Should urban migration be encouraged?

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).

8 thoughts on “Should urban migration be encouraged?

  1. The best argument I’ve heard for urbanization comes from India; I’m not sure precisely where I read it but it may had been in the book Maximum City: as bad as slums like Dharavi look, nobody starves, or even has to go malnourished, in cities in India. In contrast droughts still hit rural areas hard and the relative price shifts they induce sometimes lead to waves of farmer suicides.

    This is an extension of Sen’s claim about the political economy of famine and democracy. The urban poor are highly visible and easy for the government to feed relative to rural populations.

    I’m not sure that economists running the world would be a good thing but I’m definitely glad that non-economists are typically not in charge. At the margin India is better off with a Manmohan Singh making decisions than a Jonathan Glennie – and lest we forget, Singh is an economist whose unpopular ideas about regulation played a major role in leading millions of Indians out of poverty.

  2. I think this entire level of analysis, while interesting fodder for discussion, is misguided and overly paternalistic when used to inform policy or project design. Most development and aid policies have sufficiently poor records of being able to create real opportunities for people that they don’t have the luxury of wringing their hands about whether those opportunities are rural or urban. If you can create opportunities in agriculture, you should do it because you’re creating opportunities, not because it’s a way of keeping people out of cities. If you can create factory jobs, you should do it because you’re creating opportunities, not because its a way of moving people into cities.

  3. From a government’s point of view, there are at least two reasons to discourage urbanization. First, cities grow faster than poor-country governments are able/willing to build infrastructure. Before you know it there’s ad hoc trash dumps and open sewers everywhere. And once they’re in place they’re not easy to replace. I’m thinking of Luanda right now just because I’m most familiar with it, but really it applies to any large third world city.

    Second, and more self-interestedly, angry urban poor can overthrow the government a lot easier than angry rural poor. And short of that, they can make their voice heard a lot easier. Yes, rural districts are often overrepresented in legislatures, but that’s a much more manageable form of popular pressure than angry demonstrations right outside the government buildings.

    (On the other hand a country with a Stasi-trained security apparatus like Angola certainly has an easier time handling urban malcontents than rural insurgents, but the Angolan state structure is kind of an anomaly.)

    All that being said, anti-urbanization policies are basically spitting into the wind anyway.

  4. My first reactions:

    – More African governments have been overthrown by rural insurgencies than urban mobs
    – In most Western cities, growth also outpaced infrastructure for a time. If anything, African cities may be doing a better job

  5. Hi Chris, interesting discussion. Just for clarity, I don’t have a rural bias. There are many advantages to living in an urban area, and poor people need to be able to make informed decisions about whether to move or not. My point was that an economic analysis, which focuses on wages and productivity, is an important but limited input into that decision making and for public policy making, because it can fail to take into account other human factors important to progress and poverty reduction. To encourage people to move, based on argument from wages, which is what the panel were suggesting, is narrow and probably flawed.

  6. Fair enough. I don’t know that the panelists would disagree. They were arguing against policies that distorted incentives for people to stay in rural areas, and highlighted wage differentials as the main economic force driving people into cities. The main argument, I think, was that higher standards of living (in terms of wages) only come from productivity improvements, and productivity improvements of the magnitudes required to create huge jumps in wages only come from industry, and so poverty alleviation is necessarily going to mean large-scale industrialization and urbanization. People value other things, and that may cause them to move to cities for lower wages, or wait for higher wages, because they value certain rural or urban amenities, but that is really a separate story than the productivity one, no?