US Congress Discovers Urbanization

Urbanization is going to be the next great challenge of international development. Over a billion people now live in cities, and most of those people live in slums. City dwellers face higher rates of obesity, malnutrition, communicable diseases, and chronic illness like high blood pressure and diabetes. Moving from a rural area to a city puts the migrant at an increased risk of violent crime and poverty.

But people continue to migrate. Our entire planet is urbanizing at surprising speed. Turning that migration into an opportunity instead of a disaster is going to be one of the great challenges of the next hundred years.

The US Congress just noticed this. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), along with Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) just introduced legislation intended to “meet the challenges of urbanization in developing countries and expand existing U.S. Agency for International Development efforts to craft better strategies for sustainable urban development.”

Those are certainly laudable goals. But here’s the thing: USAID noticed the challenge of urbanization over ten years ago. They have an Office of Urban Programs, which has been in existence since at least 1995. USAID’s Making Cities Work Urban Strategy has been ongoing since 2002. They have urbanization advisors and programs all over the world.

New legislation calling for USAID to develop a strategy on urbanization, consider creating an advisor position, and support programs that address the problems of city life isn’t going to have much impact on that. The ideas in the legislation are nothing new, and adding another mandatory annual report to an already overburdened agency is just annoying. Not to mention that the legislation doesn’t include any new financial resources; it calls for USAID to support all of this out of its existing budget.

If Congress really wants USAID to scale up efforts to make urbanization beneficial, then they ought to allocate more money to make that happen.  If you want a new focus and new programs to support it, you need to find new money.