Putting an urban dimension in post-2015

28 January 2014
Articles and blogs
If we are to end poverty, we must think about urbanisation. The world’s population is becoming increasingly urban and the number of people living in slums is set to rise. Urban poverty and sustainability have been longstanding themes in the discussion on what should replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015: the type of infrastructure built to accommodate these people in urban areas will have a bearing on sustainable development for decades to come. How might a new set of goals do a better job than the MDGs at addressing the problems and opportunities of urban areas?

While it’s clear that urbanisation and urban poverty need to be factored in to a new development agenda, working out how is much trickier. Urban poverty is defined by a number of dimensions: income, health and education are part of urban poverty, just as they are part of poverty in any other context. Further, urbanisation (the increasing share of population living in urban centres) is a dynamic and context-specific process: its consequences on the economy and poverty reduction, society and the environment depend on local circumstances and how this process is managed. As such, it does not lend itself to be easily framed in the SMART targets and indicators language of the MDGs.

One view is that a separate goal on urban issues is needed.  A group of vocal  stakeholders including academics, local authorities and international organisations is already campaigning for the inclusion of a stand-alone urban goal. They argue this could help galvanise support from the myriad stakeholders and government agencies involved in the complex governance of city-level challenges. An urban goal would also draw attention to the urgent need to plan infrastructure and service delivery to accommodate increasing urban populations in a sustainable way: once unplanned developments take place it is much more difficult to undo them.

Another, neater alternative might be to integrate an urban dimension throughout the other goal areas (the approach taken in the UN High-Level Panel Report). With a single goal, it is difficult to define a set of issues that is distinctively urban. And having goals defined by where people live, rather than by the outcomes they want, could jeopardise the simplicity of a new development framework. Simplicity is a key strength of the MDGs that should be maintained in the next goals.

My suggestions for ensuring a new set of goals is relevant to urban areas

Goal or no goal, what is most important is that the issues that are significant for the urban poor are included. To ensure this, in a new ODI working paper, An urban dimension in a new set of development goals, I suggest five steps to making sure a new set of goals is relevant to urban areas:

  1. Include urbanisation and urban poverty in the narrative of a new framework, highlighting both the opportunities (e.g. potential for economic transformation and productivity gains) and challenges (e.g. pressures on infrastructure and service delivery) of urbanisation and the need to consider these spatial aspects in national policy plans.

  2. Ensure that ‘leaving no one behind’ includes urban marginalised communities. This entails monitoring progress for both ‘slum’ areas and the urban average (otherwise urban averages hide performance in marginal neighbourhoods).To highlight inequalities, targets could also be set to reduce the gap in the achievement of  different outcomes (e.g. mortality rates, school attendance) for slum areas versus the urban average (see Kevin Watkins’ suggestion for ‘equity-based stepping stones’).

  3. Ensure the framing of targets and metrics takes into account the characteristics of urban poverty. The higher costs of living in large urban areas should be considered in poverty measurement by using country-specific urban/rural poverty lines. Ideally measures of basic service provision should incorporate quality and affordability alongside access to reflect the pressures of high demand in dense areas. And work should continue on specifying targets and indicators for new dimensions included in the post-2015 proposals that are relevant for the urban poor, not least access to land and decent housing, among others.

  4. Improve data collection in urban areas, particularly for informal settlements. Data on urban areas is very limited; sometimes even basic information such as up-to-date population numbers for informal settlements is missing. Tracking performance at a sub-national level and across a number of categories and new dimensions will require a huge effort.

  5. Engage local communities and local governments in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of the goals. When targets are being set, local authorities could adopt (and adapt) the goals in their respective areas. When they are being monitored, data collection by slum-dwellers themselves could be explored as part of data-collection efforts, to ensure they have the tools they need to drive accountability.  And programmes to strengthen the capacity of local authorities could be part of a new global partnership for implementing, monitoring and financing the goals.

An agenda that is to remain useful and relevant until 2030 has to provide a clear framework for tackling poverty and sustainability in urban areas.  This will involve creating incentives for governments to think hard about how to improve human development outcomes in urban areas, and how to ensure that investments now are fit for a sustainable future.  Goals, targets and indicators can’t make that happen, but they can provide a nudge in the right direction.