Rural-to-Urban Migration: Is the grass greener on the other side?

A section of the Jamestown slum on the Accra coast
A section of the Jamestown slum on the Accra coast

Sprawling slums, such as Dharavi in Mumbai, Kibera in Nairobi, and Jamestown here in Accra (pictured), are often the most visible consequence of rapid rural-to-urban migration and urbanisation in developing countries.

Creaking under the pressure of rapidly growing populations, the bustling metropolises of the developing world struggle (to varying degrees, of course) to meet the growing demand for employment, housing, infrastructure, and other public services. In Ghana’s urban areas, for instance, there is a housing deficit of 1.7 million housing units, and it is estimated that an average of 85,000 units would need to be built each year over the next twenty years in order to address that deficit.

Yet the lure of opportunity continues to drive rural-to-urban migration at an unprecedented scale. Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, compared to less than 30% in 1950, and in developing countries, as much as 40% of urban population growth is associated with migration and the reclassification of rural areas to urban areas.

Although the World Bank suggests that the share of the extreme poor (living on less than $1.25 per day) living in urban areas has remained fairly constant (at about 28% since 1990), and that poverty is falling in both rural and urban areas, predictions of future trends suggest that there is no room for complacency in urban planning: 96% of the additional 1.4 billion people that will live in developing countries by 2030 will live in urban areas.

This trend towards urbanisation raises a number of challenges. As a development practitioner, I find myself agreeing with Lawrence Haddad, Director of the Institute of Development Studies, who suggests that most development professionals are trained in rural development and rural livelihoods. Even as I settle in to my work with SEND-Ghana (I am assisting with an impact evaluation of SEND’s Grassroots Economic Literacy and Advocacy Programme) I tend to think of ‘the field’ as a rural entity, forgetting that one of the four regions included in the programme (Greater Accra) is largely urban.

In reality, urban poverty presents a range of challenges, some of which are distinct from those faced in a context of rural poverty. Slums are typically characterised by inadequate water supply, poor sanitation, over-crowdedness, insecurity of tenure, vulnerability to health risks, and an atmosphere of fear and social exclusion. Other common challenges include greater vulnerability in the event of natural disasters, and limited opportunity for employment, despite the latter being one of the main drivers of rural-to-urban migration.

However, urbanisation also presents some important opportunities. Recent data suggests that urbanisation is helping to pull people out of poverty and enabling progress in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Despite the challenges faced in slums, urban populations have far greater access to safe water and sanitation facilities. It is much more cost effective to deliver some services where populations densities are high. Furthermore, urban areas are centres of economic activity and job creation, and urban poverty is significantly lower than rural poverty as a result.

“Urbanization does matter. However, in order to harness the economic and social benefits of urbanization, policy-makers must plan for efficient land-use, match population densities with the required needs for transport, housing and other infrastructure, and arrange the financing needed for such urban development programs,” – Jos Verbeek, Lead Author of the GMR

The caveat is that if developing countries are to take advantage of urbanisation to address poverty, there is a need for a greater focus on urban planning, as well as innovative financing mechanisms. The Urban Poor Fund is an example of such a mechanism. Launched by Slum Dwellers International, the fund allows poor urban communities to define their own development strategies and to manage capital, and has had impressive results so far (see here for a TedX talk on the Urban Poor Fund).

Alternatively, slums will continue to grow, opportunities will become challenges, and the promise of the greener grass on the other side will be cast out to the realm of urban myths.

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