Lessons in urbanizing from BRICS

In another four decades, urban residents will account for 66 percent of the population in developing countries, says the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

As climate change contributes to cyclical droughts and floods, many African and Asian countries are witnessing large numbers of people moving from vulnerable rural regions to urban centres. Poor countries have begun to respond to this movement of people. Some African countries, for example, are trying to promote rural development in a bid to stem the rural-to-urban migration.

This had been a goal of Brazil’s military regime back in the 1960s. It had tried to stimulate economic activity in outlying regions and to reduce migration to its cities - but those efforts did not deter people from moving into cities. In fact, it led to the promotion of urban inequality, with large segments of the population inhabiting poorly located and poorly served informal settlements, the now-famous favelas.

Similarly, the former Soviet Union imposed an internal passport regime to restrict access to its urban areas as early as 1932. These controls forced many undocumented migrants to live in deplorable conditions.

The efforts and missteps of these and other BRICS countries (together they are: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) offer lessons on migration policy for the rest of the developing world, says a paper produced jointly by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

The BRICS, which have the world’s fastest growing economies, have tinkered with every kind of response to rapid urbanization. Collectively, their experiences reveal some dos and don’ts.


1. Don't try to block the inevitable movement of people from the rural areas to urban centres and then haphazardly try to make up for it later, as Brazil's subsequent democratic regimes later attempted. A participatory budgeting process was initiated in cities, providing an opportunity for every resident to have a say on the municipal budget. But this approach requires an organized civil society and informed citizenry, conditions that take time to cultivate. “Although these practices have made real progress, the problems were too large to swiftly eradicate,” says the paper.

2. Don't be ambivalent to urbanization. South Africa’s apartheid forced many black residents to live in confined, unsafe spaces at the periphery of cities. Later, its democratic government decided to adopt a neutral stance to avoid the mistakes of the past, but it did little to “overcome the legacy of urban segregation”, according to the paper. The government does not have a consistent national policy for planning or managing the process of urbanization, which has created hostility towards informal settlements and backyard shacks.

"The overarching lesson is that the failure to plan for predictable urbanization causes serious problems."

India has also been largely ambivalent to urbanization, which could leave the country unprepared to add an expected 400 million people to the labour force by 2050. At the moment, agriculture-related activities provide a living to less than half of India’s current workforce, and this sector is unlikely to absorb many more people, which will compel many to seek work in cities.

3. Don’t assume creating progressive policies, laws and municipal institutions will be sufficient. These measures - which are often only on paper - are not enough to “harness the potential of urbanization”, points out Ivan Turok, an urban planning expert and author of an IIED paper on urbanization in South Africa. The real task is to ensure these policies - formulated sectorally - work as a whole. For instance, if a municipal council attempts to provide better housing for informal residents, it has to take into account ownership rights, access to cheap transportation, distance to job opportunities, and availability of health services and education. Another critical issue to consider would be whether suburbs have an equal share in any municipal spending.

4. Don’t exclude the voices of the poor. With municipalities in larger metros unable to raise enough taxes for maintenance, India has seen urban resident organizations enter into partnerships with the private sector for the provision of services in their localities, writes urbanization expert Amitabh Kundu. Poorer suburbs, unable to contribute financially, are mostly excluded from such initiatives. More affluent residents' associations have even gone to the courts to remove informal settlements.


1. Do accept that the poor have the right to be in cities. After that, prepare in advance for their land and housing needs within a constantly updated vision of sustainable land use, write George Martine and IIED's Gordon McGranahan in a paper on Brazil. The most effective way to do this is to provide land and services for them before they arrive, rather than taking remedial actions that are much more costly to both poor city dwellers and the city itself.

2. Do invest in communities living in informal areas. Some South African municipalities have set up disaster-management units to help communities cope with the consequences of shack fires, flooding and other hazards. This has helped bring the number of disaster-related casualties down. Some have invested in infrastructure and services to improve its residents’ quality of life.

3. Do help people living in informal settlements and unsafe housing acquire cheap land. A new government grant in South Africa supports the upgrading of existing settlements and the creation of new housing opportunities in better locations by subsidizing the acquisition, servicing and release of land for low-income housing.

Q & A with Gordon McGranahan, the team leader on urbanization at IIED, about lessons for developing countries.

Q: What are the lessons from the BRICs?

A: The overarching lesson is that the failure to plan for predictable urbanization causes serious problems. In the BRICs, there have been a few largely successful attempts to halt urbanization - apartheid in South Africa and the Cultural Revolution in China - but these illustrate the extreme problems that can arise from trying to control urbanization directly. There are also positive examples - the social programmes in Brazil and the urban experimentation in China that helped underpin its amazing economic success. But there are no panaceas; getting urbanization right means making difficult trade-offs.

Q: Is urbanization inevitable? Some studies suggest rural development efforts are causing people to move to villages.

A: Urbanization is not inevitable, but as economies shift out of agriculture, urban population growth almost inevitably occurs, often at a rate disturbing to urban authorities. In India, some authorities seem to be curtailing urbanization by reducing the number of migrants and low-income households settling in their cities… My understanding is that [people moving to rural areas] reflects a failure to create dynamic and economically successful cities. Some studies do indicate counterurbanization in the face of economic problems, but it is difficult to think of a low- or middle-income country undergoing both sustained economic growth and de-urbanization. If rural investments can only be justified on the grounds that they prevent people from moving to cities, then I would argue they cannot be justified at all.

Q: Should urbanization be considered only the movement of people from rural areas to urban ones? Or is urbanization also the development of rural areas?

A: This raises important issues about definition and, eventually, about policies. Urban densities are declining, while rural lifestyles and occupations are increasingly similar to urban ones. There are still environmental and economic advantages to dense urban settlement, however; these need to be exploited. China went through a period when it seemed its industrialization would be much more rural than usual, but when the economy started to boom, enterprises in urban settlements outcompeted rural ones.