Global Policy Forum

Rethinking Urban Poverty


Research by the International Institute for Environment and Development highlights the limited impact of efforts addressing urban poverty due to its poor definition by the international community.  Currently, poverty is defined in terms of income, such as the US$1 per day poverty line, or in terms of nutrition. Urban poverty affects 1 in 7 and crude definitions do not permit differentiating between the urban poor with and without access to public amenities, essential for development. Also important is the need for recognizing this population as citizens rather than target groups for government policy.


December 17, 2012

Efforts to end urban poverty are failing because policymakers at aid agencies and in governments do not always understand it, asserts a new book by experts from the International Institute for Environment and Development.

Drawing on 20 years of research, Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature documents how the scale and depth of urban poverty in Africa, and much of Asia and Latin America, is greatly underestimated due to “inappropriate” definitions and measurements.

“The use of inappropriate poverty definitions that understate and misrepresent urban poverty helps explain why so little attention has been given to urban poverty reduction by aid agencies and development banks,” say the book’s authors.

Redrawing poverty lines

One of every seven people on earth lives in urban poverty; many of them reside in overcrowded informal settlements with inadequate water, sanitation, healthcare and social amenities.

But simplistic income-based and nutrition-based poverty lines - including the widely used US$1 per day poverty line - yield a poor understanding of this issue, according to authors Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite

“If we are to use a monetary measure for defining and measuring whose income or consumption is insufficient… this measure has to reflect the cost of food and of non-food needs,” Mitlin told IRIN via email.

The authors also criticize the emphasis on “income poverty”.

“A focus only on income poverty can mean that a low-income household with a secure home with good quality provision for water, sanitation and drainage and with their children at school and access to health care is considered just as poor as a low-income household with none of these,” they write in a book summary.

Dialogue needed

“Almost all official measurements of urban poverty are also made with no dialogue with those who live in poverty and who struggle to live with inadequate incomes,” the summary states.

“It is always experts’ judgment that identifies those who are ‘poor’ who may then ‘targeted’ by some program; at best, they become ‘objects’ of government policy, which may bring some improvement in conditions, but they are rarely seen as citizens with rights and legitimate demands who also have resources and capabilities that can contribute much to more effective poverty reduction programs.”


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