So what has been learned from this review of urban poverty? That the scale and depth of urban poverty can be greatly understated if inappropriate poverty lines are used. That all nations need poverty lines that take into account the actual costs faced by low-income groups in regard to food and non-food needs and how these vary by location. And that all nations need a consideration of other aspects of poverty and what underlies them. Figure 1 lists the many deprivations associated with urban poverty and their immediate external causes.
For poverty specialists who have long focused on income- or consumption-based poverty lines, this broader view of poverty may be hard to understand. Many of its aspects are not easily measured. Many aspects may be considered to be state failures — mostly the incapacity or unwillingness of local governments to meet their responsibilities. And also the lack of attention to addressing this by aid agencies and development banks. But a broader understanding of poverty also means more entry points and more scope for intervention. City and municipal governments may have limited capacity to increase incomes for the poorest groups, but they have more scope and capacity to address other deprivations. This is also true for NGOs and for grassroots organizations.
If poverty is defined only by income or consumption, then little attention is given to the multiple roles that housing and its immediate surroundings (or neighbourhoods) can have in reducing deprivation — a point also emphasized by Figure 1 below. 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.
There is also the issue of what data are collected to inform government action on poverty. Is data available to inform governments on which residents, streets and neighbourhoods face the greatest inadequacies in the deprivations listed in Figure 1? Again the inadequacy of national sample surveys to give the detail needed to inform local action is evident.
Reducing urban poverty requires a functioning state in each urban centre or district that seeks to address its responsibilities. This is more likely if it is accountable to its low-income population. It needs this state to act in the public good. A companion volume to this book that will be published in mid-2013 explores what it takes to make the state act in ways that support at least some of the multiple routes to poverty and how the state can do so within the resources and capacities that are available. It considers how international agencies can learn how to support this — and how much this also means a need to work with and support representative organizations of the urban poor. And, also, the setting up of funding streams that are accessible to and accountable to the urban poor and their organizations.
Figure 1: Deprivations associated with urban poverty and their immediate causes
Summarized from Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature, by Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite, Routledge, January 25, 2013.