Cities need to change their perceptions of poor people

Jul 23, 2019|Rebecca Roberts

Cities attract people of all classes. It is the same promise of network effects that appeals to businesses and the middle class that also entices poor people into cities.

Rapid urbanisation is potentially a double-edged sword. Rising population density presents a platform for rapid economic development, but such advantages do not come automatically, and, when mishandled, lead to significant social and infrastructural failures.   

Around the world, an estimated 60 million people migrate to cities each year. In many developing countries, city population growth rates are projected to grow up to three times faster than the underlying national population. For example, Nigeria’s annual population growth rate hovers around 2.6%, while Lagos attracts 3,000 daily migrants, and 500,000 each year.  As a result, its population growth rate is well above 3%.

This demographic trend is not unique to Lagos. In 2010, Tokyo was home to 13 million people. By 2019, that figure was 37 million.

Neither is Lagos’ image as the national centre of economic opportunity. Mexico City accounts for 22% of Mexico’s GDP, making it a destination of choice for poor migrants, while Abidjan accounts for nearly 70% of Côte d'Ivoire’s economic and commercial transactions.

All these cities are perceived as fertile ground for corporations and individuals alike, and both labour and capital flow to cities.


Cities benefit from the poor

To the poor, cities represent hope. Urban areas are attractive to people from smaller towns as they offer better job and education prospects, infrastructure, and the potential for higher living standards.

In contrast, the poor are often treated as unwanted appendages in cities, fuelled by a perception that the poor are either criminals or obstacles to socio-economic development. But this narrative is incomplete; cities need the poor, too. Beyond fulfilling various needs, the poor are the key drivers of informal economies in cities. Even in Lagos, a $140-billion economy that would rank as the 5th largest in Africa, the Heinrich Boil report on urban economies (2018) proposes that 65% of the Lagos State economy is informal. 

The underappreciation of the value the poor bring in the push for economic development is partly attributable to our failure to understand the nature of the informal economy.  The sector, otherwise referred to as the ‘alternative economy’ or ‘black market’ is characterised by self-employment and disaggregation. The spatial and productive diversity of the informal sector makes it difficult to measure and regulate. In response, cities fall to the temptation of criminalisation, which simply reduces the economic gains of the informal sector. 

Still, the misguided view continues to inform city management policies, resulting in attacks and oppression of the urban poor.  For example, through the 2010s, the Asian Legal Resource Centre highlighted human rights abuses and severe attacks on the livelihoods and shelter of the urban poor in Manila, Philippines. Such attacks may be interpreted as a means to frustrate the poor out of cities.

Such “anti-poor” policies fail to harness the potential of population growth and rapid urbanisation as a path towards inclusive development. These misjudgements acknowledge the poor as a challenge to be overcome as opposed to an integral part of economic growth and development.

In Lagos, poor people are attacked, arrested, and thrown in jail for working in informal and non-regulated settings. This is mainly achieved through environmental management laws.

For example, the Lagos State Special Offenses Court (Mobile Court) set up to resolve minor offences has become a tool for oppressing the poorest and most vulnerable people. In this court, offenders are tried under a colonial law known as “wandering without an evident means of livelihood” and are forced to plead guilty and given the option of a ₦60,000 fine or six months in prison.


How to leverage urbanisation

City management is a significant challenge facing urban governance in the 21st Century. The tension between the poor and city governance is driven by the need to manage rapid urbanisation while remaining attractive to investment and maintaining infrastructural and social order.

If a balance is achieved, cities can enjoy accelerated and inclusive economic growth, job creation, and improved quality of life. Inversely, poorly managed cities create structural exclusion and inequality frameworks that fuel poverty, exclusion, and oppression of the most vulnerable people.

The latter is more apparent in South Asian and Sub-Saharan African cities. Rapid population growth has been met by insufficient governance and planning mechanisms, causing city planners to take a hostile approach by driving the poor to the fringes—or out—of cities. 

More often than not, these approaches are in breach of socio-economic and human rights of the urban poor. A spectacular example is taken from Lagos and Rivers states in 2013, where the state governments responded to their respective homelessness challenge by deporting a large number of the poor to their state of origins.

Unsurprisingly, a rights-based approach to interacting with the urban poor has proven to be a more economically beneficial option. In India, the rights-based approach has resulted in higher government revenues from informal activities.

In 2009, the Indian government implemented the National Policy on Urban Street Vendor. The policy was intended to provide and promote a supportive environment for street vendors to earn livelihoods while reducing congestion and maintaining sanitary conditions in public spaces and streets.

Today, India has an estimated 10 million registered street traders, making them a viable source of government income. The choice to support rather than oppose the economic structure of the poor helped reduce the structural vulnerabilities of this group while contributing to aggregate economic development.

Urbanisation is inevitable; the poor will continue to flock to cities in search of better opportunities. In the long run, “anti-poor” policies are counterproductive and deepen poverty and inequality.

The wiser option involves a deliberate attempt to harness urbanisation for economic development. As suggested by Gough et al. (2006), this option is predicated on managing the relationships between the poor, the middle-class, and even corporations.

From Okada riders to roadside vendors, managing informal economic activity in an inclusive way is essential to a good urban governance structure. This is the path that Nigeria’s cities must ultimately follow to achieve inclusive and sustainable development.

Follow this writer on Twitter @enobong.