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Human beings (& even animals) have been migrating in search of a better life since the beginning of time. However, while discussing urban work, almost all development workers tend to treat rural-urban migration negatively. This has been my experience in South Asia as well as Africa.  I remember writing a post, many years ago, about urbanisation and lamenting the impact it has on rural communities.

The reason for the negative feeling is not far to see. Apart from the romanticism surrounding rural life, discussions on urban issues makes development workers immediately think of slums and the problems of people living in those – poor sanitation, lack of access to roads and water, (over)crowding leading to intra-community tensions and risk of disease outbreak, insecurity for women and criminal gangs.  These problems are exacerbated when the slums are unauthorised, yes not all slums are illegal; some are recognised by governments. Unauthorised slums or informal settlements means that the inhabitants are invisible to planners, though they become remarkably visible before every election. Control over resources is exercised by a few powerful people and cartels (gangs). These powerful people also decide who gets to stay and where. ‘Rents’ are regularly collected by enforcers, often dwellers in the same slum. Most residents have little option but to pay up for everything. It is little wonder that, all over the world, a slum dweller pays more than those living in apartments for water, rent, ‘licence’ to do business and electricity (which is illegally tapped but has to be paid for by the end-user). Further the residents are vulnerable to eviction at any time, with almost no legal recourse, after all they are squatting illegally.

This is the scenario that the development worker sees. Little wonder then that migration from rural to urban areas gets tagged as ‘negative’.

However, slums are merely manifestation of a different problem – unsustainable livelihoods in rural / marginalised areas. This unsustainability is due to a variety of reasons including land fragmentation, climate change, poor access to technology and credit, unfair trade practices etc. It is this failure of rural livelihood systems that has actually caused the migration and proliferation of slums as skill-less and semi-skilled people pour into cities. After all “Why would anyone willing choose to live in slums in pitiable conditions and face enormous risks if they had an option?” The poor, when faced with despair, find the lure of urban areas irresistible.  They know it is difficult but are forced to pin their hopes on migrating and improving their lives; in many cases they reason, that their lives could not get worse.

Urban areas offer improved chances of obtaining work, health facilities and eventually education for children. They improve access to media and hence information that can be useful to improving lives. Research has shown that migration can reduce poverty and stimulate economic growth.

In the aftermath of the horrific drought in 1972-73, thousands of poor migrated from rural parts of Maharashtra and settled in slums of Mumbai. Some got employment in private sector or government. Some started small businesses. They had come seeking relief but a large number ended up staying in Mumbai. Over time their children went to school, got higher education and were able to break out of the poverty trap in the space of one or two generations. I have met a number of such families in Mumbai. I remember being unequivocally told that though the drought was bad and destroyed lives as they knew it, people were actually thankful for it, eventually. It forced them to move out of rural areas where their livelihoods were going nowhere in particular.

Global trends show a clear move towards increased urbanisation. This is through increase in number of urban centres and also expansion of the older centres. A city typically grows in two directions, the rich move up vertically in high-rise buildings and the poor in slums spreading horizontally.

With urbanisation come the issues of environmental sanitation, strain on natural resources and crime.  In the coming decade, these issues will grow. Eventually in sheer numbers the poor in urban centres will outnumber those in the rural areas.

Given this, “Are NGOs prepared to meet the development challenges in urban areas?” My answer today is “Sadly, not to the extent needed, not yet anyway.”

Development efforts in the urban areas are already seriously lagging the requirements.  Most NGOs round the world still focus on rural areas almost exclusively. Their orientation and thinking is suited to rural issues. When it comes to urban areas, sadly, I find a lot of NGOs clutching at straws. The clarity of purpose that can be seen in rural work is somehow missing when it comes to urban programming. Urban issues are hugely different from those in rural areas.

  • ‘Communities’ cannot be easily defined as sum populations shift constantly. Mobilisation becomes very difficult.
  • Identifying the powerful becomes difficult since, many a time, they are behind the scenes.
  • Livelihood mechanisms are not settled as people constantly change what they do to put food on the table. A vegetable vendor today may be a porter tomorrow and a guard the next month.
  • Rights of people remain very limited – almost no one owns the land or the house they live in. The very illegality of their existence makes demanding any rights difficult. After all they don’t exist on records, do they?

Same is the case with donors. Donor funding in urban areas is limited. A severe drought sees immediate influx of funds in the affected rural areas. However, almost nothing reaches the urban poor who are also as badly affected when food prices go up.

Over the last few years I have seen an increasing tendency for NGOs to start programming in urban areas. That is indeed a welcome sign. However, for them to succeed, they will have to learn and learn fast. The game is different. The rules are different. The power brokers are different. The pressure points are different. Therefore the theories of change must be different to make any impact whatsoever.

Are we going to see that happen? Time will tell.