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Assistance in the elite cities

DEVELOPMENT / The fact that the big cities have been ruled by elites since their rise during the colonial era is not an argument for overlooking the world's poor. Nevertheless, must we first come to terms with lingering prejudices about urban growth – and ask whether cities can be a solution to the development challenges?


Historically speaking, increasing inequality has represented the major challenge for city-oriented aid, and is the biggest development problem for the years to come. If we are to build robust societies, and at the same time prioritize climate change and the fight against poverty, we must first come to terms with lingering prejudices about urban growth. And broaden our understanding of the cities of the people and the elite.

The concentration of people, power and resources leads to increasing social and geographical inequality, most clearly in the form of growing informal settlements close to the houses and hotels of the elite.

The city as the legacy of the colonial era

Urban skepticism in the global south is historically closely linked to the colonial era, a legacy visible as physical segregation between population and elite in the larger cities. Beyond the 50s and 60s, several countries south of the Sahara finally gained their independence. More of byene ble anlagt under kolonistyret, og vokste som følge av handel med slaver og naturressurser: «One important result of developments over the past 40 years has been the growth of urban centers and of wage employment. In fact, only about 4 percent of our people live in towns […] The life of these tiny minorities has become a matter of great envy for the majority.» (Nyerere, 1967).

It often becomes unclear where the city actually begins and ends.

Audio Tanzanias first president saw Julius Nyerere beyond a mainly rural population. The capital Dar-es-Salaam, established by the German East Africa Company in 1887, was the very image of continued dependence on Western countries. In his essay Socialism and Rural Development the term 'tamaa' is used to describe the envy and injustice experienced by native populations against urban growth during colonialism. And to describe the greed and violence associated with 'the urban'. The countryside became the image of a possible future utopia with and by 'the people'. The ideas laid the foundation for Tanzania's first five-year plans and also resonated in Norwegian district policy.

Image: Swakopmund, Namibia. (Johnny Miller, 2020)

The big city understood as an exploitative organism can be found again in international development research from the same time. Addiction theorist Andre Gunder Frank showed how developing countries in the 'periphery' were still exploited through the underpricing of resources by the West. With reference to Sao Paulo, he pointed to the role of the big cities in maintaining 'metropolis-satellite' relationships and the underdevelopment of the countryside:

«The development of industry in Sao Paulo has not brought greater riches to the other regions of Brazil. Instead, it converted them into internal colonial satellites, de-capitalized them further, and consolidated or even deepened their underdevelopment» (#Frank, 1966).

The perspective was largely supported by Johan Galtung's (1971) research on imperialism through the recently established Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

In order to meet the needs of the people rather than the urban elite, and to avoid population growth that puts pressure on the environment, the UN recommended beyond the 70s to limit urban growth in developing countries (Ward 1972; Utenriksdep. 1974). The focus was on the countryside, and the development challenges placed rurally. At the same time, growth in urban informal settlements continued unchecked. In many of big cityfor one, slum demolition and a restriction of civil rights for migrants have remained the solution to population growth. However, the difficult question of the elites' control over the cities has continued to characterize the development discourse.

Begge Photo © Eduardo Moreno

The city under the control of the elites

Newer urban skepticism in research and aid is particularly linked to a distrust of the big cities' political administration – a distrust that was strengthened by misrule, crime and corruption. In the influential 1977 article "Why Poor People Stay Poor," economist Michael Lipton argued that development policy had been skewed in favor of urban areas. The explanation lay in the abuse of power by the urban classes: "(...) the urban classes have been able to 'win' most of the rounds of the struggle with the countryside; but in doing so they have made the development process slow and unfair.” (Lipton, 1977)

An 'urban bias', or partiality, demonstrated how scarce national resources fell to the city sectors and the urban population groups. According to the thesis, this type of policy risked increasing the risk of 'over-urbanisation' by making the cities attractive. Despite the fact that the countryside was still the main focus of the countries' leaders, metropolitan growth was seen as a threat to natural growth. The 'urban bias' thesis was to gain traction with the World Bank, and helped to make public administrations in the cities suspicious (World Bank, 1981). The mistrust in public handling of funds laid the basis for deregulatory structural adjustments that would further weaken public administration and the possibility of urban planning.

The Brundtland Commission was also critical of the concentration of power in the big cities.

Also Brundtland-the commission was critical of the concentration of power in the big cities. But unlike its contemporaries recommended Our common future (1987) a greater investment in the cities' growing informal settlements. They were seen as indispensable for sustainabilityig development:

«But the sustainable development of cities will depend on closer work with the majorities of urban poor who are the true city builders, tapping the skills, energies and resources of neighborhood groups and those in the ‘informal sector’» (Brundtland-kommisjonen, 1987)

Despite the Brundtland report's recommendation and increased knowledge of urban challenges, informal urban areas and the emerging civil society have remained under-prioritised as part of the development issue. Norwegian parliamentary reports continue to present informal settlers as primarily associated with social insecurity and criminal behaviour. Instead of «skills, energies and resources» remain informal settlers in Norwegian eyes as destabilizing elements in social development. (Department of Foreign Affairs 2012/2015)

Begge Photo © Eduardo Moreno

Unstoppable urban growth

In recent years, urban growth has seemed unstoppable. According to UNDESA, more than half of future global population growth is expected to occur in eight countries. Five of them are in Africa. They are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania (World Population Prospects, 2022). Population growth will largely take place in the cities linked to economic growth. The World Bank and others therefore sees the city as an ideal for modern society, and an avoidable 'end point' for successful development globally. (Eco-modernist Manifesto 2015; Brenner 2014; World Bank 2013) This view was also reflected by Norway's chief delegate at the Habitat III conference in 2015: "Urbanization is inevitable and we must address it constructively." (The forest, Norway Statement – Habitat III Plenaries).

Urban growth in itself is not synonymous with modernisation, improved living conditions or less inequality (Barnett & Parnell, 2016). Today's unorganized cities in southern countries are a consequence of the larger trends of recent decades: climate change, famine, war and conflict over land-property and rights, to name a few. The development takes place on the basis of colonial periodone's politics. An increasing number are becoming dependent on urban systems across geographical divides. Economic difference is most pronounced in the cities, where the gap between rich and poor is often greater than in the countryside. In addition to being destabilizing for society, extreme inequality is correlated with e.g. lower life expectancy, and higher levels of infant mortality. Climate change, conflicts and health
pandemics have an uneven impact, but mainly reinforce and worsen existing inequalities in urban areas.

It is the power and control of the elites in the cities that has shaped the aid's knowledge base.

The enormous inequality between the cities' inhabitants results in limited interaction between the metropolitan population and the urban elite. Nevertheless, it is the power and control of the elites in the cities that has shaped the aid's knowledge base. It has made city-directed aid complicated. The task of securing , life in the cities is largely left to local zealots. Whether the ongoing urbanization will improve or reinforce inequalities will depend on quick action and local knowledge.

Eilert Berre Ellefsen
Eilert Berre Ellefsen
Currently engaged at the Masters Program in Human Geography, UiO, specialization in Urbanism and Planning.

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