A children's habitat

Habitat 3 & urban childhood inequalities

As the great and good of the international development world, urban experts and heads of government descend on Quito for Habitat 3 - the United Nations' Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development - another important gathering will happen on the outskirts of the main event as UNICEF host a panel on "Children in cities in the Latin America and Caribbean region: beyond the average".

The University of Manchester's Professor Armando Barrientos from the Global Development Institute will be participating in this event. A professor of Poverty and Social Justice, he has also acted as an adviser to the ILO, The World Bank, DFIF, UNICEF, the Caribbean Development Bank and more…

Tell us about your interest in exploring urban inequalities in childhood?

I am particularly interested in poverty reduction programmes and the most successful types of these are human development transfer programmes or conditional cash transfers which are particularly popular in Latin America where they are one of the main methods to try and reduce poverty.

So why is urban inequality such an issue for children in Latin America?

The government of Ecuador has probably one of the largest programmes of these type in the whole of Latin America, so it is good that childhood urban inequality will be discussed in Quito at the same time as the Habitat 3 conference on urban issues.

Firstly, if you look at the profile of people in Latin America, you find that children by far make up the majority of the population and are over represented, therefore, in poverty compared to other population groups. This is partly because families that are large with lots of children tend to be poorer and also at that point when your children are going to school it can be one of the more difficult points in the life cycle in terms of generating income and managing money.

Secondly, traditionally in Latin America a lot of the policy towards reducing poverty and inequality have not been specifically aimed at children and child poverty until recently. The focus is now moving towards children. So if you look at anti-poverty programmes as an investment towards children's future - i.e. improving things with future benefits such as their education and healthcare as well as current concerns such as their consumption and nutrition - then it is more likely that they will get out of poverty as adults and their own children will not be in poverty either because they'll have had better opportunities within the labour market etc.


What are some of the biggest issues that face these children?

Probably the most significant issue for children is the mismatch between poverty provision and where children in poverty live. Whilst places like Manchester developed so that people with lower incomes traditionally lived close to the city centre with the wealthier living further to the outskirts, in Latin America it is exactly the other way around. So there, low income groups are outsides of cities and the better off live in city centres.

About 50 years ago there was a big migration from rural areas to urban. But newcomers could not find places to live in the city centre and so they lived on outskirts – in many cases – taking land that that was not being used or did not belong to anybody and then they moved on from there.

If you map service provision – schools hospitals and government buildings – they are all in the centre of cities. Low income households live far from the centre and it can mean it is hard for education access and healthcare. Public agencies are supposed to help people in poverty, but they are located far away from those they need to reach. If it costs a lot to get to each other, then it doesn't happen. So one of key things is the mismatch between service provision and where people live.

Why is this situation so complex?

This is more than a matter of low income families being excluded. If you have new accommodation, new houses and new buildings in a particular city, then the council has responsibility to ensure they have gas, electricity and sanitation. In a context where you can plan this, the council will approve a proposal for a new development. However, the situation in Latin America relates to informal settlements with people taking available land and no real planning system there. So some cities in Chile for example are very hilly because where people settled informally was the worst type of land. It was difficult to access and costly to reach these parts of Chile with services.

So it is not that local councils are ignoring the poor and these inequalities; it is that they don't have resources to get to them. If you think of lots of hills and how you will get water up and sanitation down, it's very difficult and expensive. In some parts they resettle people by talking to them and explaining how impossible it is but they’ll say, "If you move here and we give you land there, then it is easy for us to help you." This situation has not been a process that has happened through planning, it has been a process of struggle, a process of social movements. It has not been a pre-planned situation.

So what are the solutions?

There is still an obligation to get water, sanitation and electricity to these areas. It takes time but it does happen. It is a case of creating and developing an infrastructure.

Property ownership needs to be considered as most people don't have deeds or titles to their homes. They may have migrated from rural area 30 years ago to access schools but the property may have changed hands 4 or 5 times and there are no titles to the land. Legislation is a complex area and provides some protection for the initial settler but none to people who may have bought the property and moved on or to their children or children’s children etc.

What will you do and say when at the UNICEF panel in Quito?

For me, there are three key questions:

How did we get here? Why are levels of child poverty in Latin America so high compared to other groups in the population? This gives you a focus in terms of policy. My provisional answer is that it is to do with many factors relating to the lifecycle of families etc. But one key contributory factor is that governments for a long time have not seen children and families as a key audience for social protection. There has been more focus on workers in informal employment.

What should governments focus on now? The answer to the first question gives clues. Government has to have innovative policies that improve the prospects of children and their capacity to develop as human beings in the future. There has been progress with governments now starting to do this. 

What is the final stage we want to reach? The answer, to me, should be that our society is more inclusive of different groups in the population. There should not be a distinction based on where families are located but we should try to cater for all of them. We want a more inclusive and equal society in terms of the inequalities all people currently face. Tackling the prospects of children can enable us to get to this future point

And so, please tell us your parting thoughts?

I'm not a geographer or urban planner but I would say, we are where we are. It would have been ideal if cities were planned from the beginning. But that is not the case. So rather than have a radical solution that changes everything, we need to see how we will progressively to change cities and make them more inclusive.

My first ever job doing mapping of informal settlements to get the information to provide people with land titles. Over a period of 40 to 50 years I have seen areas where people live with no water or electricity in my home town in Chile and where some people lived with very simple small wooden constructions - sometimes made of second hand materials and metal etc - they now have water electricity and proper infrastructure and they are in a very different situation.

So rather than think we are going to change everything and erase it and start again, it is more a matter of how you can accelerate the process that would happen naturally; how you can improve it and how you can pay more attention to people living in these communities from the start. But, it happens. It does finally happen.