UNICEF Wants Us to Talk About Urban Inequality

An online forum invites insight from the people who work on the ground in the world’s biggest and most dysfunctional cities.

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Reuters

No matter how much you love cities – and if you’re reading this site, I’m guessing that you do – you have to admit that they can create some brutal inequalities. The divide between the urban experience of the rich and that of the poor is one of the most troubling, dangerous, and intractable problems facing the world today. A comprehensive approach is elusive and probably unattainable given the disparity of cultures and economic contexts manifested in cities around the globe. Wouldn’t it be easier just to shrug and go about our business, hoping for the best?

Maybe. But that won’t make urban inequality go away. And the consequences of letting it proliferate are potentially disastrous in social and economic terms.

In that spirit, UNICEF is currently moderating a two-week online conversation about urban inequality as part of a discussion on “The World We Want.” It's divided into different themes -- social inequality, political inequality, spatial inequality. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a United Nations forum, it is somewhat opaque in its structure, and it’s not easy to glean the best bits.

That’s too bad. Because the issues being raised are vital, and many of the participants are people who work on the ground in the world’s biggest and most dysfunctional cities, slogging through the muck created by ineffective or absent government policies and dealing with the human wreckage left behind by unchecked development, corruption, and greed. Here you can find snapshots of a global urban reality that is woven into all of our lives. It is in the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the smartphones we rely on for guidance and distraction.

I’ve been grazing my way through the comment threads in recent days, and the recurrent theme that has stuck with me is the huge and growing problem of rural-urban migration, the ongoing disenfranchisement of these populations, and the enormous economic and emotional stress on millions of people around the world, particularly women and children.

Yes, we all know these problems exist in an abstract sense. But several of the participants in the UNICEF forum have posted first-person accounts that really bring the reality into much sharper focus. From the memoir of a South African man (posted by Benjamin Bradlow, who is affiliated with the blog Age of Zinc):

I had lived in the bush at a younger age. Then, I was frightened by snakes, wild animals and hunger. Here I was in one of the most notorious settlements in Inanda in Durban. I was scared of izigebhengu (crooks), thieves, warlords, shack bosses and hunger.

I was put in a shack in a sector of the community now known as E______. My neighbors never saw me arrive. They were busy drinking and dancing the night away….

In those first three weeks I lived like an animal that sleeps during the day and hunts at night. I used to piss in a bucket and go out to shit at night. Eventually, I got to know some people…. I had to make friends. Because of the survival experiences I had picked up at boarding school and reformatory, it was easy for me to adapt to this jungle.

From Malawi, Mtafu Manda writes about the barriers to better services for the informal settlements in that nation’ cities:

From my experience, one of them is misplaced training of urban planners. There is a silent policy reigning here not to provide services (water, power, roads) to informal settlements because such services would legitimise informality....

Sociologist Michael Drinkwater contributes this comment:

A critical requirement is recognition of the fact that large proportions of developing world urban populations are regarded as being illegal, unequal and undeserving. Yet changing these perceptions will take a long time, because they are fueled by feelings of inadequacy by elites — they have no real clue how to deal with these issues, and therefore would prefer to continue to ignore or pay lip service to them….

People need rights to a stake in the urban environment. Bangladesh garment factory workers need not just safer factory conditions but residential and health access rights, just as Burmese migrants in Thailand need not just rights to visas and work permits. Providing people with real stakes in urban systems needs to be seen as investing in urban futures that will yield significant returns over a decade and more. It requires more courageous acknowledgement of the abysmal lack of rights many groups have, a much more creative imagining of the future, and longer-term perspectives and political will.

You will also find stories of people who have persisted against the odds, gathering together enough momentum to gain some rudimentary education, to start their own small businesses selling street food and the like. You will find researchers and community workers who are creating real-life solutions that are making people's lives better, one at a time.

The conversation continues through the end of this week at “The World We Want 2015” site. It’s worth going over and taking a look at what people are saying there. In a globalized economy, the problems of these cities are everybody's business.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.