Friday, 31 January 2014

How should we measure quality of life in urban centres?

This blog, written by David Satterthwaite with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), discusses what indicators are needed in order to assess the quality of life of the urban poor. The post is part of the Wikiprogress series on the quality of life.

Mexico City

Almost 1 billion people currently live in slums, and this number is expected to grow by nearly 500 million by 2020 - if we're to ensure that no one is left behind in the future development agenda, we need to determine whether progress is really reaching these marginalised groups. And for that, we need appropriate indicators and data.

Rather than reviewing the appropriateness of existing indicators on urban quality of life, this blog begins by considering what indicators are needed. This allows an assessment of existing or proposed indicators for their appropriateness and shows the huge inadequacies in the indicators currently used.

These indicators can be divided into those relating to living conditions (who 'lives in poverty'), access to public services and income and assets. They could include indicators relating to possibilities for citizen and community engagement – a voice for the urban poor, for example that includes whether they can get on the voter register or access public services and the possibilities of getting appropriate responses from government agencies.

Living conditions among urban populations

These should include sufficient indoor space per person, housing constructed with permanent building materials, and a secure site that does not pose any risk (so not on a site at high risk of flooding or under threat of eviction). They should also include safe and regular supplies of drinking water piped to the home, and a good-quality toilet in the home that all residents can use.

Data on each of these indicators should be available for each dwelling unit. The current indicators fail to show us which dwelling units have these conditions. Furthermore, the data is from national sample surveys, with the sample sizes too small to give a clear indication as to where living conditions are poor.

So for example, the Demographic and Health Surveys or Living Standards Measurement Studies may tell a government that X per cent of their urban population lack safe drinking water piped to their dwellings, but they fail to identify the deficient urban centres, let alone pinpoint where the individual dwellings are.

The data collected at the moment is also inadequate in itself. The definitions of what constitutes ‘improved’ water and sanitation are so broad that they include forms of provision that are grossly inadequate for most urban contexts. Even when there is data on water supply, it does not include details of the cost, quality or regularity of supply of that water.

Urban dwellers’ access to public services

Every urban household needs a solid-waste collection service, and a regular toilet-emptying service if not connected to sewers. Urban dwellers need access to good-quality healthcare and emergency services, schools (and day-care provision), public transport, and policing in their settlements to ensure the rule of law. They also need to be able to vote and hold local politicians to account.

At best, data for these indicators is only available from national sample surveys, so once again it’s of no use in identifying where needs are located. In fact there is no data at all for many of these. One surprising fact revealed in studies of informal settlements is that there are often private schools because the inhabitants cannot get their children into government schools without a legal address. Toilet and washing facilities are also often provided by private companies, and these services have to be paid for.

Income, assets and the poverty line

Indicators relating to whether individuals or households have sufficient income to meet their needs are particularly valuable in urban contexts because most aspects of good living conditions have to be paid for. But the monetary poverty line (the minimum income required to meet needs) must be set to reflect local costs.

The costs of food and non-food needs vary a lot within nations; usually they are highest in larger and more successful cities (especially rent for housing). They also rise where provision for water, sanitation, schools and healthcare is inadequate and people have to pay private enterprises for these services.

So poverty lines need to be adjusted to reflect differences in costs within nations – and we must avoid the application of the same monetary poverty line across a nation. The large variation in costs within nations is already recognised by the United Nations when setting the daily allowances for their own officials; yet this variation is not applied to poverty lines.

The worst offender is the US$1.25 a day poverty line: in many nations this figure bears no relation to the costs of needs (including adequate living conditions) and includes no adjustment for where such costs are particularly high.

The need for local data on urban poverty

Measuring urban quality of life has to be about better measurement in each locality, not more questions in national sample surveys. This needs to be linked to the institutions with responsibilities for addressing needs – mostly local governments and civil-society organisations.

It is also about better use of census data so local authorities can see where the deprivations are located. The collection of data should engage the urban poor themselves; this becomes easier and far more productive where there are representative organisations formed by those living in informal settlements or slums (now the case in over 30 nations).

Engaging with the women-led savings groups at the foundation of most of these federations will produce far more accurate data about living conditions, therefore about what is needed and what it costs. And there are some amazing examples of data on living conditions in informal settlements done by the inhabitants themselves.

Unfortunately, most of what is suggested above does not generally figure in discussions on measuring urban poverty. Debates over how to measure poverty in a post-2015 framework typically fail to acknowledge how the income required to avoid poverty varies within nations and how high that income requirement usually is for those living in informal settlements in cities; nor do they mention the need for official statistics to support local action and actors. If these key necessities were recognised, it really would promote a revolution in national statistical offices.

There is no discussion of the role of urban-poor groups themselves as data-gatherers and users, or as people with the right to question ‘expert’ judgements made about their needs. And there is no mention of the fact that the $1.25 a day poverty line is hugely inappropriate even for measuring ‘extreme’ poverty because of the size of the urban population with a higher income than this figure yet still living in extreme poverty.

This blog appeared first in early January as part of the ODI series on "Measuring progress in the quality of life of the urban poor: are indicators and data fit for purpose?".

See also 

No comments:

Post a Comment