Reducing Poverty and Strengthening Growth: The Urban Perspective

Summary of a meeting with Senator Lincoln Chafee, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations; Ellen Brennan-Galvin, Woodrow Wilson Center; Minja Choe, East-West Center; William Cobbett, Cities Alliance; Jac Smit, The Urban Agriculture Network; Enrique Penalosa; former Mayor of Bogota; Nigel Harris, University College London; Sandra Thurman, International AIDS Trust; Patricia Langan, International Youth Foundation; Paul Lambert, Lambert Advisory; Camille Barnett, Public Strategies Group, Shari Garmise, International Economic Development Center; Christine Kessides, World Bank

The two-day forum, made possible through support provided by the USAID's Office of Urban Programs and Office of Population, convened roughly 130 development practitioners, policy makers, academics and members of the NGO and private sector communities to examine current data on the challenges developing countries face as a result of unprecedented population shifts towards cities. As Ellen Brennan-Galvin, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former chief of the Population Policy Section of the United Nations Population Division, reminded us, by 2030, Africa will be 53% urban and Asia will be 54% urban. Furthermore, according to the World Bank, many cities in Asia and Africa will nearly double in size in the next fifteen years, and within one generation, urban areas around the world will add over 2 billion inhabitants. Almost all of the urban growth expected to occur in the next thirty years will occur in developing countries, where many cities are already confronting poverty levels of roughly a third of the population. Improving the lives of the billions of people that currently live in cities, let alone the billions more expected to inhabit cities within the next thirty years, requires a drastic shift in the current paradigm of the development community.

Understanding both the demographic changes of the urban population and the current allocation of resources within cities is vital to the formulation of policies to manage urban growth. The proportion of adolescents and young adults to total populations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East has critical implications for political and economic stability in these regions. Minja Choe of the East-West Center noted that urban policies must take note of the precarious conditions under which many urban youth live, and more importantly, their subsequent risk-taking behaviors. Providing job opportunities for youth is already a major challenge in these cities, where, according to Patricia Langan of the International Youth Foundation, youth unemployment reaches almost 80% in some countries.

Local economic development will be frustrated further by the demographic implications of the AIDS epidemic. According to Sandra Thurman, president of the International AIDS Trust, HIV/AIDS will orphan 44 million children by 2010. This figure, equal to all American children in public schools, has drastic implications for the ways cities provide social services. Furthermore, AIDS affects the prime producers and consumers within society, which represents a demographic loss comparable only to wartime and having drastic implications for local economies, not to mention families. Policy-makers and the development community must therefore consider AIDS as a fundamental development crisis, not just a health crisis.

In order to both combat the AIDS epidemic and deal with the changing demographics of cities, development practitioners and city managers alike will need to re-evaluate and re-emphasize long term planning. As Nigel Harris of the University College London pointed out, the main obstacle to local economic development is linking the poor to appropriate labor markets. With proper planning and appropriate data, more informed job training programs can match labor to market demand in many developing cities. The panel on lessons from the U.S., however, highlighted the need not only to focus on job creation, but job retention and career ladders. The continued ability to improve one's skills, stemming from a basic capacity to learn, was also emphasized in light of current demographic trends and the post-Fordist nature of the global economy.

Furthermore, the need for long term planning must be combined with institutional coordination and political leadership in order to properly manage urban growth in the 21st century. As William Cobbett of the Cities Alliance mentioned, the significance of political will and strong political leadership cannot be underscored enough. Cobbett also noted that "the poor don't live in sectors" and therefore, good governance, at both the national and local levels, is vital to improving the quality of life of urban inhabitants. Cobbett's insights were clearly represented in the vibrant comments by former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa. Using his native city as a prime example of the potential of strong political leadership, Peñalosa reinforced the need to design cities under a framework of inclusion, and most importantly, argued that city leaders need to plan in the best interests of children.

What became increasingly clear over the two days of the forum was the need for better data and a greater number of case studies of cities in the developing world. While recent literature has focused much of its attention on mega-cities, there is very little known about the local economic development strategies needed for small and medium-sized cities in these regions. Furthermore, the international development community possesses what Senator Chafee referred to as "a unique ability and opportunity" to help cities in the developing world realize their economic goals without making the same mistakes that U.S. cities did during the 20th century. Realizing the potential gains from urbanization in the developing world depends directly on how well cities manage growth, and the inclusion of urban youth will be a vital step in that process.