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Urban Poverty: A New Generation of Ideas

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Urban Poverty: A New Generation of Ideas

Nancy Leahy, Urban Programs Team, Office of Infrastructure and Engineering at the U.S. Agency for International Development.


In 2008 the global population reached a remarkable turning point. For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s people were living in cities. Moving forward into the 21st century, the world faces unprecedented urban expansion, with projections for the global urban population to reach nearly 5 billion by 2030. Virtually all of this growth will occur in the developing world, where cities gain an average of 5 million residents every month, overwhelming ecosystems and placing tremendous pressure on the capacity of local governments to provide necessary infrastructure and services. Failing to incorporate urban priorities into the global development agenda carries serious implications for human security, global security, and environmental sustainability.

Recognizing the need to develop and strengthen urban-focused practitioner and policymaking ties with academia and disseminate evidence-based development programming, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Comparative Urban Studies Project, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) Urban Programs Team, the International Housing Coalition, the World Bank, and Cities Alliance teamed up to cosponsor an academic paper competition for graduate students studying urban issues. The wining papers appear in Reducing Urban Poverty: A New Generation of Ideas. Three of the winning papers were presented at a policy workshop held at the Woodrow Wilson Center on November 1, 2011.

The topics of the winning papers reflected the complex and multidisciplinary nature of urban issues. Fatima Wajahat, a doctoral student at Florida State University, wrote a paper that explored the link between housing improvement and tenure legalization based on field research in Lahore, Pakistan. She found that residents in a specific squatter settlement improved homes on their own despite having legal tenure. These residents do not necessarily find the benefits of obtaining a property title commensurate with the cost of obtaining it. Wajahat concluded that the perception of secure land and housing tenure is more important than possessing an actual title or deed.

Lesli Hoey, a doctoral student at Cornell University, shared her field research from Bolivia and underscored the importance of recognizing the specific health needs of urban populations. Hoey’s findings underscore the unique issues faced by urban-focused health staff, including populations in transition, inequitable planning, and unmanageable workloads. She suggested that more progress could possibly be made if health policy models such as Bolivia’s Zero Malnutrition program accounted for these systemic constraints and delegated more authority to localities to innovate.

Finally, Daniel Warshawsky, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, presented his findings related to food policy in South Africa, noting the “silent tsunami” of urban food insecurity. Warshawsky suggested that Johannesburg’s urban food security policy has been limited by the South African government’s uncoordinated approach, ineffective funding institutions, uneven access to financial resources, disconnectedness from on-the-ground realities, lack of urban-focused food security policy, and corrupt electioneering.

Each student was paired with an urban policy expert who provided feedback on the papers. The experts were Billy Cobbett of Cities Alliance, Anthony Kolb from USAID, and Chris Williams of UN-HABITAT

The audience, consisting of representatives from various donor agencies, universities, and related organizations, added to the discussion with insightful questions and comments. Two key themes emerged. One was the question of whether donors skew more funding and programming toward rural areas than urban areas. Billy Cobbett noted that this dichotomy was outdated and that the fates of urban and rural areas are inextricably linked. The second key theme was whether the specific examples the students presented were general enough to apply elsewhere. Each speaker noted that, although context definitely matters, the findings from these specific papers have lessons that are general enough to be applied in other settings and, in fact, such comparative exercises can be extremely valuable.

The policy workshop marked the second year that the four organizations teamed up to organize an academic paper competition. The first competition took place in the months leading up to the 5th World Urban Forum, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2010. A third competition is envisioned for 2012.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.