Flawed Assumptions

05 March 2018

Mathare slum Kenya

By Robert M. Buckley, Achilles Kallergis, and David Satterthwaite

Forty-two years after Habitat I—the first international commitment toward an urban agenda—urban poverty persists, the number of slum dwellers continues to increase, and hundreds of millions lack access to the basic services associated with city living: shelter, water and sanitation, and jobs. How is it possible that in 2018 a silent urban crisis continues unabated—right alongside global pronouncements and aspirations of inclusive, resilient, and “smart” cities?

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The idea that cities and urban policy play an extraordinarily important role in the development process is increasingly recognized, though still given low priority by most international agencies and national governments. The New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals attempt to elevate the role of cities as crucial spaces where struggles for inclusive and resilient development will be won or lost. Almost all the world’s governments endorsed the SDGs’ commitment to “leave no one behind.” How far are we from this reality, and what will it take to make sure cities become inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable?

These questions resonate strongly for the urban poor. The population of slum dwellers by absolute numbers is on the rise. In many low-income countries, the growth of slum populations has been more rapid than the average urban growth. In some regions, access to the basic improvements associated with city living—better health, stable jobs, good housing, and vital household services—have yet to materialize for the majority of urbanites. In addition, the projected demographic growth in cities of the Global South makes previous urbanization phases seem like ripples in a stream. While urban growth rates are declining, almost all of the growth in the urban population—from 4 billion in 2015 to over a projected 6 billion by 2050—is expected to take place in low- and middle-income countries. By 2050, these cities, already facing acute challenges in terms of access to land, shelter, and services, will need to absorb over 2 billion people, increasing their total urban population by 75 percent. There is a narrow window of opportunity to address the needs of current and future city dwellers, particularly the most vulnerable slum dwellers.

Do We Know Our Cities? Revisiting Assumptions About Urban Development

The inability to improve the living conditions in cities for so many urban dwellers makes it imperative for us to reexamine the basic assumptions underlying urban development policy and practice.

Flawed Assumption 1: Informal settlements are temporary way stations for the urban poor on the path to modernity and prosperity.

It is assumed that as countries urbanize, welfare gradually improves, and the corresponding increases in income help societies afford more and better housing, increased educational opportunities, improved health care, and other amenities. It is also understood that urban density lowers unit costs for most services and contributes to greater innovation and creativity. By this logic, informal settlements are temporary way stations on the path to modernity and prosperity.

However, when urbanization takes place without job opportunities and infrastructure, urban density does not contribute to innovation and growth. On the contrary, without provision of safe shelter and services, density becomes deadly and costly. The fact that most of the urban population in many low- and middle-income countries now resides in informal settlements—often for generations—implies that these locations have become poverty traps rather than stepping-stones to prosperity.

Flawed Assumption 2: Slum dwellers benefit from better overall health conditions in urban areas.

It has long been assumed that an increase in the share of the population living in cities assures significant improvements in health through what is called the “urban health premium”—that is, better health conditions are found in cities than rural areas.

However, while this “urban health premium” has played an important role in improving welfare throughout the world, it appears to be disappearing in many cities. In at least two African cities for which data is available—Nairobi and Dar es Salaam—infant and child mortality rates among urban poor groups approach and sometimes exceed rural averages. In some cases, health outcomes among low-income urban dwellers are far worse than among low-income rural dwellers.

Flawed Assumption 3: The conditions of the urban poor can be improved without their involvement in planning processes.

There is an assumption that improving the conditions of the urban poor can be done without detailed knowledge of what their living conditions are. Moreover, it is assumed planning priorities in informal settlements can be set without consulting the residents, suggesting housing, infrastructure services, and resilient communities can be built without consideration of people’s incomes, needs, and preferences.

However, while knowledge about cities overall is growing, our knowledge of urban poverty and the living conditions of slum dwellers in particular is seriously lacking. Although contemporary urban practice recognizes and underlines the need for greater participation and better data, there is no mechanism in place to systematically assess and collect information about the living conditions of the urban poor. Official reporting on housing, basic services, and health vectors relies, for the most part, on urban averages that obscure the challenges in informal settlements.

Going Forward: Inclusivity Is Not Automatic

Inclusive outcomes demand inclusive knowledge and action. The above flawed assumptions beg the question: How can we “leave no one behind” if there are hundreds of millions of urban dwellers whose needs are undocumented, whose voices are unheard, and whose capacities are ignored? We simply cannot produce nuanced definitions of “poverty” unless these are grounded in local data and knowledge.

For cities to serve as engines of inclusion, growth, and development for all inhabitants, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, policies and institutions must be constructed with the explicit intent of facilitating and safeguarding social, political, and economic inclusion for all residents.

Collaborative planning leads to collaborative action. Such action can resolve the concerns of low-income residents in practical, affordable, and scalable ways while motivating local government to realize the benefits of engaging the community in dialogue and viewing community members as valuable partners and constituents. Considerable evidence shows that including the voices and capacities of urban poor households and community organizations in planning and implementation leads to collective action that produces more inclusive and sustainable outcomes.

Complex cities require collaborative planning and insights from local knowledge and data. The capacity to act fast and effectively almost always rests on adequate knowledge. The SDGs acknowledge the need for disaggregated data, but little data exists that can be disaggregated to settlement level, and the system continues to use urban averages that perpetuate myths  and flawed assumptions. Many of those left behind simply cannot be found in the data, and if you are not in the data, you (and your needs and capacities) do not count.

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In the chapters that follow, authors from government, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations (CBOs), and public-private partnerships outline proven and emergent solutions that hold greater promise for enhancing inclusiveness and resilience at scale. These solutions highlight the fundamental importance of collective action and partnership in addressing the growing challenges of the urban poor. Specifically, we will explore the Know Your City campaign and how federations have collected systematic data on conditions in their communities that matches or exceeds the credibility and reliability of much more expensive surveys and catalyzes the organization of communities and partnerships required for collective action.

The data has unmet potential to assess whether SDGs are being met in informal settlements—the very places where people are being left behind. We must acknowledge that we can and must do better. We must also recognize that new insights and partnerships with the urban poor can lead to new ways of thinking and acting that inspire and catalyze transformative change.


In February, SDI launched a landmark publication titled “Know Your City: Slum Dwellers Count,” showcasing the extraordinary contribution of the Know Your City (KYC) campaign to creating understanding and taking action to reduce urban poverty and exclusion. Over the next weeks, we will post a new chapter from the book every week and related material on our social media platforms daily. Enjoy! 

Download the full publication here: http://bit.ly/2seRc0x