The Tide of Urbanisation


The Tide of Urbanisation

We all recognise and understand the word ‘city’. A city is where numerous people pursue a living, dreams and even fame and fortune. However, it is also where many people struggle to live within their means and survive. What about you? What does a city mean to you?

An Irreversible Trend

Back in the 1950s, only 30% of the global population lived in cities, a figure that skyrocketed to 55% in 2018. Already outnumbering the rural population, urbanisation has, indeed, become a global and irreversible trend. According to the United Nations’ World Urbanisation Prospects: The 2018 Revision, it is estimated that urban population will account for 68% of the global population by 2050, due to the continual rural-to-urban migration and the overall increase in global population. This represents an increase of 2.5 billion people in the global urban population, with India, China and Nigeria expected to account for 35% of it. India, alone, is expected to add 416 million urban dwellers, while China and Nigeria will add 255 million and 189 million respectively.

Urbanisation and Sustainable Development

In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by United Nations member states in 2015, the topic of sustainable cities and communities is addressed in Goal 11, which aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. In The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018, the UN points out that many cities are facing various challenges due to urbanisation, from providing adequate housing and infrastructure for people living with rapid urbanisation, to combating the environmental impact of urban sprawl, and to reducing people’s vulnerability to disasters. This shows that a country’s implementation of sustainable development is related to its progress in urbanisation. As the world moves towards urbanisation, sustainability becomes even more reliant on the growth of urban areas, especially in low- and middle-income countries where urbanisation is most rapid.

Effective urbanisation must take into account the trends of population change, in order to expand the strengths of the population, cut down on waste of resources and eliminate any potential negative impact that comes with the population growth. However, certain factors such as wealth disparity, climate change and migration, not only affect the daily lives of urban population, but also delay sustainable development. Therefore, it is important for countries to enact policies to respond to the challenges that accompany an ever-growing urban population, including housing, transport, energy and other infrastructure, as well as the need for basic services, like employment, education and hygiene.

Inevitable Outcomes of Urbanisation

It remains debatable whether urbanisation is a good thing, with those who are part of it and those who remain in rural areas holding very different views. Generally speaking, the quality of life in cities appears to be better than that in the countryside, in terms of culture, education, medical and social services, and even participation in culture and politics. Urbanisation is also seen as an important indicator of economic development. However, we have noticed, some countries, in their rapid but short-sighted efforts to carry out urbanisation, have largely failed to alleviate poverty and cities, in return, experience a more severe level of social inequality and wealth disparity than in the countryside. Those who have moved into cities from rural areas may find themselves trapped in greater poverty and are even forced to live in slums. If urbanisation is seen as a necessary condition of economic growth, then it is also a symbol of prosperity. But it also creates the issue of urban poverty, which is best highlighted by the presence of slums.

As defined by UN-Habitat, a slum is basically “a heavily populated urban area characterised by substandard housing and squalor”. There, one can also identify the following phenomena: lack of access to clean water, infrastructure and sanitation facilities, poor housing structure, high population density and unguaranteed right to housing. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018 states that while the proportion of the global urban population living in slums dropped from 28% in 2000 to 23% in 2014, the actual number of people living in slums rose from 807 million to 883 million. That is an increase of 76 million people, or about ten times the size of Hong Kong’s population.

Rural-to-urban migration is, undoubtedly, a prime cause of the existence and spread of slums. When people from rural areas flock into cities to look for a way out of poverty, but are yet to benefit from the urban economic growth, they can only resort to living in slums. However, as their right to housing is not protected, people also lack the initiative to change the environment of the slums. This is why slums remain an unaddressed social issue in many cities around the world and an indicator for measuring urban poverty.

In recent years, I have visited three slums: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Nairobi, Kenya and Kolkata, India – three cities that are either current or former capitals. They represent prosperity and opportunities, but are also home to countless urban poor. I was particularly struck by India, because the slums had seemingly became part of the city. While taking a walk through the streets and alleys, I had to walk on the road as many had already made the pavement their home. Some made use of different disposed items to build simple tents, and others simply slept on the ground at night when there were fewer less people. This was how urban poverty illustrated its severity to me.

Living conditions in the slums of Kolkata were horrifying, with vulnerable children facing all kinds of dangerous threats, such as expulsion, violence and human trafficking, etc. As hygiene and sanitation were less favourable and water likely contaminated, infant mortality rates were higher, and it was common for children to develop health issues, including stunting and underweight. Moreover, the air quality was poor with most of the temporary shelters in the slums built near roads, while the lack of waste management meant that rubbish was everywhere, making the slums hotbeds for skin diseases, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. How can children thrive in such circumstances?

Caring for Urban Children

For children, the scale and speed of urbanisation pose serious threats to their health, safety and well-being. The challenge is even greater for vulnerable children, who are deprived of their basic rights, exposed to crime and street violence, and even become victims of child labour or human trafficking. In other words, the challenges that children face in an urban context is are far more complex and less obvious than those encountered in a rural context. Therefore, the Cities for Children Framework, which is anchored in World Vision’s four child well-being aspirations and outcomes (Children 1. Enjoy good health, 2. Are educated, 3. Experience love and 4. Are cared for, protected and participating), seeks to address children’s vulnerabilities in urban contexts and promote the well-being of urban children in the long run.

