We are focused on advancing a number of critical areas for cities that correlate with improving human rights, labour, the environment and good governance and anti-corruption and the new Sustainable Development Goals.

We encourage action, projects, collaboration and sharing of knowledge and practice in these focus areas.

Focus Area
Inequity and Livelihoods


In recent decades, the world has experienced an unprecedented rate of urbanisation, mainly driven by large numbers of people migrating from rural areas to cities. Recently, this trend has implied that more people now live in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history. Urbanisation should not be perceived as undesirably per se since it has traditionally been associated with development. People move to cities to improve their lives. They are often driven from rural areas by a lack of income earning opportunities and environmental factors and attracted to better employment opportunities, higher wages and superior access to basic services in cities. However, recent evidence suggests that these benefits associated with migration in the past, are not necessarily being realised by new migrants to cities now. Due to limited livelihood opportunities, large numbers of migrants are forced to live in informal squatter settlements, characterised by unemployment or hazardous work, crime and limited access to electricity, education and health services. As a result, there are often huge inequalities in peoples’ standard of living in large developing country cities.

At least three of the 17 new United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address these immense challenges of inequity and livelihoods directly:

  • Goal 8 is to Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all;
  • Goal 10 is to Reduce inequality within and among countries; and
  • Goal 11 is to Make Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable.

Inequity and livelihoods

Inequity and livelihoods in cities are inextricably linked. Inequity and inequality are often used inter-changeably but inequity implies that there is a lack of fairness to a level of inequality. Inequalities exist across all facets of life: income, housing, access to services and also to power and access to opportunities. Wherever discrimination exists, inequity exists and this is an important issue in the world’s multi-ethnic and multicultural cities of the world today.

Livelihoods relate to how people and households secure their basic needs of food, clothing and housing. The nature of people’s livelihoods will depend on their physical assets and resources, their level of human capital but also their legal rights, their social networks and their access to information and new technology. Since the command over livelihood assets and resources varies greatly within cities, there are often high levels of inequality in living standards that can be deemed as inequity.

Cities and the rise of squatter settlements

Rapid rates of urbanisation are leading to the emergence of megacities; cities with more than 10 million people. There will be an estimated 37 megacities by 2025, the vast majority of which will be located in developing countries. While there are benefits to firms located in large cities such as economies of scale, the availability of skilled workers, transport infrastructure and good proximity to amenities, there are also a number of costs in terms of congestion, pollution (with associated health issues), crime, and the rise of squatter settlements. These costs are usually bourn by the poorest members of society. Today’s cities often provide a stark picture of inequality.

Squatter settlements are sometimes referred to as Shanty towns in parts of Africa, Favelas in Brazil, Barriadas in other parts of Latin America and Bustees in India. Over 1 billion people currently live in squatter settlements in cities, which is about a third of the entire urban population. Nearly all of the recent growth in the urban areas of Sub-Saharan Africa is accounted for by the growth in squatter populations. Residents suffer from inadequate housing and a lack of access to basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation, health and education. They are also highly vulnerable to climate change and climatic shocks. Housing is often built on poor quality land or unstable areas and is prone to flooding and mudslides.

Livelihoods in cities: the informal sector

The majority of those living in urban squatter settlements are located in the informal sector. While definitions vary, the informal sector is often used to describe people that are self-employed or work in a small family business. They are usually not legally registered, they don’t pay tax and they do not have access to social security. Given this, the informal sector is not included in official government employment statistics although, in some cities, half the urban population might be working in the informal sector.

The livelihoods of those in the informal sector are labour intensive and varied but include street vendors, home based workers, shoe shiners, seamstresses, tailors, domestic servants and handicrafts. The sector is dominated by women.

Historically, the informal sector has often been viewed or framed negatively; as an underground economy where people avoid government regulations and paying taxes. More recently, the sector is viewed as important for growth and poverty reduction and that it should therefore be supported.

The sector often expands due to excessive government regulation and informal sector workers can be viewed as entrepreneurial, making profits despite being denied access to credit and financial services.

Actions and Responses

Sustainable urban livelihoods must be promoted in order to reduce the vast inequalities that exist in some cities. Recognition must be provided to the fact that livelihoods consist of social, in addition to material resources and human capabilities and that they are only sustainable if they manage shocks with undermining the natural resources on which they rely. Women must be the focus of policies since they dominate the informal sector and face inequities in many spheres of life.

Actions to reduce inequalities and promote livelihoods in cities must come from multiple actors including all levels of government but also from the private sector, civil society and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).


With increasing urbanisation, national governments need to ensure an adequate level of urban infrastructure including roads, but also water, sanitation electricity, and health and education services in the poorest parts of cities. Concurrently, for urbanisation to be truly sustainable, governments must find ways of reducing the environmental impact of rapidly expanding cities.

It is also important that informal sector workers are provided with rights and protections that are available to other workers in the economy. Reducing inequality will also involve progressive tax systems allowing for the funding of safety nets for the poor. Targeted anti-poverty policies, such as conditional cash transfers, can often lift some marginalised groups out of poverty. Providing residents of squatter settlements with land rights will lead to greater investments in dwellings and therefore greater household resilience to climate related shocks.

Private sector

The private sector can also play an important role in promoting sustainable livelihoods and reducing inequity. The sector can provide employment opportunities for the poorest but conditions and pay must be appropriate and working conditions must be safe. Providing access to credit and financial services are also very important to ensure workers can maximise the benefits from their work.

Civil society and NGOs

For appropriate policies and interventions to be implemented, it is crucial for governments to work at a neighbourhood level and to engage directly with community organisations and NGOs. Policies must address the needs and priorities of the poorest communities within cities and the voices of these communities must be adhered to for solutions to be viable and sustainable. The Cities Programme is currently bringing these sectors, as well as the government sector, together in order to exchange idea create opportunities and understand experiences. Only projects that target inequity and poverty in the urban sector by both providing services and collecting evidence are likely to result in sustainable and replicable solutions.

Authors: Simon Feeny and Alberto Posso

We encourage and welcome contribution of your city´s initiatives. List them as a Case study or a Commitment. Include them in your Communication on Engagement.