A new report by the United Nations says contrary to general assumptions, urban populations are not healthier, more literate or more prosperous than rural populations.
The report, prepared by U.N.-Habitat, the U.N.'s human settlements program, smashes a number of myths and goes against the conventional wisdom that people living in cities are better off than those who live in rural areas.
The report says poverty remains common in village and rural populations. But, it notes city slum dwellers are equally disadvantaged and in many cases are in even greater misery and destitution than those in rural areas.
One of the authors of the report, Eduardo Moreno, says concrete evidence shows there are two cities within one city. In one part, he says, the privileged have all the benefits city life can offer. But, in the other part, poor people living in slums and squatter settlements barely survive. They live in overcrowded and often dangerous conditions, and there are many of them.
"We are showing that slum dwellers that represent today one out of three of the total inhabitants in urban areas in the developing world will die earlier than the rest of the population of the city," said Moreno. "They do not have the same opportunities in terms of education, access to health. They have less possibility of getting a job and they are suffering from many illnesses."
The report says urban growth rates are highest in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 70 percent of the urban population lives in slums that often lack access to water and sanitation.
In countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti and India, it finds child malnutrition in slums is comparable to that of rural areas. But, in many African cities, children living in slums are more likely to die from water-borne and respiratory illnesses than rural children. It says, women living in slums are also more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than their rural counterparts.
Co-author of the report, Nefise Bazoglu, says people do not have to live in such squalor. She says countries such as Egypt, Thailand and Tunisia have managed to reduce slum growth in the last 15 years and have made considerable investments in improving slums.
"Go to a slum area and then sort out the land ownership issue and bring water and sanitation and provide services, technical assistance for building sturdy houses because most of these houses are prone to disasters-floods," said Bazoglu. "You must have read in media that the first victims of floods or fires or whatever they are, are slums."
The report notes countries do not have to be wealthy to get rid of their slums. It says some low- or middle-income countries, such as Brazil, Colombia, Philippines, Indonesia, South Africa and Sri Lanka, have managed to prevent slums from growing through good housing and employment policies.