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Urban poor and hungry burgeoning unnoticed

One of Africa’s biggest slums, Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya, 26 May 2007.
(Julius Mwelu/IRIN)

The number of poor and food-insecure people in developing countries is increasing more quickly in urban areas than in rural areas, and could be dropping off the policy radar, says new research by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

"Poverty is still viewed by many as a rural problem, as both governments and donors continue to allocate resources to rural development in order to reverse the bias of urban policies of the 1970s and 1980s," Shahla Shapouri and Stacey Rosen, researchers in the department's Economic Research Services, write in the USDA's Food Security Assessment 2008-09.

In 2008, when the food crisis focused greater attention on agriculture and development in rural areas, for the first time in history more than half the world's population lived in urban areas, the researchers said, citing UN Population Fund (UNFPA) statistics.

By 2030 the majority of people in all developing countries will live in urban areas, and UNFPA estimates that about 60 percent of the urban slum population will be under the age of 18. "This realization has not yet translated into policy action in most countries," Shapouri and Rosen noted.

Sub-Saharan African countries have the world's highest rates of urban growth and highest levels of urban poverty, according to the State of the World's Cities Report 2006/07 by UN-Habitat, the UN human settlements programme. The slum population in these countries doubled from 1990 to 2005, when it reached 200 million.

The urban poor in Africa are more exposed to economic shocks - as the food price crisis in 2008 demonstrated - particularly in countries importing most of their food requirements.

In lower-income Latin American and Caribbean countries, 45 percent of total grain supplies between 2004 and 2006 were imported, compared to 31 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, and 12 percent in lower-income Asian countries.

"Poor and food-insecure people will account for a large share of urban growth because of both rural migration and natural growth, since fertility rates are higher among the poor than among higher income populations," the researchers pointed out.

"These developments will translate to higher poverty and more food insecurity in urban versus rural areas, and present a challenge to create employment opportunities for the urban poor."

''Poor and food-insecure people will account for a large share of urban growth because of both rural migration and natural growth, since fertility rates are higher among the poor than among higher income populations''

Trying to find a solution

Countries like India and China are trying to implement programmes to slow the pace of urbanization; in sub-Saharan Africa, "governments have increased investment in rural development with the expectation that this will slow the pace of urban migration, but so far there is no evidence to suggest that this will happen," Shapouri and Rosen warned.

"Can the experience of the developed countries that adjusted and accommodated high urban growth rates be replicated by developing countries? The answer is not simple because of the differences in public attention and investment."

In days gone by, the wealthy urban population in developed countries forced the authorities to devote attention to poor living conditions in local slums.

However, the rich in developing countries can now afford water pumps and generators for electricity, "thereby protecting themselves from the unhealthy conditions of the urban poor. That schism reduces pressure on developing country governments to invest in urban public services, of which the poor are the main beneficiaries."

Improved safety-net systems to help cope with food insecurity and economic shocks are likely to become more important as the urban population increases.

Some countries are promoting urban gardening, but limited access to clean water and high population density pose the risk of contamination, the researchers cautioned.

Health hazards emanating from food in urban areas are a critical concern: buying pre-cooked food from street vendors, close contact between humans and poultry and other domestic animals for slaughter, and generally unhygienic conditions in urban markets can have significant health consequences, as has become apparent in China and various countries in Southeast Asia in recent years.

Shapouri and Rosen said quality control and urban agriculture could contribute to a healthier, safer living environment, and recommended improvements in infrastructure that would allow the efficient flow of food into cities from the countryside and via imports.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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