Jonathan Glennie at Poverty Matters blogs one of the Growth Week panels on industrial development and poverty (and afterwards thanks God that economists don’t rule the world).
He especially objects to one conclusion, that: “The marginal farmer in India is helped to stay in agriculture, when this is exactly the person that needs to be encouraged to move to an urban area.”
First, there is the issue of livelihood security. Smallholders rightly see their land as the most important asset they have. Why risk it for a job in the city which could fall through? What would you have to fall back on? Even waged labourers (far more numerous than land owners) might have more security in rural areas, because of the social protection afforded by networks of family and friends (which also exist in cities, but have to be built up).
Then there are the non-financial reasons for people to stay in rural areas. These include:
- cultural aspects (compare decades or centuries of local culture with the offerings of a city slum)
- health advantages (it depends, but some rural areas will have a healthier environment than cities, and that may outweigh the better health services you might expect in urban areas)
- political franchise (“voice” and organisation tend to be stronger when associated with place).
Jonathan is right to think about well being from a wider perspective. But is his rural bias right?
One mistake people make is to equate “urbanization” with moving to the capital or a slum. Large towns and cities are urban centers, where much of a nation’s industrial production takes place. This kind of urbanization is the kind poor governments ought to stop discouraging.
But what about the migration to large cities?
Urban Westerners have a curiously romantic view of rural life. Here’s an alternative view:
- real rural incomes are often risker and lower than urban ones;
- even if services are cheaper to deliver in rural areas (that’s the first I’ve heard that claim), access to schools and clinics differs: would you rather a school that is .5 or 5 miles away?
- political voice, in Africa at least, has historically come from cities and towns not rural areas; and
- women’s emancipation seldom starts in the countryside; for half the population, centuries of local culture can mean second-class citizenship.
There are many attractions to urban life, and the level of wages is not necessarily the first of them. I know which world I’d rather live in (maybe even if run by economists).