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World: Analysis From Washington -- The Loss Of Roots

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 12 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- More than half of the world's people within the next five years will for the first time be living in urban areas. That trend is already placing unprecedented strains on government services, the economies, and the political systems of an increasing number of countries.

Those are the conclusions in a report released by the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. It shows that the percentage of people living in urban areas has risen from 18 percent in 1950 to 40 percent in 2000 and will reach 50 percent by 2005.

Not only is the percentage of urban residents unprecedented but the rate of urbanization is accelerating, especially in third world countries. That trend is compounded by the fact that an increasing number of people living in urban areas are or soon will be living in megacities with more than ten million residents each.

Cities have always been the basis for civilization. Indeed, the word civilization comes from the same root as city. But until now, most people in most countries have lived not in cities but in rural areas. Now, however, increasing agricultural productivity has allowed ever more people to move from the farm to cities. And improvements in medicine and public health in the cities have contributed to longer life spans and added to the urban population explosion.

One of the reasons that Western Europe and the United States are doing relatively well economically and politically is that their rates of urbanization were higher earlier and are now relatively slower than in many of the countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where increases in urbanization are taking place at unprecedented levels.

The most immediate consequences of this dramatic urban growth are the pressures it puts on communal services: housing, educational facilities, and public utilities, including medical facilities. In many places, urban population growth has far outpaced the ability of city and even national governments to cope, leading to the rise of massive slums, where conditions may be better than in some rural areas but are breeding grounds for disease and crime.

According to the study, "over 600 million people in cities of developing countries cannot meet their basic needs for shelter, water, food, health, and education."

Urban growth has also placed enormous strains on the economies of countries where the cities are growing so fast. Frequently, there are no jobs for the new city residents, and the constant influx of relatively less well-educated people from the countryside continues to depress the incomes of existing urban residents. Few of the older residents dare organize and strike lest they be replaced by the army of the newly urbanized poor.

But the most dramatic impact of the rising tide of urbanization is likely to be in the political arena. People who move to the cities often lose the identities their earlier places of residence had provided. That not only contributes to alienation, but it makes them candidates for mobilization by politicians who seek to enhance their own power by providing these new arrivals with both an explanation of the arrivals' problems and a broader identity.

In some countries, these political entrepreneurs play to the class interests of the newly urbanized poor. But far more often, especially in Africa and Asia, they play to the ethnic or national concerns of this group. They seek to include the new urbanites in an identity broader than the one these same people had when they were in the villages. At the same time, these politicians exploit the anger these new urbanites feel about forces loosed by economic globalization.

Because of that, and because urbanization is projected to continue to accelerate in most places for the next century, these class and ethno-national feelings are likely to play an ever greater role, especially if the new urbanites continue to suffer both the indignities of economic difficulties and the loss of traditional identities.

Unless the international community takes these trends and feelings into account, many of the countries that benefited from earlier urbanization of their own populations appear likely to be challenged by countries that are experiencing far more rapid and far more difficult urbanization now.