Dealing with urban poor

Saturday, 3 March 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

FOR the first time in history, the world’s urban population is becoming larger than the rural. Already 50% of the world’s population live in cities and of this, one billion are estimated to be children. This trend is set to be particularly strong in Asia as China and India’s economies lift millions out of poverty.

Over 66 of the world’s fastest growing cities are in Asia and at present the race is led by 629 million people in China as well as 367 million in India. Indonesia follows with 106 million, while closer to home Pakistan has 62 million urban people and Bangladesh 41 million.

These details are outlined in the State of the World’s Children 2012 launched by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Friday in Sri Lanka. However, locally the issue has barely been scratched. While the Government predicts that Sri Lanka’s urban population is to grow by 2.1% year on year and statistics have shown that the number of malnourished children in cities has grown from 2000-2007, there is little being done to address issues of children in these areas.

 The last statistics of urban children in Sri Lanka date back to 2007 and is evidence of the lack of attention that this problem is getting. Making the assumption that simply because people live in the city they are financially stable or because the per capita income of a country is growing there are fewer poor people in cities is dangerous.

Within the tall skyscrapers of Colombo there are islands of neglect. Children may see a power line stretching over their ramshackle dwelling, but they may have no electricity; their home may be perched on a water pipe but they may have no access to clean water. Due to the rising cost of living, poor in urban areas are in some ways more susceptible to lower standards of living than their rural counterparts.

Despite Sri Lanka’s impressive social data many children remain malnourished. UNICEF data shows that 21% of all children less than the age of five are undernourished, 15% are wasting and 17% are stunted. When children reach the latter level, there is no point of return and their potential is lost forever.

Sri Lanka is not experiencing anything different from other developing nations. However, the Government has to acknowledge that the problems for the country’s children are changing and put in place necessary policies to combat them. Ensuring the basic rights of the future generation is a focal point of real development.

Children need to be put at the heart of urban planning to extend and improve services for all. It is speculated that around 30% of Colombo’s population alone lives below the poverty level and there are more than 65,000 slums in the capital. The issues of other towns when factored in would paint a bleak picture and give a different focus to development.

Recognition of community-based efforts to tackle urban poverty is essential so that the Government can have constructive partners. A focus on equity is crucial, one in which priority is given to the most disadvantaged children wherever they live.