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What Will it Take to End Poverty in Cities?

Abha Joshi-Ghani's picture

Postcards from the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia

From April 5th to 11th, in Medellin, the World Urban Forum (WUF) brought together a diverse group of urban thinkers and doers to discuss the world’s most urgent urban challenges. With participants meeting under the theme of “Urban Equity in Development – Cities for Life,” the overall atmosphere was one of cautious optimism. On the one hand, participants were highly aware of the vast challenges facing cities and their inhabitants. Cities remain home to shocking levels of inequality and highly pernicious forms of social and economic exclusion. In that respect, hosting the Forum in Medellin helped drive the point home—as UN-Habitat Executive Director Jon Clos observed before the event, “We want a realistic world urban forum, we want a forum in a real city that has real issues.” On the other, attendees were buoyed by the conviction that today’s rapid urbanization represents an unprecedented demographic and economic opportunity. Medellin itself has made astounding progress in recent years, focusing on improving transport and mobility, inclusive governance, and education.

The path to shared prosperity inevitably runs through cities. An ever-increasing body of evidence shows that cities are engines of growth, helping reduce poverty and allowing vast amounts of people to live more productive and sustainable lives. Cities offer opportunities of better jobs, higher incomes, access to education and health and better services- People come to cities for the hope they offer them.

To help focus the conversation and solicit innovative ideas, we used our presentation booth to ask the Forum’s 25,000 participants a simple yet challenging question: “What Will It Take to End Poverty in Cities?” The answers from Medellin reflected issues facing cities worldwide. Here’s a sampling of the responses from one day of the exhibit, in order of popularity:

In keeping with the Forum’s theme, inequality received the largest number of responses. Said one participant: “I think that the governments must work to stop the inequalitites and the distribution of wealth in our societies and to develop policies of inclusion.” Another: “We must grow a social conscience! How can we sleep peacefully at night knowing that there are people who are suffering in our city.” And, finally: “To end poverty, we have to move from the ‘I’ to the ‘We’ and to understand that in a city we must fight for everyone.”

Education was mentioned next most frequently, often with reference to the overall problem of inequality. Indeed, the link between education and social inequality is profound—as Nelson Mandela said, “It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine.” Participants weighed in quite strongly: “Invest in education!”, “Guarantee the right to a quality education for the population and so improve their opportunities to hold a job”, “Give free education to those who don’t have access to it.”

Jobs were another commonly mentioned theme. With increasing numbers of people migrating to cities in search of work, cities are scrambling to fulfill this promise. Luckily, cities, by their very nature, have a comparative advantage in the area. As I said in a previous post: “Cities remove the physical spaces between people and firms, and connections are easier. Urban areas in the developing world therefore have an edge in manufacturing and business services, and people living there have greater opportunities to prosper.” But density alone isn’t enough— harnessing this potential requires a mix of good policy and smart leadership. A number of participants weighed in on the issue of jobs, commenting on everything from capitalizing on the potential of the “green” economy to create jobs to providing skills training for entrepreneurs.

Sustainability and access to services were also a major concern. As cities grow, city dwellers are often competing for scarcer resources and services. Poorer areas often have little or no access to water and electricity, while richer areas enjoy much better provision of services. Some views from participants: “Reduce the number of cars, plant more trees…”, “Invest in technology in poor areas where they don’t have water and consider giving them solar panels so that they can work without having to leave their homes”, “Finance city infrastructure projects.”

Participants also singled out the need to fight corruption and promote accountability. City governments are under pressure from their burgeoning populations to act in a transparent and accountable manner and to manage budgets properly. Some views from some of the participants who weighed in on this topic: “We need to combat corruption in developing countries.” “Develop concrete policies to combat corruption.” “Don’t allow the corrupt to capture public budgets.”

There you have it—inequality, education, jobs, sustainability and access to services, and corruption and accountability.  Taken together, it’s a daunting agenda. But it is also an inspiring challenge. As we look toward the future, there is a great deal we can do to help —city staff and officials, civil society members, policy makers and citizens themselves—build their capacity in these vital areas and create truly inclusive cities with opportunities and access for all-  where prosperity reaches the broad swath of the population.

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Submitted by Eliot SOREL MD on

Warmest congratulations Abha for virtually connecting us with the GlobalUrban Forum.
Inequality, corruption and unemployment are major tributaries to poverty now rampant worldwide.
Investing in education, health, innovation and the rule of law are essential for closing the divide between the haves and have nots, diminish global poverty and continuing conflicts and create a sustainable and more just future for our humankind.

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