Urban dwellers in low- and middle-income nations are on average better off than those in rural areas – healthier, better educated, better housed, with more livelihood opportunities. This rural-urban distinction has encouraged a focus on rural poverty as the most compelling development concern. But it can be a misleading dichotomy. Not only does it ignore the vital links between rural and urban and the complex continuum that they occupy; it also hides considerable inequalities within these categories. This is especially the case where urban averages are concerned. Cities are home to the wealthiest people and to some of the most excluded and deprived. There can be stark disparities in urban incomes, assets, levels of provision, political influence and social status that often exceed any gap between rural and urban averages. The reassessment of objectives within post-2015 debates is a chance to recognize these disparities and the associated injustices as integral to addressing our commitment to a better world.
Urban inequalities are also masked by standards and definitions that fail to take account of urban realities. National poverty lines often disregard the higher cost of living in most cities and what it means to be tied to a cash economy. These inequalities really matter where every basic need has to be paid for or otherwise negotiated.1 Applying global standards for the provision of sanitation and water can also be misleading in densely populated settlements, communicating a level of adequacy that is not warranted.2 Understanding the causes, nature and extent of urban inequalities is critical, not only because it calls attention to severe and increasing deprivation in many urban areas, but also because of the ramifications of these disparities for economic growth, for peace and security, for the health and well being of all citizens, rich and poor, urban and rural.
A detailed, comprehensive understanding of urban inequalities is impossible at present because of serious data limitations. Census data, where it exists, is generally published at a high level of aggregation, and in many countries, does not even include informal settlements, whose residents remain unrecognized and uncounted. Other externally supported surveys and assessments (for example DHS, MICS, PRSPs) use representative samples that are too small to allow a detailed look at inequalities within cities; in addition to under-sampling those living in informal settlements, they may also ignore the street homeless. Only large categories can be derived – like urban versus rural – and many equally important inequalities are not captured.
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