Part 1 of 6: Defining urban poverty

Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature, by Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite, documents how the scale and depth of urban poverty in Africa and much of Asia and Latin America is greatly underestimated because of inappropriate definitions and measurements. How a 'problem' is defined and measured obviously influences how the 'solution' is conceived, designed and implemented — and evaluated.

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. It explains the paradox of so many poverty statistics apparently showing relatively little urban poverty despite the evidence showing the very large numbers living in poverty. About one in seven of the world's population lives in poor-quality, usually overcrowded housing lacking provision for safe and sufficient water, sanitation, and many other needs. This includes very large numbers of urban residents who are malnourished and suffer premature death or disease burdens that are preventable. A significant proportion of these people are deemed not to be poor by many poverty lines.

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. It is always the judgement of 'experts' that identifies those who are 'poor,' who may then be ‘targeted’ by some programme; 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 programmes.

The dollar-a-day poverty line that was chosen as one of two indicators for monitoring progress on the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger lie at the core of why urban poverty is underestimated. If we are to use a monetary measure for defining and measuring whose income or consumption is insufficient (and from this determining who is poor), this measure has to reflect the cost of food and of non-food needs. If the costs of food and non-food needs differ — for instance, by nation and by location within each nation — this monetary measure has to be adjusted to reflect this. But the dollar-a-day poverty line does not do this sufficiently.

For instance, applying the dollar-a-day poverty line in 2002, less than 1 per cent of the urban populations of China, the Middle East and North Africa, and East Europe and Central Asia were poor. In Latin America and the Caribbean, less than 10 per cent of the urban population was poor. For all low- and middle-income nations, 87 per cent of their urban population was not poor. As this book documents in detail, there is a very large volume of work that shows how these figures are inaccurate and the associated methodologies inappropriate.

Next: Drawing Unrealistic Poverty Lines

Summarized from Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature, by Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite, Routledge, January 25, 2013.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.