Theater of Cruelty

The consequences of urbanization for aid practice

POVERTY / Over a billion people, 24 percent of the world's urban population, are today considered slum dwellers. And most refugees do not end up in overcrowded camps in Europe, but as displaced migrants in medium-sized and small cities in Asia and Africa. Aid today has a reluctance to get involved in urban areas and urbanization issues.


There is a myth that Norwegian aid actors have neither engaged in nor sought to understand the big cities in the global south. Very few official documents address the exponential urbanization of poverty, inequality and other development challenges. Even fewer say anything about the consequences of urbanization for aid practice. Has developmental
did the policy behave "blindly", as former NORAD director Arve Ofstad describes, in order to avoid yet another sector in the budget? (Ofstad 2019) But if this myth is not outright wrong, it only describes one part of the picture. Nuance is necessary.

Throughout the post-war period, Norwegian actors have consistently been involved in "habitat", which is the international policy field related to human settlements and planning (Richard Sennett, 2018). Already in the first aid projects in Tanzania, settlement planning was an important theme for state-building and Norwegian cooperation, due, among other things, to the capital's growth. Norwegian bureaucrats and politicians have been present at the three international Habitat world conferences and have consequently been contributors during Habitat I in Vancouver, Habitat II in Istanbul and Habitat III in Quito.

Urban growth became a separate chapter in the Brundtland Commission's report Our common future from 1987. In 2015, "sustainable cities and local communities" was recognized as the UN's Sustainable Development Goal 11, albeit with some hesitation from the West and Norway. Norway was an important advisor prior to the creation of the UN's settlement programme, which specializes in urbanization and settlement issues. From the Norwegian side, that is a given annual grants – which in the last decade was reduced, to finally be canceled in 2020. A fate other urban development actors have also suffered.

Urbanization in the south is still primarily portrayed as a risk and a dangerous element for the recipient countries.

The engagements highlight Norwegian perspectives on urbanization in the south and specific Norwegian limitations. Two overriding factors stand out. There are assumptions about urbanization processes and the characteristics of big cities that today continue to limit Norway's room for action in the face of the great development challenge of our time.

The growth of urban informal settlements

Within development research as well as urbanism, there is a utopian ideal that deals with "the rural", a historical critique of the growth of cities at the expense of the countryside. In the post-war period, growing large cities in partner countries in the south were interpreted as offshoots from the colonial era – nodes for Western imperialism in the form of the market economy centered around urban elites (Gunder Frank, 1966; Johan Galtung, 1971). More than 50 years later, urbanization is presented in south still primarily as risky and a dangerous element for the recipient countries and for the fair distribution of aidfunds. Both risk perceptions are based on assumptions about what metropolitan growth entails compared to other types of settlements. It is depicted in Brundtland-report (1987) in the following way: "Large cities are, by definition, centralized, man-made environments that are mainly dependent on food, water, energy and other goods from outside. Smaller cities, on the other hand, can be the heart of community-based development and offer services to the surrounding landscape."

The overriding picture is the environmental, social and safety-based risks associated with urbanization. Message to the Storting 33 (2011-12) presents urbanization exclusively as a threat to ecosystems and climate stability. At the same time, it completely overlooks whether urban areas or the many millions of residents here can be part of the solution: "We are facing a situation where ecosystems and a stable climate [...] are threatened as a result of population growth, production and consumption, urbanization and globalization .”

#Message to Stortinget 37 (2014–15) links social and environmental deterioration directly to the growth of urban informal settlements (read: slums). Over a billion people, 24 percent of the world's urban population population, is considered today as slumsresidents, a number which only increases due to covid-19. Instead of approaching informal settlements as places of varied socio-economic characteristics and increasing need for basic services and planning, they are portrayed as the very cause of crime and environmental destruction. This is a geographical determinism we cannot afford to stick with.

