According to the World Bank, the world has experienced a significant decline in extreme poverty since the 1990s. In 1990, about 1.9 billion of the world’s 5.3 billion people lived on $1.90 a day or less. By 2015, that figure improved to about 736 million of the world’s 7.4 billion people.
A big part of this has been a global wave of urban migration in the developing world, mirroring similar patterns experienced by Western countries in the 19th century when they were newly industrialized. For many people in the countryside, cities tend to offer larger incomes, upward mobility, and a clear path to prosperity. However, this urban migration has often strained existing urban infrastructure, socio-civic facilities, and political systems past their breaking points.
Here are a few of the most serious challenges faced by urban areas in the developing world:
1) Basic Resource Allocation
Policymakers in developing economies are constantly under pressure to do more with much less than what is available in economically well-off countries. Most developing nations also continue to grapple with a combination of very high birth rates and urban migration, leading to principal cities in these countries being densely populated. The combination of extremely high urban population densities and limited funding tends to cause serious gaps in the delivery of basic resources like water and electricity.
Former developing nations that have achieved middle-income status like Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines have made massive improvements in electrical, communications, and water infrastructure. The development of economic opportunities in the countryside has also served to slow down urban migration in many countries, taking the load off of cities struggling to deliver basic utilities. Still, delivering basic resources will remain a challenge for these newly prosperous economies for years to come.
2) Environmental Threats
Environmental protection is rarely a priority in countries where families struggle to meet even the most basic living standards. Proper waste treatment and disposal services are rare, resulting in significant environmental degradation around cities. If solid waste is disposed of, unregulated burning in open pits is the usual solution, which results in significant air pollution.
Additionally, forests around cities are often overexploited for cheap building materials and fuel, resulting in further damage to the soil and natural water systems around cities in the developing world. The use of wood fuel also contributes significantly to air pollution in and around inhabited areas.
3) Equitable Public Infrastructure Development
Cities in developing nations often have problems with delivering equitable public infrastructure. In most cases, lower-income families live in slums or on the periphery of cities while their jobs are located in the city center.
This means long and difficult commutes are a common feature of cities in developing countries. The additional commute time and stress invariably make a negative impact on the well-being and economic opportunities of ordinary individuals.
In most developing countries, this all comes down to a few reasons, including the lack of funds, chronic mismanagement, and the absence of coherent policies for urban development. In many cases, developing nations are ruled by wealthy elites that focus on infrastructure developments that only benefit their class, resulting in a lack of suitable public infrastructure for the majority.
4) Good Governance
While corruption is also commonplace in some wealthy countries, developing nations are especially vulnerable to its effects. Urban infrastructure projects are often affected by corruption to the detriment of those who rely on these to earn an income. Corruption also results in the creation of infrastructure projects that have no direct benefit for urban inhabitants, squandering limited financial resources.
5) Health and Safety
In developed countries, city dwellers tend to live longer than their rural counterparts. However, this trend is largely reversed in developing nations. Due to the lack of funds for environmental protection and uneven city development, urbanites in developing countries tend to experience more stress, drink unsafe water, and breathe dirtier air.
Interestingly, a University of Texas study indicates that reducing dependence on cars and controlling urban sprawl can help offset most of these negative effects. For cities in developing nations, investing more in mass transit and urban planning may lead to a healthier population, a reduced strain on public healthcare, and a stronger local economy in the long run.
In countries with poor governance and high levels of economic inequality, the rise of slums is an inevitable consequence of the unavailability of decent urban housing options for lower-income individuals and families. While slums are seen even in wealthier economies, they are an especially notable issue in countries throughout the developing world.
Some urban planning theorists note that there are advantages to slum areas, such as proximity to better economic opportunities and the high availability of certain basic services. However, the low-quality housing typically found in these slums are generally agreed to be unsafe for inhabitants and a contributory factor to crime and other social ills.
Developing Nations Should Focus on Urban Development
Most developing nations have pressing challenges in meeting the basic needs of their citizens. As a result, conscientious urban planning is rarely a priority, given that the benefits are usually felt in the long term. In any case, every country is different and all of them have unique issues to surmount.
However, relatively modest investments in areas such as water infrastructure, mass transit, and urban planning remain vital wherever there are urban spaces. Modest investments in these areas may not solve everything, but they can make urban spaces in developing nations healthier, more prosperous, and better positioned to contribute to future economic growth.