The Optimist

In Praise of Slums

Why millions of people choose to live in urban squalor.

There is something viscerally repulsive about urban poverty: the stench of open sewers, the choking smoke of smoldering trash heaps, the pools of fetid drinking water filmed with the rainbow color of chemical spills. It makes poverty in the countryside seem almost Arcadian by comparison. The rural poor may lack nutrition, health care, education, and infrastructure; still, they do the backbreaking work of tending farms in settings that not only are more bucolic, but also represent the condition of most of humanity for most of history. With life so squalid in urban slums, why would anyone want to move there?

Because slums are better than the alternative. Most people who've experienced both rural and urban poverty choose to stay in slums rather than move back to the countryside. That includes hundreds of millions of people in the developing world over the past few decades -- and 130 million migrant workers in China alone. They follow a well-trodden path of seeking a better life in the bright lights of the city -- think of Dick Whittington, the 14th-century rural migrant who ended up lord mayor of London. The good news is that the odds of living that better life are better than ever. For all the real horrors of slum existence today, it still usually beats staying in a village.

Start with the simple reason that most people leave the countryside: money. Moving to cities makes economic sense -- rich countries are urbanized countries, and rich people are predominantly town and city dwellers. Just 600 cities worldwide account for 60 percent of global economic output, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Slum dwellers may be at the bottom of the urban heap, but most are better off than their rural counterparts. Although about half the world's population is urban, only a quarter of those living on less than a dollar a day live in urban areas. In Brazil, for example, where the word "poor" conjures images of both Rio's vertiginous favelas and indigenous Amazonian tribes living in rural privation, only 5 percent of the urban population is classified as extremely poor, compared with 25 percent of those living in rural areas.

But is it much of a life, eking out an existence in today's urban squalor? Our image of modern slums comes from films like Slumdog Millionaire and books like Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, portraits of India's urban underclass not all that far removed from the horrifying picture of 19th-century industrialization in Charles Dickens's novels about the misery and violence of London's slum dwellers. A recent opinion article in the New England Journal of Medicine called urbanization "an emerging humanitarian disaster." And urban theorist Mike Davis writes in Planet of Slums, "[N]o one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable."

But slum living today, for all its failings, is markedly better than it was in Dickens's time.

For one thing, urban quality of life now involves a lot more actual living. Through most of history, death rates in cities were so high that urban areas only maintained population levels through constant migration from the countryside. In Dickensian Manchester, for instance, the average life expectancy was just 25 years, compared to 45 years in rural Surrey. Across the world today, thanks to vaccines and underground sewage systems, average life expectancies in big cities are considerably higher than those in the countryside; in sub-Saharan Africa, cities with a population over 1 million have had infant mortality rates one-third lower than those in rural areas. In fact, most of today's urban population growth comes not from waves of villagers moving to the city, but city folks having kids and living longer.

In part, better quality of life is because of better access to services. Data from surveys across the developing world suggest that poor households in urban areas are more than twice as likely to have piped water as those in rural areas, and they're nearly four times more likely to have a flush toilet. In India, very poor urban women are about as likely to get prenatal care as the non-poor in rural areas. And in 70 percent of countries surveyed by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, school enrollment for girls ages 7 to 12 is higher among the urban poor than the rural poor.

That said, modern slum dwellers -- about one-third of the urban population in developing countries -- are some of the least likely to get vaccines or be connected to sewage systems. That means ill health in informal settlements is far more widespread than city averages would suggest. In the slums of Nairobi, for example, child mortality rates are more than twice the city average and higher, in fact, than mortality rates in Kenya's rural areas.

But Nairobi's slums are atypically awful, more an indicator of the Kenyan government's dysfunction than anything else. In most developing countries, even the poorest city dwellers do better than the average villager. Banerjee and Duflo found that, among people living on less than a dollar a day, infant mortality rates in urban areas were lower than rural rates in two-thirds of the countries for which they had data. In India, the death rate for babies in the first month of life is nearly one-quarter lower in urban areas than in rural villages. So significant is the difference in outcomes that population researcher Martin Brockerhoff concludes that "millions of children's lives may have been saved" in the 1980s alone as the result of mothers worldwide moving to urban areas.

Slum life remains grim. HIV prevalence rates are twice as high in urban areas of Zambia as they are in rural areas, for instance, and the story is worse with typhoid in Kenya. Slum residents are also at far greater risk from violence, outdoor air pollution, and traffic accidents than their rural counterparts. And the closer conditions in slum areas get to a state of anarchy mixed with kleptocracy, the more health and welfare outcomes tend to resemble those of Dickensian Manchester.

But all things considered, slum growth is a force for good. It could be an even stronger driver of development if leaders stopped treating slums as a problem to be cleared and started treating them as a population to be serviced, providing access to reliable land titles, security, paved roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and clinics. As Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser puts it, slums don't make people poor -- they attract poor people who want to be rich. So let's help them help themselves.

TENGKU BAHAR/AFP/Getty Images

The Optimist

Wealth of Nations

It's time to stop calling countries like Brazil and China "developing." They're just rich.

What's a rich country? It might seem an innocuously straightforward question. But it's not. Rich enough to do what? If you define rich as being able to afford long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, then even poverty-plagued North Korea qualifies (as long as you aren't too concerned about whether the missiles actually work). What about being rich enough to ensure a decent life for all your country's citizens? Many in the United States and Europe would argue that even their developed countries, with the world's highest standards of living, aren't rich by that measure. Or what about being rich enough to be a good global citizen, providing aid to those in more desperate need?

