why do they move to cities in the first place? It’s not because you’re sitting at home in a field and thinking I really want to go and move to a slum. It’s- people move because they make rational decisions and they look at where they are, wherever it may be, it might be they might move for reasons of conflict and drought and poverty (rural type) but whatever the cause is, they must take a rational decision which says I think my chances are better there than here.

That’s what drives the urbanisation – is the human desire to improve your life and if not my life at least let me give my children a better chance and they will know full well the risks that come with that: the risks of exclusion, of no access to land, no access to services.

The very typical way in which this kind of urbanisation takes places is, one member of the family sent ahead to go and create a base and to scout it out and then over a period of time and maybe even over a decade or two, other members of the family. That’s how people change countries and it’s how they move from one part of the region, the province or the country to another and this is the migration phenomenon.

It was best articulated in the World Bank’s World Development Report in 2009 and this is, I’m summarising my interpretation of the conclusions that if, as I’ve said the challenges to reduce poverty wherever it’s found, ignore the space then History teaches us that only urban areas have got the carrying capacity to lift both rural and urban poverty, at a national level.[2]

The poster quote from that World Bank report is that ‘No country in history has ever reached middle-income status without urbanising and industrialising.’ There are a number of obstacles to getting that forward. Let me highlight two: cities aren’t empowered, they’re not given either the authority, or the resources to do what is necessarily what city administrations should be doing and they are very often treated as little more than an administrative arms of a higher tier of government. And so Challenge No. 1 very often is getting that framework which is got fiscal, it’s got legal it’s got the whole administrative features but getting local governments appropriately empowered is often obstacle number one. If I was to summarise what’s the solution to this, amongst of the particular problem I am talking about, it would be in answering the question what do we need to do to make local government the first career choice of professionals that are being trained right now. And if we start from that assumption that we actually want to get our country’s brightest and best to go into city administration and run cities, then we’ll be asking the right question.

The 2nd and in fact in many ways the more pressing Challenge as to why we don’t make progress in many of our cities is an absolute lack of data; which is that most Mayors don’t have the necessary information that they need to properly understand the needs of their citizens, to understand the potential and the desires of their citizens and to plan accordingly.

You don’t need to get a consultant in to come into a city vision. The best people to create what kind of city we want is the residents themselves, but they will need the hard information about who’s got services, what’s the strength of our economy, what’s the weakness of our economy, what’s the role of the informal sector in our economy, and within that and on the land markets what is the role played and allocated to women. [3]I think the period since 1996 which was Habitat II – Istanbul and Quito for Habitat III, so I don’t want to measure progress by United Nations General Assembly meetings but it’s very useful frame because I think those of us who have been involved with urban and city issues see huge changes now, beginning to take place and let me give you at least one example from each continent. So starting on the east in Latin America and the Caribbean the standout player is of course Brazil.

Latin America has democratised in the last three decades and most urbanisation happened under very repressive governments often military dictatorships. So there was no recognition of the rights of the poor to those cities, nothing was provided therefore they self-provided and it was social movements in the 1980s fighting for the ‘Right to the City’ that led and made a huge contribution to the political transformation of Brazil; changes to the Constitution recognising the Right to the City and legislation empowering the Right to the City. So we’ve also seen the biggest investment program in the history of Latin America called ‘Pak’ but in English that translates as the Accelerated Growth Program, a set of public investments designed to transform the Brazilian economy and a huge part of that has been funds allocated to retrofitting Brazilian cities and putting in the services and doing the slum upgrading. Sao Paulo, the city Sao Paulo made very significant changes, it stopped in the early 2000s. It stopped it’s all – star process of solving “slum problems” with court orders and evictions and rather understood the slums, put them into different categories and negotiated case-by-case resolutions to the slum problems.

I don’t advertise it as the solution to all problems but in terms of concerted behaviour over the last 15 years, the Brazilian government has made extraordinary progress.

My African example, there’s many, many more good new stories in Africa than people imagine. I think the country that is making quicker progress than almost any other is Ethiopia. It’s now Africa’s, I think, fastest growing economy and we now have a very significant focus on not only Addis (Ababa) which is the capital but the next generation, the next tier of local governments or cities (the secondary cities) and so on a number of fronts for example, we’ve seen a program of building roads in the most labour-intensive manner possible of taking granite rocks, breaking them down, putting them into pebble stones and building roads. I’m not talking about 1 or 2 kilometres, I’m talking about thousands of kilometres but they are encouraged to save while they are employed and then they are helped out of the system, so it’s a cycle of economic opportunity and employment generation – employing tens of thousands of Ethiopians. So the framework that has been in Ethiopia at the moment is to calculate what the population of a given city will be in the year 2040, how much space will you require to house such a population, move the boundary now to accommodate and reserve that land and bring it under a single jurisdiction, and most critically is take certain decisions now about reserving land for the provision of bulk services later.

So even though you don’t dig any trenches and you don’t put any pipes in the land is reserved and you’re planning for future economic growth, economic and population growth. Very few countries if any, have done this.

And then if we go to Asia, I really wanted to point to the government of Vietnam. If we go back only 12 or 14 years ago, it was not in favour of urban upgrading, of what we would call in-situ urban upgrading, and with some judicious investment and the trying of upgrading policies in different cities that moved to, in the last 15 years that has gone from being pilot projects, it’s now national policy that you have a national urban upgrading program across all cities in Vietnam. And in fact they may actually miss the worst of the slum step in the economic transformation of their country. There’s a Vietnam Urban Forum (national) which is normally chaired by the Minister of Construction, but at the city level you have urban fora with local authorities, residents’ organisations and in this the role played by for example ACVN which is the Association of the Vietnamese Cities, the local authorities – it’s been instrumental. They’ve played a hugely constructive role in the transformation and Vietnam is now one of the fastest urbanising and the fastest transforming economies in Asia.

So, for all of the negative examples that they are to be found, there are also very positive and encouraging examples in all regions. What gives me most hope of all is that we finally, after announcing it year after year, or praying for it year after year, we finally see the International Development Community beginning to put cities onto their agenda.

Yes, they are late but no one, we don’t need to be clever about that. I think if we can combine the resources and the experience from all over the world, with new policies at the local and national level we’ve got half a chance of avoiding the worst mistakes that we’ve seen in some of the cities in the world.


[2] RIght of de city

[3] Habitat I Vancover – 1976 , Habitat II – Instambul – 1996,  Habitat III Quito – 2016 


Sobre Pedro Pereira Leite

Cátedra UNESCO - Educação, Cidadania e Diversidade Cultural - Lisboa ULHT Investigador do Centro de Estudos Sociais da Universidade de Coimbra onde desenvolve o projeto de investigação "Heranças Globais: a inclusão dos saberes das comunidades como instrumento de desenvolvimento integrado dos território".(2012-2107) . O projeto tem como objetivo observar a relevâncias no uso da memória social em quatro territórios ligados por processos sociais comuns. A investigação desenvolve-se em Portugal e Espanha, na zona da Fronteira; em Moçambique e no Brasil. (FCT:SHRH/BPD/76601/2011). É diretor de Casa Muss-amb-iki - espaço de Memórias. Intervém no âmbito de pesquisa de redes sociais de memoria.
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