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 Saturday 15 December 2007
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GLOBAL: Randolph Kent on urbanisation and "humanitarian futures"

Photo: Chris Horwood/IRIN
When infrastructure is not provided, or not affordable, the urban poor find their own way around the problem, as in Delhi, India, where electricity is tapped.
NAIROBI, 21 November 2007 (IRIN) - Dr Randolph Kent, who directs the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College, London, and is a senior research associate in the College’s School of Social Science and Public Policy, spoke to IRIN from London in October 2007 about urbanisation.

Can the sort of deprivations facing the expanding urban poor be considered a humanitarian emergency?

Deprivations facing the urban poor can be considered the basis for humanitarian crises now and increasingly in the future. Poverty will be one of the main crisis drivers. So, too, will be the increasing population density that will mark urban areas and particularly urban slums. Half the world’s population now lives in cities. In less than a quarter of a century this figure will reach five billion. Nearly all of this growth will be in the cities of what we now call “developing countries”. In South Asia, South East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, growth has become synonymous with slums. In sub-Saharan Africa 72 per cent of the population live in slum conditions. This means that poverty and density will become traps for a wide range of pandemics, gang violence and slow starvation. These will be compounded by the fact that - in slums or in megalopolises as a whole - lack of adequate water, infrastructure and livelihoods will make urban areas a breeding ground for catastrophes.

To what extent have urban issues been neglected by the international aid network?

They have been neglected, but not deliberately. Rural poverty and programmes have dominated international aid agendas for the past 40 years. The whole aid engagement started with rural poverty… it is bound to take time to shift perspectives. There are exceptions, but on the whole “urban issues” have ostensibly been left to “host governments”. Of course, the very programmatic cycle that determines aid allocations and implementation have to wend their way towards completing their “rural objectives”. Hence, a combination of legislative, administrative and programmatic commitments, procedures and inertia will make transitions slow. Substantial new monies will be required for urban programmes. The urgency of urban needs must not, however, ignore the demographic opportunities that re-formulated rural programmes could offer to reduce urban pressures. The international community has to look at the interaction between urban and rural development, and not just one sector or the other, and not treat each as separate and isolated phenomena.

Are the current urban demographic projections frightening or do they just represent a transition that we will eventually accommodate?

To look at urban demographic shifts in isolation could well be deemed “frightening”. [However,] if one looks at such shifts in terms of the potential opportunities offered by a more holistic approach to rural, urban and semi-urban planning, the awesome demographic consequences could take on a different and more positive complexion. If one also introduces some of the scientific and technological innovations that will address issues of health, livelihoods and infrastructure, then the horrific prospect of the future could diminish further. To date there is little indication that these opportunities are being grasped. If one is willing to accept this major 21st century challenge, one must always bear in mind that ultimately one is talking about a social and societal issue as much as a technological, economic and administrative issue.

Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
Children play outside their home Boa Vista informal settlement, Luanda, Angola, August 2007. In Luanda, home to some of the world's worst slums, nearly every neighborhood outside the city center is ringed by mountains of garbage, often soaked by rivulets of sewage and human waste.
Can you think of recent examples where a “city of darkness” has transformed itself into a “city of light”?

There are few cities which are totally dark, and certainly none that are completely light. There are on the other hand increasing practices that can add greater light in situations of considerable darkness. Once again, one has to understand that the issue requires a holistic urban-rural perspective. Recent highway networks leading to India’s textile city of Surat have not reduced the slums, but they have provided opportunities where temporary urban workers can relieve urban pressures by returning to their village homes. In the Philippines, considerable efforts have been made to encourage manufacturing and service industries to locate outside Manila. These relocation schemes have had some successes, but also remind one that demographic shifts are only partly an issue of livelihoods and economics; they also involve a highly complex matrix of social and psychological issues.

If we were having this conversation in 45 years time, when the world’s population is estimated to be over 10 billion, what do you think would be the critical issues facing cities?

One possibility is that in some areas there could be a collapse of conventional authority - and large swathes of territory effectively no-mans land in terms of governance and legitimate authority. What is already happening in some major cities - like the violence in certain South American cities creating no-go areas - could characterise much larger areas. There could be huge numbers of gated communities as divisions between the urban poor and wealthy widens, giving rise to increasing non-legitimate versus legitimate areas. I use the term legitimate to represent areas where elected officials and the rule of law pertain, as opposed to those where they do not.

On a more positive note, perhaps some of the deliberate attempts to de-urbanise by encouraging industry outside cities, as seen in China and parts of India, might work. With the right commitment, a massive new commitment, things could improve. Maybe the way we do politics will change. We may be forced to change our systems in interesting ways, the consequences of which people are currently not taking into account. There may be a radical loss of conventional freedoms and human rights as the world and societies adjust to future scenarios. More and more societies could become more authoritarian in order to effect the big changes needed to avoid catastrophe.


[This is part of IRIN's In-Depth coverage of the humanitarian implications of urbanisation, which now includes a book, full-length documentary film and more. See Tomorrow’s Crises Today: The Humanitarian Impact of Urbanisation for more]

Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Human Rights, (IRIN) Urban Risk


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.