Since 2007, the world has become predominantly urban. This phenomenon has long been investigated and described by some of the most important international organizations. In particular, a large number of publications on this topic have focused on the effects of the rapid urbanization especially in those developing countries where the expansion of megacities is far more evident. However, analysis on the rural-to-urban migration phenomenon has often been unbalanced, giving much more attention to those aspects connected with the urban growth rather than to those concerning the neglected rural areas. Lack of governance, unregulated urban planning, and social inequalities within big cities’ areas are just some among the many topics investigated in recent years.
This unbalanced interest pending to cities can be explained by considering a widespread belief that cities are the uncontested background where humanity can find its way to growth and development. Moving from the assumption that people moved to urban areas to escape poverty, the main interest has always been of finding solutions for the rising urban population in order to improve their living condition. A few years after the historical shift from rural to urban, a relevant percentage of the world’s population is still living below the poverty line, and what surprises the most is that statistics data on poverty distribution refer to both rural and as well as urban dwellers.
In recent times, the international debate on urban development versus poverty reduction and sustainable growth has changed its direction trying to rebalance rural and urban dynamics. In this context, a couple of weeks ago, on May 13th-14th, the World Bank together with the George Washington University – Institute for International Economic Policy (GWU-IEP) organized a two-day conference ‘Urbanization and Poverty Reduction Conference, 2013: Bridging Rural and Urban Perspectives’. Experts from different backgrounds have gathered together to discuss the drivers of poverty and inequality and to identify the challenges for a new rural-urban transformation.
The same topics have become the subject of interesting research papers where some experts have started to question whether mega cities could actually be the right answer to mass poverty reduction; or whether a more balanced distribution of the world’s population in both rural and urban territories should be seriously taken under consideration. It means that instead of focusing our attention to a mere observation of the precarious living conditions in slums mushrooming around mega cities, we could start to think of relocating some human activities outside the congested urban areas, favouring the birth of secondary towns where non-farm activities could offer viable job opportunities.
As an example, a study conducted in Kagera, Tanzania, showed that, in a group of targeted individuals tracked over more than 15 years – from 1991/4 to 2010-, half of those who managed to escape poverty did it by moving from agriculture to ‘the middle’ (non-farm activities in secondary towns), one third of them did it by continuing as farmers and only one out of seven improved its living conditions by migrating in big cities. According to this study, poor people are more likely to escape poverty through rural diversification. The opportunity to work in non-rural sectors that are located at a limited distance from the rural territories, has resulted to be successful.
It emerges that urbanization itself is not as important in poverty reduction measures as urbanization patterns can be. And therefore, the rural-urban dichotomy needs now to be overtaken in favour of a wider approach able to consider different forms of urban concentration.