Just outside Bangalore, the information technology capital of India, sits what Duke public policy professor Anirudh Krishna describes as a “sea of blue tarps.” Huddled under these tarps, often without access to electricity, water or sanitation, are thousands of migrant workers and their families. The majority of them take temporary construction work; very few of their children go to school.   

They, along with more than 863 million others worldwide, are the face of urban poverty in the developing world.

Krishna, who has studied slums in Bangalore and other cities across India, said his efforts were often hindered by inadequate government records, suspicion on the part of interviewees, and the need to go into dangerous areas to conduct research.

“I feel sorrier for people in urban poverty than people in rural poverty,” Krishna said, “because rural people have access to resources that urban people do not, in terms of both community support and natural resources.”

Krishna, along with Duke political science professor Erik Wibbels, convened a Workshop on Urban Poverty in Developing Countries on Thursday, Dec. 4 and Friday, Dec. 5, at the Sanford School of Public Policy. More than 20 scholars shared their research on the urban poor in countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, addressing housing, education, water and sanitation, and political behavior.

The workshop was co-sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy’s Innovation and Impact Fund, the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) and Duke’s Department of Political Science.

“No one is working systematically on urban poverty, even though it is booming worldwide,” Wibbels said. “This workshop brings together economists, sociologists, anthropologists and public policy experts to address the crucial challenges and opportunities facing poor populations in the developing world.”

‘What we think we know’ about the urban poor

During the opening session of the workshop, scholars from Duke and Stony Brook University painted a stark picture of urban poverty worldwide and addressed several misconceptions about the urban poor.

Ninety percent of the growth in urban areas is happening in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, said David Toole, who teaches in Duke’s Divinity School, the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and the Duke Global Health Institute. More than 1.3 million join the ranks of the urban poor every week, moving to urban centers in search of work and better opportunities.

“The places where urban growth is happening are the very places that are least equipped to handle it,” Toole said.

While society’s conceptions of the urban poor in developing countries are dominated by images of slums in Mumbai or Nairobi, the majority of urban poverty is in small to mid-sized cities, said Mark Montgomery, professor of economics at Stony Brook University and senior associate in the Poverty, Gender and Youth Program at the Population Council in New York. Often these smaller cities do not have associations designed to deal with the urban poor.

In addition, most of the urban poor are not grouped together in slums, but spread across the urban space, Montgomery said. This makes urban poverty even more difficult to define, study and resolve.

“Place-based interventions need to be supplemented by people-based interventions,” he said, “because often the poor aren’t concentrated in cities with the necessary resources.”

Other scholars representing Harvard, Yale, Cornell and other universities presented cutting-edge research that examines how slum settlements have or have not improved over time, how ethnic and religious differences play out in these transitions, how infrastructure services  – particularly housing, water and schools – can be improved, and how democratic participation contributes to these ends.

Bringing urban poverty to the forefront

Panelists concluded the workshop by sharing their unanswered questions and opportunities for future research, including how urban poverty relates to gender, climate and immigration issues. Perhaps the most challenging question was how to tackle the problem of urban poverty, which is often overlooked by donors and scholars alike.

Philip Schwehm, vice president of governance and economic development at RTI International, described a “waning interest” in urban poverty by donor organizations, largely in response to competition for funding and skepticism about program effectiveness. However, there have been increased efforts to address urban poverty in recent years, he said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I think there is a resurgence, but it needs some encouraging. One of the trends we’re seeing is a push toward integration and multi-sectoral programming, as well as more of a demand for evidence.”

Many of the problems with addressing urban poverty arise from a disconnect between researchers and policymakers, said Phyllis Pomerantz, professor of the practice at DCID.

“With policymakers, there is a rush to action. The diagnosis is superficial at best,” she said. “With the academic community, there is a focus on data that frustrates policymakers because it often isn’t actionable.”

Anne-Maria Makhulu, assistant professor of cultural anthropology and African & African American studies at Duke, stressed the importance of drawing on a variety of disciplines and experiences in order to avoid “reaching a priori conclusions” about the urban poor.

“We need a lot more kinds of people around the table,” she said.

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