UNICEF State of the World’s Children report: Don’t neglect the urban poor


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Half the world's children in urban areas pie chart timeline

It might come as a surprise, but the images of compelling landscapes from our recent Amazing Africa photo series are as foreign to many Africans as they are to us. Consider this: Today, more than 3.5 billion people live in cities — and that number is only set to grow. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicts that Asia and Africa will experience the greatest urban boom. (Check out this interactive infographic to see for yourself.)

Urban growth fastest in Africa and Asia

A UNICEF report released last week focuses on the more than 1 billion kids growing up in burgeoning cities around the world. On average, children in urban areas are more likely to be well-fed, educated and healthy than those in rural areas. But as the UNICEF report highlights, this so-called “urban advantage” is gravely misleading. Gaps between affluent families and disadvantaged ones are huge — which means that the averages fail to reveal just how difficult circumstances are for disadvantaged city kids. And since these stats obscure reality, too many children living in urban poverty aren’t receiving the resources and support they need.


Already, 30 percent of city residents worldwide live in slums; that percentage skyrockets to a devastating 60 percent in Africa. As cities continue to grow, slums will too, and by 2020 an estimated 1.4 billion people will live in disadvantaged informal settlements. Disparities in access to education and health care between rich and poor kids are often greater in cities than in rural areas. Even though urban dwellers tend to live closer to schools and hospitals than residents of rural areas do, they are often denied access because they can’t afford services or because of discrimination against their gender, ethnicity or disability.

Urban growth fastest in less developed regions

But the news isn’t all bad. The report offers a few steps to get us started in the right direction — toward equality for all kids, especially those in poverty, in rural and urban areas alike.

Improve understanding of the scale and nature of urban poverty and social exclusion that affects children. Now that we know the “urban advantage” is a myth for millions of kids, researchers need to focus on gathering data that accurately represents the challenges they face.

Identify and remove the barriers to inclusion that prevent marginalized children and their families from taking part in public life and from benefiting from existing services.

Focus on the particular needs and priorities of children by following recommendations like those in the Child-Friendly Cities Initiative.

Promote partnership between the urban poor and government. People in difficult circumstances know what they need and should be consulted in the development of their communities. Children and young people, too, should have a voice in the conversation. Check out UNICEF’s Oneminutesjr. videos to see what kids have to say. Ginândria António Novela, a 13-year-old from Mozambique, aspires to put her plans into action when she becomes governor of her hometown, Chibuto.

Work together to achieve results for children. All actors — national and local government officials as well as community members and aid workers — should combine forces to work toward fairer cities for kids.

The goals aren’t easy, as UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake admits, but they’re worth working for. “Some might ask whether we can afford to do this,” Lake writes, “Especially at a time of austerity in national budgets and reduced aid allocations. But if we overcome the barriers that have kept these children from the services that they need and that are theirs by right, then millions more will grow up healthy, attend school and live more productive lives. Can we afford not to do this?”


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