The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

The global urban agenda must focus on employment and income levels, not just housing and services

Kerwin Datu argues that the global urban development community has lost sight of its own agenda, and perhaps even deserves to lose its funding until it can reclaim a focus on urban employment and income levels alongside its obsession with housing and services.

Kerwin Datu

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Fukuoka-Kitakyushu, Washington DC, Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi

Topics: Water, waste and sanitation, Housing, Labour and livelihoods, The global urban agenda, Development

In March 2011, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) completed a major review of its multilateral aid, which resulted in it pulling funding from a number of organisations, including UN-HABITAT. DFID wanted to focus on organisations that offered the UK taxpayer 'good' or 'very good' 'value for money' based on existing achievements. This meant such organisations as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM), UNICEF and the Fast Track Initiative for Education for All. At the time I argued that this was shortsighted, that DFID's focus on measurable results misunderstood the complexity of urban areas and the higher degree of difficulty that urban agencies operate within compared to their counterparts in health and education. UN-HABITAT's underperformance, I proposed, was due to its insistence on tackling complex problems, not repetitive ones.

I am starting to form another view. Whether or not urban problems are more complex, or less measurable, it seems that the organisations that retained their funding have a clear vision of their purpose, where we in urban development do not. For example, the global health community, exemplified by organisations such as GAVI and GFATM, has always had a clear purpose in the eradication of communicable diseases; the global education community has an equally clear objective when it comes to universal literacy. The clarity of these visions lends itself to easily defined and quantified targets against which progress can be measured, and to consistent and comprehensive programmes to collect appropriate data in each country, such as the Global Health Observatory maintained by the World Health Organisation.

The global urban development community does not have so clear a sense of its own agenda. It has been alarming to watch over the past two years how so many urban organisations have made the fashionable subject of climate change the focus of their work, dropping the ball on the many other profound urban challenges such as housing and livelihoods along the way. We have become followers of the sustainability agenda, rather than leaders of the cities agenda. Of course climate change and sustainability are important issues, but they are secondary to our core mandate of cities, which we are allowing to slip into irrelevance as DFID's funding decision shows. This happens at the very moment that big business is jumping onto the cities bandwagon in a huge way, a movement we ought to be harnessing with great speed, but which we seem not to embrace with much sophistication.

Perhaps the experience of the Millennium Development Goals, where the bar was set so miserably low for cities — goal 7.4 sought to improve the lives of only 100 million out of nearly one billion slum dwellers around the world — made us shy from talk of visions and targets. But we need to regain our appetite for a common vision, and articulate our agenda in a way that gives national leaders and donor agencies no choice but to embrace our challenges as their own.

One might say that we have such a vision already, embodied in slogans like "cities without slums" and "housing for all".  I would argue that these visions are incomplete enough as to be misleading and counterproductive. It has been well documented how the notion of "cities without slums" gives cynical governments the rhetorical leverage to commit the most brutal evictions and demolitions in informal areas. But beyond this, the overemphasis on housing and the residential aspect of slums leads even the most well-meaning governments to embark upon large-scale housing initiatives that destroy livelihoods and undermine the economic sustainability of their cities, in the belief that housing must be resolved above all else.

We are focused too much on the supply side of urban services (how do we provide more housing, more infrastructure, more water and energy?) and not enough on the demand side, that is, how do we increase employment and income levels to create lasting, self-sustaining demand for those provisions? And we are teaching the private sector to make the same mistake. The big businesses that have started to engage the cities agenda are all learning to focus on the supply side as well — housing provision models, service provision models, infrastructure provision models — with very few asking how they can help solve urban unemployment, create new industries and new jobs and raise urban income levels, all of which are needed to finance those models in the long term.

This affects how we use data as well. The Global Urban Observatory maintained by UN-HABITAT is designed largely to capture statistics on shelter deprivation and service provision, with very little on employment, job creation and income levels. And whenever we collect data at the individual neighbourhood or settlement level, we tend to capture how many people reside in each area, and the quality of their residential spaces, but much less on  how many people work in each area, how much they earn, and the quality of their commercial and industrial spaces. As it stands, UN-HABITAT's working definition of slums suggests that these spaces do not even exist.

Collecting data on poverty is not enough; we need to go beyond subsistence or vulnerability models of livelihood to measures of overall earning capacity. We need data on job creation and employment growth, whether formal or informal. We also need to capture income levels as well as, crucially, disposable income levels, since these represent the surpluses required to finance and maintain housing and services in the long term.

The cities agenda is a dual agenda: universal housing and services, but also universal employment and disposable income. Neither can occur sustainably without the other. To galvanise donors, governments and business alike requires that we promote both of these visions simultaneously. It also requires that we collect consistent and comprehensive data on both fronts, to measure our progress, to compel governments to act on both without undermining one or the other, to substantiate our claims for funding from donors, and to harness the good intentions of the private sector in the right way.

is Editor-in-chief of The Global Urbanist. This article first appeared in the second edition of CityScapes, a biannual magazine-style publication that seeks to establish a critical and creative platform for interdisciplinary thinking around urbanism and design on the African continent, with reference to thinking and practice in the wider global South. Reprinted with permission.