Cities are invisible in the UK Department for International Development (DFID) review of UK aid. Yet only a year ago DFID were calling cities “The New Frontier” in a high profile document that proclaimed “Cities are the future of the twenty first century”. In contrast, the aid review does not discuss cities at all. Its focus is strongly tilted towards rural areas, and support for UN-Habitat is to be withdrawn. All “urban” voices within DFID appear to have been silenced.

What does the review say?

“UK Aid: changing lives, delivering results” makes good the important pre-election commitment to earmark 0.7% of UK GDP for international development from 2013. The government deserves credit for moving the UK towards this UN target. However, there has been justifiable criticism of the “securitisation” of aid announced in the review. Some 30% of the budget is to go to unstable states. “A clearer focus on conflict prevention” is how it is described. The extra money for places like Afghanistan will be invested in things like “freer and fairer elections” and “law and order”. That’s good news for political parties and for policemen; neither have particularly good reputations when it comes to corruption. In fairness, the report makes clear that hard evidence will have to be produced that demonstrates that every taxpayer’s penny is helping to lift people out of poverty or improve health outcomes. Yet there are many steps between conflict prevention as a general aspiration and such measurable and attributable results on the ground.

The review also encompasses a re-assessment of UK aid through multilateral agencies. It is deeply disappointing to see that the work of UN-Habitat, the only one directly focusing on human settlements, is dismissed so lightly. UN-Habitat largely works through community-based initiatives and with the most marginalised.  Amongst DFID’s criticisms are that it is small scale and limited in the scope of its operations, and overlaps with the UN Development Programme. There is also dissatisfaction with its administrative costs and transparency.

Another UN body chopped from the list of agencies that the UK will support is one concerned with adapting places to climate change. This is the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.  It performs particularly badly on its “contribution to UK development objectives.”

The Commonwealth Secretariat has been put into “special measures”, like a poorly performing English school. It has been given two years to demonstrate improvement. It has probably been spared the fate of UN-Habitat and UN-ISDR because the one of the declared aims in the review is to re-emphasise the importance of the Commonwealth, a theme not conspicuous through the rest of the review.

Why cities matter

The role of economic growth in lifting people out of poverty is stated at the outset. The World Bank has shown that already cities account for about half of the economic activity in less developed countries. Yet no connection is made by DFID to the vital part that cities and urban growth play in economic development. Mumbai generates a sixth of India’s GDP. Better managed urbanisation should be part of a poverty-reduction strategy. Instead, the DFID focus is resolutely on rural poverty. Of course, rural poverty matters, and better health and more children (and especially girls) in schools are good things. However, as Will French and I argued in our work on the state of the Commonwealth’s cities, we are seeing widening inequalities within cities, which pose threats to security and economic development. It is notable that the recent unrest across several countries in North Africa has been urban-led and focused on jobs and the lavish life of the elites.

Water and sanitation get a mention. Given their contribution to unnecessary diseases and premature mortality it would be astonishing if they did not. However, DFID’s focus is not on the burgeoning urban slums, but on the needs of rural communities. Another crucial facet of rapid urbanisation is also mentioned. This is security of tenure and rights to land and property, a theme discussed in my previous blog on Aleppo. Help is promised through aerial photography to create such rights for over 6 million people. Good, but is that enough?

The frontline in the struggles to get adequate and secure shelter, with access to basic services, is now (and will increasingly be) on the edge of rapidly growing poor cities to which rural migrants are drawn by the hope of getting work. Accountants like to slice up budgets into separate baskets. Urban professionals know connections are better than silos and that aggregate sums need to be turned into place-based action.

What now?

In short, this is a review scoped by concerns of the military and security forces, conducted by accountants and steered by agricultural economists. More than ever, we need a strong voice explaining the links between urbanisation and development. There is a body of academic theory and evidence, which the World Bank draws upon, to argue the case for putting cities at the centre of development thinking. The RTPI should articulate this, connect with other built environment professions and with campaigning bodies such as Homeless International, and lead the case for a settlements-based approach to aid. While you are waiting write to your MP.


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