Introduction to urban poverty

Around a billion people live in informal settlements. Drawing on the knowledge and practical experience of our partners in Asia, Latin America and Africa, IIED is working to reduce urban poverty, and to change misleading views about urbanisation and rural change.

2014 - ongoing
Anna Walnycki

Principal researcher, Human Settlements research group

Urban poverty
A programme of work showing how IIED is working to reduce urban poverty and to change misleading views about urbanisation.
Langrug informal settlement, South Africa, May 2014 (Photo: Diana Mitlin/IIED)

Langrug informal settlement, South Africa, May 2014 (Photo: Diana Mitlin/IIED)

The scale and depth of poverty is underestimated by most governments and international agencies, and this helps underpin ineffective policies. This is made worse by the lack of voice for low-income urban dwellers and their lack of influence within governments and aid agencies. 

We are living in what is often described as the "urban century" – most of the world's economy and more than half its population are now in urban areas. The world continues to urbanise – and most of the growth in the world's population is in urban areas in low- and middle-income countries.  

Around a billion urban dwellers live in informal settlements, most of which are affected by:

  • Poor quality, overcrowded housing
  • Risk of forceful eviction
  • Lack of safe, readily available, water supplies
  • Poor provision for sanitation, drainage and solid waste collection
  • Lack of access to healthcare, emergency services and policing
  • Difficulty accessing government schools, and
  • Locations at high risk of disasters and with risk levels increasing because of climate change.

Most definitions and measurements of poverty take none of the above into consideration, as they are based only on income-levels. And income-based poverty lines are usually set too low in relation to the costs of food and non-food needs for urban populations.

Our focus for the next five years

IIED is working to reduce urban poverty, and to change misleading views about urbanisation and rural change. Drawing on the knowledge and practical experience of our partners in Asia, Latin America and Africa, over the next five years we will:

  • Help to ensure that the post-2015 sustainable development agenda (replacing the Millennium Development Goals) pays more detailed attention to urban poverty and inequality, and includes more appropriate goals, targets and indicators.
  • Continue to challenge the use of inappropriate poverty lines, especially the $1.25 USD per day extreme poverty line specified in the draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Poverty lines have to reflect the real cost of food and non-food needs in each location, recognising that in urban areas all goods and services are commodified, and avoiding extreme poverty needs more than $1.25 per person per day.
  • Recognise the central role of local governments and representative organisations and federations of the urban poor in reducing urban poverty. We will encourage and support the right of such groups to be engaged in setting and monitoring goals and targets, and in co-producing basic services. Successful examples will encourage other local governments to change their approaches.
  • Produce knowledge on how secure tenure, basic services and housing are being provided to low-income households; and analyse the effectiveness of these strategies.
  • Recognise how community-led interventions (such as improving security of tenure and access to basic services) can grow into inclusive city-wide programmes, especially where there are city-wide organisations of slum/shack dwellers.
  • Continue to develop our understanding of how women, men and children from low-income households view poverty, and of how they develop their priorities.
  • Increase support for funding channelled direct to community organisations as in the Urban Poor Fund International managed by Slum/Shack Dwellers International and the Asian Coalition for Community Action managed by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.

In addition to listening to and learning from federations of slum and shack dwellers, and homeless people, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, we will add to the more than 50 papers documenting their work and experience that we have already published in Environment & Urbanization.

To support our aim to ensure that urban issues (including urban poverty) continue rising up national and international development agendas, we will be working with shack/Slum Dwellers International to develop community-driven models to provide sanitation at costs that low-income households can afford.

We will also be focusing on how decentralised finance can deliver sustainable development.

​Other projects related to our urban poverty work are: 

  • Understanding housing improvements: Funded by Comic Relief, IIED is working with uTshani Fund in South Africa to improve government funded housing delivery and understand how efforts can be scaled up
  • Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA): ACCA challenges conventional funding models by giving small grants and support to low-income communities for the initiatives they choose, and by encouraging collaboration with local government, and
  • Assessing risk and vulnerability in African cities with the Universities of Ibadan, Mzuzu, and Cape Town, the African Population and Health Research Centre, Save the Children, and Kings College and University College London (the Development Planning Unit).

Additional resources

Dismantling barriers to health and wellbeing for Nairobi’s refugees, Kanyiva Muindi, Blessing Mberu, Alice Sverdlik (2019) IIED Briefing

Refugees in cities: grassroots researchers shed light on basic needs, Anna Walnycki (2019) IIED Briefing

Cities for all? Rethinking urban displacement, Lucy Earle (2019) IIED Briefing

Urban social movements, poverty reduction and social justice, Diana Mitlin (2014), IIED Briefing paper

Two books summarise the work of IIED and its partners on urban poverty. These are:

Reducing urban poverty in the global South, David Satterthwaite and Diana Mitlin (2013), Routledge

Urban poverty in the global South: scale and nature, Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite (2012), Routledge

Read relevant materials at the Comparative Urban Study Project at the Woodrow Wilson Centre. In particular, Global urban poverty; setting the agenda (PDF), edited by Allison M. Garland, Mejgan Massoumi and Blair A. Ruble (2007)

Empowering squatter citizen; local government, civil society and urban poverty reduction, edited by David Satterthwaite and Diana Mitlin (2004), Earthscan

Environment & Urbanization, world leading environmental and urban studies journal