The good news is that, by almost any definition, there are a lot more rich countries than there used to be. The number of countries classified by the World Bank as "low income" -- at or below a national average of $1,005 per person per year -- fell from 63 to 35 between 2000 and 2010. That means there are now more middle-income countries than ever, while still other countries have moved up from middle-income to high-income status. And because rich countries generally lead the charge when it comes to providing aid to other places that need it, a lot more countries could soon be contributing to the global general good. The rise of the nouveau riche could really help change the world.

The United Nations classification of "developed regions" currently comprises Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the United States, and Europe as far as Russia. It's a group that basically includes the countries on top of the global income rankings; in other words, it's all relative, indicating status in the world pecking order, not necessarily wealth itself. And it's a definition that comes with obligations. The U.N. encourages these countries to provide 0.7 percent of their gross national product to foreign development assistance; 16 countries have pledged to meet the target by 2015, and Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden have already surpassed it.

This generous spirit is a longstanding tradition. Fifty-two years ago, in March 1960, the first meeting of the Development Assistance Group was called to order in Washington by Italian U.N. Ambassador Egidio Ortona. Officials from Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and the United States discussed their assistance programs to less-developed countries. Within months, Japan and the Netherlands had been asked to join. All were already giving money to poorer countries spread across Africa, Asia, and Latin America -- the idea was to encourage coordination and greater aid flows.

Yet, most strikingly, many of these donor countries were still reeling from World War II and were far from what we'd think of as rich today. Italy's annual income per capita in 1961, according to the late economic historian Angus Maddison, was $6,373. That's less than the average 2008 incomes in Brazil, China, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, and Thailand (measured in constant dollars). And Italy, mind you, was twice as rich as Portugal was in 1961. By 2008, Egypt and South Africa were already considerably better off than Portugal was back then, while India was roughly on par -- and it's surely richer today.

According to Maddison's data, about 28 percent of the world's population in 1961 lived in countries richer than Portugal, the poorest of the Development Assistance Group members. By 2008, 61 percent of the world lived in countries richer than Portugal was in 1961. In 1961, 75 percent of the world's GDP was produced by countries richer than Portugal. By 2008, that proportion had climbed to 89 percent. Here's the point: Today, most people live in, and the vast majority of the world's output is produced by, countries that would have been considered rich in 1961.

And it's not just income. Countries usually considered "developing" today have far higher average education rates and better health indicators than countries considered "developed" back in the 1960s. Portugal's life expectancy in 1961 was 63 years, according to World Bank data. That's lower than the 2010 life expectancy in Bangladesh, Ghana, and India. In Brazil and China, people in 2010 lived a full 10 years longer than those in 1961 Portugal. In fact, the average Brazilian or Chinese today lives longer than the average Brit or American did in 1961. And the average citizen 15 or older in Bangladesh, Ghana, Zambia -- or even Haiti -- has spent more years in school than the average German or French adult had in 1970.

So perhaps we should ditch the "developing" label we often slap on countries like Brazil, China, and Russia. In historical terms, we'd call them something else: rich. And it seems only fair to ask them to start acting like rich countries -- or at least like the ones from the 1960s.

To be fair, some already are. China's aid program has been growing at nearly 30 percent a year. The assistance programs of Brazil, India, and Russia are also rapidly growing. Add in the longstanding programs from the Middle East (like Saudi Arabia's $3 billion assistance program), and we're talking real money coming from new donors.

Then again, Brazil, China, India, and Russia combined gave away somewhere less than $6.4 billion in foreign assistance in 2010. By contrast, Canada alone gave $5.2 billion, France gave $14.4 billion, and the United States gave more than twice that. And if you take low-end estimates of the combined aid outflow from Brazil, China, and India in 2009, they're still considerably smaller than the aid those same countries collectively received. India, for one, gave aid worth about $488 million in 2009 and received aid worth about $2.5 billion.

So the BRICs -- along with other nouveau-riche countries like Malaysia and Mexico -- have some catching up to do. But if these new donors continue to expand their assistance programs at double-digit growth rates, they'll soon become a real force for development. That's especially important as traditional donor countries cut their aid budgets left and right. Austria and Belgium, for example, slashed their aid budgets more than 13 percent last year, and all signs point to the United States doing something similar this year.

Thankfully, there's a dwindling pool of countries in desperate need of help. Between 2010 and 2025, the number of countries with an average income below $1,165 (the cutoff to receive extremely low-interest loans from the World Bank) could fall from 68 countries with a population of 2.8 billion to 31 countries with a population of less than 1 billion, according to research from the Center for Global Development. Of course, places where the average income is just $3 or $4 a day still qualify as very poor -- and there's a huge role for aid there -- but the need will surely shrink in the coming decades. If aid budgets continue to rise at the same time, wiping out absolute poverty worldwide will become increasingly possible.

Telling Americans living on the poverty line of around $13 a day that they are 10 times richer than the vast majority of humankind throughout history is probably of limited comfort. But the absolute wealth of economies really does matter. It means there are more than enough rich countries to stop talking about the tradeoff between reducing poverty at home and helping the less fortunate abroad. They can afford to do both. Just ask Portugal.

The Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images; VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images; A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images