10/14/2004, 00.00
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Urban poverty is the 21st century's main evil

by Deane Neubauer*

Migration is draining rural areas and filling cities to the brim. Poverty and crime are among the major problems that follow.

New York (AsiaNews/SCMP) – All the demographic data point ineluctably to an urban and poverty-stricken 21st century. The evidence shows that a vast portion of the new "mega cities" –the largest of the world's cities– will be infested by 19th century-style poverty. Globalisation has thus transformed cities into a den of social inequities.

Two decades of economic progress and development have left 2.8 billion people on the margins of society, living conditions far worse than those of the 1980s. This is the great challenge the new century must face.

For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in the countryside. Fifty years ago, 30 per cent of the world lived in urban settings; 10 years from now, that number will approach 60 per cent. In the year 2000, the world supported 411 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants each.

A paradox of global development exists within these rapidly forming urban aggregates. Some residents live at the cutting edge of the 21st century and its abundant wealth, while others reproduce the impoverished economic and social relations typical of 19th century Euro-American industrial development.

Cross-border migration, both legal and illegal, meets a large part of globalisation's labour needs. Migrants supply labour to the bottom tier of manual work and services to the affluent. However, it is primarily intra-country migration that is remaking world settlement patterns. The cities of the developing world pull workers from the countryside into urban settlements at unprecedented rates.

China, for instance, is currently engaged in the greatest migration in the history of the world, far outstripping those of the West in previous centuries, and it is occurring at a more rapid pace.

An estimated 150 million people migrated to cities in the past decade, leaving behind an agricultural labour shortage of stunning proportions. In the early stages of this migration, most people sought work in the larger cities of their regions. More recently, floods of migration are swelling the mega cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, even as other larger cities are emerging.

Throughout the world, the rural poor flock to cities as the only practical solution to endemic rural poverty. National governments support intra-country migration for the urban economic development it provides. Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Taipei, Seoul, and Yokohama are older industrial and commercial cities that have exploded into global production centres built largely on migratory growth.

But cities struggling to cope with extremely rapid growth are often strained to the breaking point, unable to provide minimal essential services and infrastructure. Within many global urban aggregations one finds vast slums where provisions of water, sanitation, and electrical power barely exist.

The rapid pace and massive extent of urbanisation have taken many governments by surprise. In many urban aggregates, extensive slums hardly experience the touch of government at all. In some areas, formal governmental power even ceases to exist. Local gangs and militia provide what passes for law and order. The result is that the wealthy protect themselves with elaborate security, while the poor are subject to the capricious decision-making of local informal authorities.


* Deane Neubauer is executive director of the Globalisation Research Network headquartered at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

Copyright: Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation.

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