Movement to End Poverty Goes Urban in Africa


Residents of this slum in Nigeria suffer from all the health problems — and other problems — associated with extreme poverty. A initiative by The Earth Institute aims to fast-track achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in some of the poorest cities in the world.

Photo credit: O. Lehner/CE

Sustainable development demands that two disparate systems — urban and rural — equally meet the needs of their inhabitants without overburdening natural resources. The sustainability of agriculturally based villages, for example, depends on the health and well being of cities for access to large markets and services. Put simply, the sustainable development of one requires the same of the other.

Recognizing the importance of this interdependent relationship in achieving sustainable development, The Earth Institute at Columbia University, in partnership with the Columbia University Program on International Investment, and with support from the UN Millennium Project, is launching the Millennium Cities Initiative, which aims to fast-track the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals — eight time-bound targets to accelerate an end to poverty and inequality — in some of the poorest cities in the world.

In sub-Saharan Africa the proportion of urban residents living in slums is the world's highest, at 71.9 percent, according to the United Nations Settlements Programme. Millions of people across the region lack access to potable water, sanitation, electricity and other basic services. Additionally, in urban settings, vulnerability to HIV and other diseases is notably higher. Rapid urbanization and increasing populations are outpacing opportunities for employment and industrial growth, leaving millions entrenched in dire poverty.

To address these challenges, the Millennium Cities Initiative is the natural next phase of a comprehensive strategy to achieve sustainable development in ten African countries. Its sister program, the Millennium Villages Project, is working with communities dependent on subsistence-farming to become economically self-sustaining through a range of related interventions including provision and training of improved agricultural methods, increased access to health care and medicines, enhancement of household services including sanitation, water, and energy and many others.

Building on the success of the Millennium Villages, the Millennium Cities Initiative will capitalize on a similar development strategy, which aims to achieve the MDGs through a range of recommendations made by UN Millennium Task Forces. With this foundation, both the rural and urban systems will be working synergistically to increase the potential, development and self-reliance of the other.

The Millennium Cities Initiative will commence in six of the ten countries currently participating in the Millennium Villages Project. They include: Kisumu, Kenya; Blantyre, Malawi; Kumasi, Ghana; Akure, Nigeria; Bamako-Segoiu, Mali; and Louga, Senegal. With populations that range from 120,000 (Louga) to 1.3 million (Bamako), each city is in close proximity to a Millennium Village — a situation that can help foster a farm-to-market relationship as well as multi-level policies that can meet the unique needs of one system while considering the benefits and challenges to another.

Over five years, the Millennium Cities Initiative hopes to achieve four key goals:

  • To identify investment opportunities in the selected cities, improving the capacity of each to attract investment, strengthen mechanisms for dialogue with foreign investors, and bring a number of investors to consider prospective investments there.
  • To help foster an economic boost by disseminating research results that might interest multinational companies in ventures that will generate jobs and stimulate domestic enterprise development, raise the cities' profiles for investors, and commit to responsible environmental stewardship.
  • To help stakeholders carry out MDGs-based needs assessments in various social sectors to learn what is actually needed in each city (number of clinics and the cost of improved sanitation, for example) to achieve the MDGs in each municipality.
  • On the basis of these needs assessments, to help the participating cities, in cooperation with other international organizations, create and implement development strategies to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Millennium Cities Initiative project leaders will be working closely with national and local officials to identify foreign direct investment opportunities, expand economic sectors, and bring jobs to millions who are currently unemployed. This initial focus will then help Millennium Cities Initiative teams to address related problems to bolster economic infrastructures and create opportunities at every level of society.

To start its work, the Millennium Cities Initiative received some funding from the Earth Institute's Earth Clinic, and project leaders are now seeking public and private support for the Initiative.

The project team based at the Earth Institute at Columbia University includes the world-renowned specialist in foreign direct investment, Karl P. Sauvant, who has a joint appointment with the Law School, and Susan Blaustein, Co-Director of the Millennium Cities Initiative and Earth Institute Policy Advisor. The Initiative will also partner with the private sector, as well as agencies and individuals in the field, both through the UN system, the Millennium Project and the non-profit community.