Urban poverty

26 Apr 2016


The writer is UN resident coordinator, Pakistan.
The writer is UN resident coordinator, Pakistan.

WHEN I first arrived in Pakistan in 1990, there were 120 million people. The population in urban areas was 33m. When I returned five months ago, there were 70 to 80m more Pakistani citizens, and the population in urban areas more than doubled to 80m people. The bulk of this growth is characterised by an increasing number of people living in slums. The urban landscape today is predominantly shaped by families squatting in substandard housing.

This alarming rise in urban poverty represents a current and future risk for Pakistan. It is a current risk because the paucity of public services means that the millions living in slums do not have access to the education and health services which are both their right and the foundation for any meaningful development to take place. Their situation is often worsened by threats to their human security from increased level of crimes, sometimes accompanied by armed violence.

It is also a future risk for Pakistan. The country has a young population with over 50pc being under 25. A similar proportion defines the slum occupancy. If current conditions do not improve, young people will continue to face daunting social and economic challenges with fewer opportunities to break the vicious circle of abject poverty.

This puts them at risk of being involved in crimes, extremism and drugs thus destabilising the social fabric of society and its economy. There is also the risk that they will live in places where a weak sense of community hampers rather than helps their well-being.

It is the children and mothers that will feel the pinch of urban poverty the most. In a recent report I read, children under five of the urban poor are twice as likely to die as the urban rich. Similarly, the average survival rate of children in rural areas is better than their counterparts in the slums. Obesity in children will increasingly capture the public health sector as the next big challenge. The migration of families from rural to urban areas affects their food consumption patterns. Children become deprived of necessary nutritional values with the increased intake of processed food, high energy, sugar and refined grains fat-based as they abandon their traditional sources of intake from ‘home-grown’ production.

Slums can be transformed into thriving communities.

But there is still hope and a strong resolve. With the right policies and with the right programmes implemented in the right ways, these slums can be transformed into thriving communities, that would provide opportunities for development and community growth.

The experience from the Orangi Pilot Programme in Karachi 25 years ago, which is a best practice adopted and applied worldwide, shows what can be done when people are given the space to organise themselves to improve conditions in their ‘slum’ communities, and when the government provides a conducive and enabling environment for this.

The government has recognised the importance of urban development in Pakistan and encapsulates this in its Vision 2025 which says, “The challenge for Pakistan will be to address the existing challenges of the large urban centres while planning ahead for the continued migration towards cities”. It lays out a vision for urban development and smart cities linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly to Goal 11 of “making cities and human settlements, inclusive safe, resilient and sustainable”.

The first specific target for this global goal is: “By 2030 ensure access for all to adequate safe and affordable housing and basic service and upgrade slums.” In order to meet this target, there is a need to work across a number of areas and in an integrated manner — including education, health, jobs, energy efficiency, and responsible consumption and adapting to climate change — among others. When this target is met, the benefits to all the people of Pakistan will be enormous with trans­for­ma­tive changes taking place that converts the risks into oppo­r­­tunities for equitable and sustainable human deve­­­­lop­­ment.

Everyone has to be involved with the government taking the lead to help transform these slums into thriving communities. More specifically, this will involve implementing national plans, and leadership at all levels, complementing community action. International experience shows this works only when there is such national resolve.

To complement this, the UN team in Pakistan can build partnerships, provide technical expertise and assistance, and support implementation of programmes. For instance, UN-Habitat is the UN agency specialising in issues of urban development and can play a crucial role, along with a number of other agencies that have the necessary expertise to help across the range of diverse needs.

Improving conditions in slums is a broad development challenge. It only requires a strong and collective resolve where all people work together at the national, provincial, local and community levels to transform the challenges of urban poverty into opportunities and well-being for all.

The writer is UN resident coordinator, Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2016