The reason why the Bank is undertaking a major offensive against urban poverty is readily understandable in the light of the realities faced by most less developed countries today. Over the past 25 years, the urban population of developing countries has increased at the unprecedented rate of close to 5 per cent per annum—nearly twice the rate of the overall population growth of these countries. Over 550 million people have been absorbed by the cities in the developing world in a single generation. Today these cities contain over 840 million persons, or about 28 per cent of their total population. About 25 per cent of the total population in Africa and South Asia lives in urban areas; the proportion rises to between 30 per cent and 40 per cent in East Asia and North Africa, and to nearly 60 per cent in Central and South America. So while the pace of urbanization over the past 25 years has been faster than ever before, the level of urbanization is still relatively low.
This makes the challenge of the future even greater. The United Nations estimates that by the year 2000 another 1.2 billion people will have to be absorbed by the existing and new cities of the developing world. Africa’s urban population will triple. In Latin America urban dwellers will exceed 75 per cent of the total population. Except for the poorest countries of South Asia and Africa, at least half of the developing world will live in urban areas. About half these urban newcomers will come from natural population growth and the rest from migration to the cities from the rural areas. Most of these new city dwellers will be poor and unskilled. The resources available for accomodating this urban growth are, and will remain, severely limited. The pressures on these cities and national governments are already enormous and, by and large, the developing countries are not ready—in terms of attitudes, policies, management capacity, or ability to mobilize the financial and other resources required—for the task ahead.
The heart of the problem of urbanization lies in the rising numbers of the urban poor. If a city’s population is growing at twice the national rate, the poor—in their illegal, unserviced squatter settlements, unemployed or underemployed in low productivity jobs—are typically growing at twice or three times the rate of the city’s population as a whole. The Bank estimates that currently almost one third of the urban dwellers in the developing countries lack the incomes and therefore the consumption sufficient to maintain a productive life. Over 250 million of them lack reasonable access to minimal nutrition, safe water, minimal sanitation, and basic education and shelter. We also estimate that these numbers are growing by perhaps as much as between 15 and 18 million persons per annum, and that unless much more is done to alter present trends, by the year 2000 over 600 million urban dwellers will be found living in these deplorable conditions. The implications of this explosion of the urban poor for overall economic and social progress as well as for political stability are indeed stark. Appropriate national strategies to cope with this situation are generally lacking and overdue and must now be formulated in haste.