Development in an Urbanizing World: Lessons from Asia

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  • 2012•07•24

    Lorraine Telfer-Taivainen

    The Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary, was the venue for the launch on 16 June 2012 of the just-published UNU World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) book Urbanization and Development in Asia: Multidimensional Perspectives, which was edited by Jo Beall, Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis and Ravi Kanbur, and published by Oxford University Press India. The launch took place within the framework of the Global Development Network’s 13th Annual Conference being held in collaboration with CEU, in a session chaired by Francois Bourguignon of the Paris School of Economics, GDN Board of Directors, and a former UNU-WIDER board member.

    The lead editor of the book, Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis, former UNU-WIDER Senior Research Fellow and now Senior Economist at UNDP Nepal, presented the main findings of the UNU-WIDER research project on development in an urbanizing world that constitute the book, with a strong focus on the globalization, gender, and economic opportunities aspects.

    The 20th century was marked by rapid urbanization, through urban growth as well rural-to-urban migration. By the beginning of the 21st century, more than half of the world’s population was living in urban areas — for the first time in human history. By 2030, almost five billion people will be living in towns and cities, with urban growth most concentrated in Africa and Asia.

    Asia shows the complexity of urbanization, especially when it is migrant-led. Asia’s cities have come to the fore under the present wave of globalization, and their growth increasingly reflects this.

    Successfully incorporating the globalization–migration–urbanization nexus into overall development policy must respect the fact that “the displaced” are not “without a place”. The UNU-WIDER book highlights a basic thesis: that urbanization led by migration is a process and not a problem. This process needs to be better managed by understanding the realities of migrants.

    Urbanization inevitably implies displacement of people, caused by push-and-pull factors — such as land availability, employment, labour policies, etc. People flee across borders and within countries due to political conflict and wars. Environmental degradation also pushes people out of their homes, and most “environmental refugees” move to cities rather than go abroad.

    Urbanization’s gender dimension is crucial, especially in urban property ownership and tenancy relationships. Women own a negligible proportion of South Asia’s urban-landed property. They are more found in the lowest ranks of the residential hierarchy, often in vulnerable living arrangements such as informal renting and lodging.

    Securing independent titles for women to urban land and housing is a long-term goal. Joint titles are a step forward in establishing women’s rights to property, although the obstacles remain significant. Policy initiatives to strengthen their ability to make land claims are extremely valuable. Measures to do so include education, reform of the judiciary and governance, public awareness campaigns, equality of treatment in resettlement schemes and land allocation processes, as well as equal access to credit and technological inputs.

    Despite high growth, child malnutrition in South Asia is more severe than in even the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. This “South Asian enigma” can be mostly attributed to women′s low status in the region. In the mostly patriarchal societies of South Asia, women lead a cloistered life, especially in rural areas. Moving to the cities is likely to change that as urban life exposes women to more progressive norms of life.

    From the presentation of this UNU-WIDER book, it can be concluded that the combined effect of the three outstanding forces of recent times — globalization, migration and urbanization — usually accompanies social and economic development, but rapid urban growth on today’s scale strains the capacity of local and national governments to provide even the most basic of services. There are different dimensions of migrant exclusiveness based on class, gender composition, their land and property rights, their place of origin and so on. Allowing people to freely move to the cities can help a nation′s economic development experience, with better lives for all, including women.

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    This article was originally published as “Urbanization and Development in Asia: Linkages with Globalization and Migration in the June–July 2012 issue of the WIDER Angle newsletter.