Their Life in Poverty

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Diana Mitlin & David Satterthwaite, authors
Diana Mitlin & David Satterthwaite, authors

A new book on Urban Poverty in the Global South, reveals that governments and aid agencies underestimate urban poverty and therefore can’t handle it

By Maureen Chigbo  |  Dec. 24, 2012 @ 01:00 GMT

A BOOK that will help governments and aid agencies to understand urban poverty and how to tackle it is now available in bookshops. Entitled Urban Poverty in the Global South, the book paints the most detailed picture to date of how a billion-plus poor people live in towns and cities worldwide and shows that governments and aid agencies fail to tackle urban poverty because they do not understand it.

Published December 12, the book co-authored by Professor Diana Mitlin of the International Institute for Environment and Development, IIED, and the University of Manchester and David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow at the IIED, draws on more than 20 years of research. It shows how policymakers and development organisations underestimate urban poverty – and why this can lead to poor policies that fail to address injustice and inequality.

The book also challenges the idea that economic growth alone can eliminate poverty, as many successful economies show little sign of decreasing poverty in their urban centres. One in seven people worldwide live in poverty in urban areas, and most of these live in the global South – mostly in overcrowded informal settlements that lack adequate water, sanitation, security, health care and schools. People there endure poor living and working conditions, low incomes and inadequate diets, which all add to large health burdens or premature death.

On top of these problems, the urban poor have little voice and few means to influence the policies and pressures that work against their interests. Governments and aid agencies often fail to understand and provide for the urban poor because of the way they define and measure poverty, using systems based on the ‘US$1 per day poverty line’. This greatly understates the scale and depth of urban poverty because in so many cities, non-food needs such as accommodation, water and access to toilets, schools and employment cost much more than a dollar a day.  Set a poverty line too low and poverty seems to disappear, especially in high cost locations. Such simplistic measures also take no account of the full dimensions of what poverty actually means to people who live it.

“If we want to build a better world, we have to understand better what the urban poor experience is,” Mitlin said in a press release issued by IIED.  “We have to understand what it means to have little income and face income, spatial, social and political inequalities. Only then can governments, development agencies and community organisations work with the urban poor to improve their options.” According to Satterthwaite, “The fates of the billion-plus people who live in poverty in towns and cities worldwide will have a major impact on human development. But until decision-makers better understand how and why urban poverty exists, their actions will only ensure that it persists.”

In 2013, Mitlin and Satterthwaite will publish a follow-up book about what we know about what to do to tackle the problems that face the urban poor. Mitlin is an economist and social development specialist working at the International Institute for Environment and Development, and a professor at the University of Manchester, UK, working at the Global Urban Research Centre, the Institute for Development Policy and Management and the Brooks World Poverty Institute.

Satterthwaite is a Senior Fellow at IIED and a Visiting Professor at the Development Planning Unit, University College London, UK. He is also editor of the international journal Environment and Urbanisation.

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