© Edward L. Brown. South Of Eritrea

Aid funds

The risk thinking about big cities also implies a perceived threat to the distribution of aid funds. In short: Aid to the big cities will primarily benefit the urban elite and involve inefficient administration at the expense of the poor. As Millstein also points out, the "urban bias thesis" used places one-sided emphasis on how farmers do not benefit from increased food prices due to price regulation and urban subsidies. Analysis of the urban areas is consequently neglected (Millstein 2013). Informal areas and networks are also presented unilaterally through governance challenges. The assumption that the growth of informal settlements creates cities on the brink of chaos has a far stronger place than informal urban networks and locally based organisations, which can be the key to locally adapted solutions: "In many areas, criminal networks have territorial control. They govern cities, districts and border areas. They collect tax or protection money, provide public services and have their own security forces and judiciary.” Message to the Storting 37 (2014-2015).

With the one-sided motives of the risk images, one overlooks the fact that a growing proportion of the population in developing countries is dependent on the cities as their primary source of income and resources. The migration across and across the city boundaries is an essential part of people's livelihood – an everyday life that is neither unilaterally "informal" nor "formal".

How to locate poverty?

Fighting poverty has historically been the main goal of aid. Despite new knowledge, however, poverty has remained a primarily rural phenomenon in aid. This is not just a uniquely Norwegian phenomenon. The widely used "Multidimensional Poverty Index" (MPI, UNDP) concluded in 2020 that poverty in all developing countries was higher in rural than in urban areas. However, this does not confirm that the situation is better in urban areas, but rather reflects the types of poverty that are given weight.

Access to basic services such as sanitation, clean drinking water or a roof over your head varies in urban areas, and the statistics capture little of the relative inequality since access is én thing, while being able to afford it is another. As David Satterthwaite has pointed out, a "yes" on a questionnaire about latrine access in urban areas reflects neither "the quality of the latrine, the ease of access, the cost (many urban dwellers only have access to local public toilets with charges they cannot afford) or the provisions for hand washing" (Satterthwaite 2003).

Publicly available data on household income often refer back to measurements that do not take into account differences in pricing and consumption patterns between city and country. The city dwellers' proximity to various basic services and generally higher relative income thus give a misleading picture of access to various services. At the same time, residents who live in temporary and/or informal conditions are less often included in statistics. And the city limits that are used take little account of informal settlements and households in the countryside that are incorporated into urban environments (Rakodi, 2014). Over 90 percent of the cases of infection during the corona pandemic took place in the cities. Yet the growing needs of those living in slums and urban low-income households are not recognised.

Unlike, for example, SIDA in Sweden, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NORAD have not incorporated methods and datasets that capture urbanization trends and social conditions in metropolitan areas. Where is the recognition that most refugees do not end up in overcrowded camps in Europe, but as displaced migrants in medium-sized and smaller cities in Asia and Africa?

Assistance on a failing basis

The increasing urbanization of poverty globally threatens the lives, well-being and natural resources of billions of people on all continents. In Message to the Storting 24 (201–-2018), the Solberg government recognized the need for changed practice:

"Urbanization and the fact that the majority of the world's population will live in cities require a different approach to development and poverty reduction, including efforts for climate and the environment."

In the rest of the report, however, "urbanisation" is only mentioned twice. The recognition is not followed up in other analysis or policy proposals. The existing knowledge base about cities in aid is thin, and what exists confirms historical assumptions that help to reduce the need for action. The problem is not that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NORAD have acted completely "blind", but that the historically built-up knowledge base and development practices have defended a lack of effort on a failing factual basis. With aid's reluctance to get involved in urban areas and urbanization issues, the challenges are once again left to underfunded cities, local movements and civil society organisations. Big cities in the south represent most of the development challenges in combination, but require the development of specialist expertise in urbanisation, urbanism and participatory development – ​​also in Norway.

Looking the other way is no longer an option.

See also the master's thesis Norwegian Habitat Policy: Perspectives on urbanisation, the city and human settlement patterns in Norwegian development aid (
Ellefsen is a social geographer and board member of Habitat Norway.

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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