Published on Voices

Cities: The new frontier of social protection

photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

​Consider this: By the time you had breakfast this morning, the world’s urban population grew by some 15,000 people. This number will increase to 180,000 people by the end of the day and to 1.3 million by the end of the week. On a planet with such a vast amount of space, this pace of urbanization is like crowding all of humanity into a country the size of France.

Cities are where most of the world’s population lives, where more and more of population growth will occur, and where most poverty will soon be located. 

But why do so many people choose cities? Poor people constantly pour into Rio de Janeiro and Nairobi and Mumbai in search of something better. The poorest people who come to cities from other places aren’t irrational or mistaken. They flock to urban areas because cities offer advantages they couldn’t find elsewhere.  The poverty rate among recent arrivals to big cities is higher than the poverty rate of long-term residents, which suggests that, over time, city dwellers’ fortunes can improve considerably.

The flow of people into cities makes urban areas dynamic, but it’s impossible to ignore the risks of concentrated poverty. Whenever people crowd together, it is easier to exchange ideas or goods, but it is also easier to exchange bacteria and spread violence. When those crowded people are disproportionately poor, then the risks increase, because they have fewer resources to handle such problems on their own.  

The high concentration of population and poverty demand more effective public policies that will address the costs of density. There are also amplified risks that poor people face by settling in areas prone to natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes. Some 870 million urban dwellers are estimated to be exposed to these risks by 2050.

We need to begin a conversation about the role of social protection for people living in urban areas. This should be a dynamic and catalytic role that bolsters upward mobility through better access to safety nets, social services, housing and job opportunities tailored to urban settings.

I’m in Beijing, China where around 250 policymakers from 75 countries, ministers, mayors, department heads and experts from both the social protection and urban development spheres have gathered for the 2015 South-South Learning Forum. It’s the first global event that looks at the emerging knowledge and practical innovations in the as-yet underexplored area of social protection in cities.
World Bank Group Vice President Keith Hansen welcomed State Councilor Wang Yong and Civil Affairs Minister Li Liguo to the Social Protection & Labor South-South Learning Forum 2015 in Beijing.
photo: Mohamad Al-Arief/World Bank

Let me highlight a few examples where the World Bank Group is partnering with governments to advance social protection in cities:

Here in China, we are supporting the government to integrate social assistance programs, including in urban areas.  The aim is to ensure a well-targeted, well-functioning national safety net program reaching over 20 million people in cities across China.

In Mexico, we are working with the government as it unveils the cutting-edge Prospera program, which leverages the country’s tremendous experience gathered from the conditional cash transfer programs, PROGRESA and Oportunidades. Prospera embodies a renewed commitment to urban poverty and a more deliberate strategy for addressing it. Our support is helping reach over 25 million beneficiaries while enhancing coordination and expanding our understanding about what works.

And in Ethiopia, we are supporting the new Urban Productive Safety Net Program. The project is part of the government’s 10-year plan to address urban poverty and is designed to reach over 4.7 million poor urban dwellers, through a combination of unconditional transfers, public works programs, and activities to bolster self-entrepreneurship and wage employment in cities.

Through all of these programs, you can see how urbanization represents one of the most critical and strategic frontiers for social protection. While countries have achieved massive gains and progress by introducing and scaling-up social protection systems in rural areas, we still have a lot more to learn about how to operationalize safety nets in urban settings. And yet this is where most of the world’s population lives, where more and more of population growth will occur, and where most poverty will soon be located.

Simply put, the future depends on whether cities thrive, stagnate, or sink.  Let’s make sure they thrive.

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Keith Hansen

World Bank Country Director for Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda

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