What’s Driving Development?

A recent United Nations report, “State of the World Cities 2010/11: Bridging the Urban Divide” suggests that 227 million people have escaped life in urban slums over the past decade by moving into more formal housing.   The report classifies slum dwellings as housing more than three people to a room and lacking a permanent structure, secure tenure, access to clean water and a private or semi-private toilet. Shack

But don’t get too excited.  Because, despite these improvements, the world’s total slum population has actually risen to 827 million, due to population growth and influx to cities.  Given that the world’s population is roughly 6.6 billion, 827 million is a disturbing number of people living in conditions where disease, neglect and abuse flourish, where it’s difficult to imagine large-scale human development taking place.   In this sense, the seemingly inexorable growth of the world’s cities presents a major obstacle to domestic and international development.

But, back to the good news.  What’s driving this exodus from urban slums?  No, not the phenomenal efforts of aid agencies or the cumulative effects of charitable investments.  It’s actually the phenomenal economic growth of China and India.  Yes, these “Tigers” are actually looking after their own.  Over the past decade, China has assisted 65.3 million urban residents without shelter, while India has lifted 59.7 million citizens out of poor housing.   According the UN, China and India have made “giant strides” in housing. 

And where are the largest numbers of slum dwellers?  In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the slum population totals 199.5 million people.  This isn’t Afro-pessimism, it’s just real life.  The continent with the highest international aid investment and lowest economic growth rates has the world’s highest slum population.

Perhaps it’s self-evident that where there is economic growth, there will be some form of knock-on social and human development.  But as the continent’s cities continue to grow, Africa’s development doyennes need to reflect on China and India’s “success stories” further, and consider how strategic investments in growing Africa’s economies will in turn grow healthy communities and the families that live in them. 

Of course the news out of India and China isn’t all good, and economic growth has, in some cases, come at a terrible human cost.  Still, these housing figures are heartening.   Not just because they tell us that fewer people are suffering the daily degradation of life in a slum, but because they offer a much-needed example of governments playing their rightful roles as providers of social services.  Because they are proof that, in promoting social development, there is no substitute for healthy economies and responsible governments.  And any attempts by aid agencies to provide proxies will always fall short.

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