  • Safer Cities: To ensure that children and their families live in a safe and protected environment, free from violence, abuse, exploitation and harm.
  • Healthy Cities: To strengthen availability of and access to public health services and contribute to healthy urban environments where children can thrive.
  • Prosperous Cities: To create an enabling environment for overall liveability focusing on inclusive education, pro-poor employment, local asset building and greater economic productivity for youth.
  • Resilient Cities: To ensure children and their families are prepared to respond to, recover and rebuild from urban shocks, stressors and vulnerabilities.

  • It is evident that the world is moving towards urbanisation. The changes and challenges that this brings to the economy, societies and families should be recognised and responded to by the allocation of more resources. While in India, I also met a young man named Vishal, who grew up in a rapidly urbanised context. Vishal was a street child and became a child labourer at the age of five. He used to work for about ten hours a day, instead of going to school. He would earn only 15 rupees (about HK$1.7) every day, which could only pay for the cheapest food for him and his family. This finally ended when he met World Vision and was given an opportunity to learn English. He is now a university graduate, has a stable job and lives with his family in a small house that he bought. That opportunity prevented him from being drifted away by the tide of urbanisation and poverty.

    When we talked about his future, Vishal told me that he wanted to be a good person and sponsor a child. His answer taught me that while there are so many big and difficult questions that we cannot solve, we can start from by helping a child. By giving what we have, change will gradually become reality.

    Stories of Urban Children


    13-year-old Jatin lives in Agra, India with his parents and siblings. Like many of the children living in the city, he has to work to support his family, a burden that no child should ever have to shoulder.

    “My father became very ill, so I had to leave school to work and provide for my family,” says Jatin. “That was four years ago, and I am still working.”

    Jatin and his father work in a shoe factory that was set up in a residential home. With heavy machinery and sharp tools everywhere, the environment is anything but safe, especially for a 13-year-old boy.

    To help his family make ends meet, Jatin starts work, at a shoe factory, at 8am every day and is deprived of the opportunity to go to school.
    “This is something he should never have had to do. I wish I could have provided him with an education and the childhood he deserves,” says Jatin’s father.

    Every day, Jatin starts work at 8 in the morning and is usually home by six in the evening. “My father has returned to work at the factory and we earn 2,000 rupees (about HK$225) a week,” says Jatin. “My work involves cutting, stitching and gluing the leather pieces. My hands hurt because of the work and sometimes I even cut myself while using the scissors. Work is hard but there is no other option.”

    “The manager scares me when he shouts and yells at me sometimes for not doing my work properly. There are days I don’t want to go to work, but then I know that if I don’t, we won’t have enough money for food and to continue paying the rent,” he continues. “I am happy that my younger brother and sister are at least going to school. I miss it sometimes. I miss my friends and also miss learning. When I first started working I used to think about school all the time, but now work keeps me busy, so I don’t miss it anymore.”

    “I know I can’t return to school. Supporting my family is the most important thing now.”


    Looking for a better life for their children, Jawahar and Vimlesh moved to Agra 25 years ago from their hometown Sultanpur, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, where Jawahar was a day labourer. He now works as a shoemaker, but work is not steady, and he has not had a regular job in three months.

    Jawahar was 24 when he married Vimlesh, who was 14. “I was in eighth grade at the time, and I had to drop out of school. I didn’t understand what marriage was, and we fought a lot,” she says. “I have made a pact with myself that I won’t marry off my girls before they turn 20.”

    Varsha (first from right), a participant of World Vision’s Smart Child programme, actively visits sponsored children in her community to ensure that they are in school.
    For Varsha and her sister, Ashu, life follows a very different path from their mother’s. They focus on their studies – Varsha excels in art and maths. They take part in various extracurricular activities, including a children’s club where they learn about and advocate for children’s rights, as well as a child monitoring programme called Smart Child. This programme trains teenagers to help ensure sponsored children in the community are in school, look for signs of abuse and child labour, and establish trust among neighbours. Through the training, Varsha and other Smart Children, including her sister, have learnt how to interact with adults, develop leadership skills and had their confidence boosted.

    “I used to stay close to my family,” says Varsha. “But now I have become more outgoing and have developed a sense of responsibility.” Vimlesh also noticed the change in her daughter. “She used to lack confidence, but now she is bolder. Her leadership qualities have been nurtured,” says Vimlesh. In fact, the same can be said of Vimlesh, herself. Ever since she became involved in changing her community, especially through a savings group where she was elected president, “I am more open-minded and feel more comfortable talking to people. Now I am able to say whatever I think,” she says. “When I was young, I used to cover my head and face. I wouldn’t make eye contact, I was shy and submissive, and I was embarrassed to go outside the house.”

    “I sent my kids to school because I want them to learn at a young age,” continues Vimlesh. “Because I want things to be different for them. I will encourage them to study as long as they can. Education can give my children a brighter future.” She even works with World Vision staff to spread this message to other parents, encouraging them to also send their children to school.

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