Slums are cities, too

With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015, a debate is blazing about their successes and failures, and how best to replace them.

The MDGs are global development targets for all United Nations member states. Essentially, these goals aim to expand the international community's awareness of poverty and pro-poor economic growth.

Since 2000, when the eight international development goals were officially established at the Millennium Summit hosted at the UN headquarters in New York City, a lot of progress has been made globally. For example, child mortality rates have been reduced and maternal health has improved, and we are combating extreme hunger, HIV AIDS, and malaria.

But what about slums, where 1 billion people live today, and 2 billion will live by 2030?

People are rapidly moving from rural to urban areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Since the mid-20th century, when this urbanization wave intensified, cities of the global South have come into focus. The international community recognized this, and MDG 7 ("Ensure Environmental Sustainability"), target 7.D declared an intent "to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers" by 2020.

Kibera, a slum neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya. (Source:  Wikimedia Commons )

Kibera, a slum neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

How are we doing? The UN reported that the living conditions of 220 million slum dwellers were improved in 2010 -- 10 years earlier than expected. This was largely due to poverty alleviation programs of India and China. (Other countries have made far less progress.)

This is good, in a sense, but it's not the full story. Rather, it is now increasingly clear that in setting the goal based on "100 million slum dwellers," population demographers underestimated the growth of cities in the global South. According to the "State of World Cities 2010/2011," while 220 million people are enjoying better living conditions, the total number of slum dwellers rose from 767 million in 2000 to 828 million in 2010. Are we running only to end up standing still?

In hindsight, one of the failures of the MDG slum target was setting an absolute numerical target instead of a more integrated and proportional target, which can respond to the dynamics of urbanisation. New proposals have been set forth on how to rectify this situation.

Last November, world leaders congregated in Rabat, Morocco, where a new "slums-target" was agreed to: to halve the number of slum dwellers by 2020. Countries will therefore have different targets and means of achieving better living conditions for at least half of the slum dweller population.

The rate at which slums are growing will need to factor in when the next set of global development targets are set in 2015. These are most likely going to be called "Sustainable Development Goals" (SDGs). After all, we now have to contend with a range of "sustainability" issues, such as climate change, disaster risk management, rising income inequality, crumbling infrastructure, rapid urbanisation, and so on.

A number of ideas are already being put forward for the SDG period. UN-HABITAT -- mandated to monitor the progress of the targets aimed at slums -- is proposing targets that consider comprehensive "Sustainable Cities and Human Settlements." The Overseas Development Institute is calling for greater focus on goals aimed at inequality, infrastructure, and climate change mitigation.

It seems to me from these ideas that a strong message is emerging: If we want to see vibrant and productive cities, we also need to see that slums are vital to their future. Governments need to acknowledge that slums are here to stay.

As we enter into the SDG period, we need to learn about the successes and failures of the MDGs. We need to ensure the goal-setting process does not reduce and simplify the real transformation needed to achieve "inclusive" urban development. Only when we embrace a comprehensive and inclusive view of cities, where slums are developed and not vilified, will we reach greater sustainability and inclusivity of cities.


  1. This article first appeared on UBM Future Cities