Third World cities face collapse

J. Joseph Speidel

November 20, 1990|By J. Joseph Speidel

ALREADY DESPERATE living conditions in Third World cities are doomed to further deterioration unless rising urban population growth is not curbed.

Urbanization is, after population growth itself, the major demographic trend of the 20th century, but urban centers can't keep up. Whether in the field of education or public health, communications or housing, Third World cities are already overwhelmed by the struggle to provide services, let alone expand or improve them.

In a recent Population Crisis Committee study of the world's 100 largest metropolitan areas, 53 of the 57 in developing countries were ranked low in terms of living standards. Only one city in an industrialized country - aples - ranked as low as the Third World cities.

The problem is growth, and at a faster rate than has ever been seen before. Since 1965, Mexico City's population has tripled, from 7 to 20.1 million. In contrast, the New York metropolitan area only grew by a million people over the same period. By the year 2000, Mexico City will be home to more than 30 million people, making it the most populous city in the world.

Throughout Latin America, the proportion of city dwellers is projected to increase to over 80 percent by the year 2015, up from 50 percent in 1965. In Asia, the urban population will grow from less than a quarter of the total to more than 45 percent, and in Africa, from 20 percent to at least 50 percent. That is, unless current trends are reversed by strong family planning programs in both rural and urban areas.

In poor countries, the hardship and expense of urban life are gradually dampening enthusiasm for large families. That, in turn, has fueled a powerful and growing demand for family planning services. However, this demand has not been filled because such services are frequently inaccessible or unaffordable.

About half of couples in developing countries now use some form of family planning, but families of four children are still the world average. If universally available, studies show that three-quarters of couples would use contraception and, as a result, family size would decrease to the two-child "replacement" level. World population would thus be stabilized at just less than twice its current level.

Today, a total of $3.2 billion is spent on providing family planning services worldwide. Yet to achieve the goal of population stabilization would require annual spending of only $10.5 billion by the year 2000.

This would, however, require a much larger effort on the part of aid donors. Currently, only 20 percent of expenditures on family planning in developing countries come from foreign aid and only 1 percent of foreign aid ` a mere $550 million ` is directed toward population assistance.

Based on their ability to pay, aid donors' share of the $10.5 billion total would be $5 billion. If total foreign economic assistance were doubled by the century's end, this funding goal could be met by allocating just 5 percent of the total for population programs.

The number of people in the world's poor countries increases by over a million every five days. This growth, coupled with the exhaustion of farm and forest land, continues to drive workers to urban areas in a desperate search for work. Yet, important as it is, this migration accounts for less than half of urban growth ` most results from high birth rates within the cities themselves.

As a result, many of these cities will double their size in less than 20 years. For their residents, this means ever increasing deprivation: ramshackle housing and more homelessness, polluted water and air, and for many infants and children, early death.

Thus, in a very real way, the absence of family planning services is a fundamental contributor to the high levels of human misery to be found in the urban areas of the Third World.

To make family planning available will require a substantial boost in spending, but the outlays are trivial compared to the cost of urban collapse if current growth continues unchecked.

As one city politician from India told a U.S. reporter recently, "With a lot of new resources, maybe, just maybe, we can hold on to what we have. Beyond that, there's not much hope."

J. Joseph Speidel is president of the Population Crisis 8 Committee.

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