Sustainable Development in Developing Countries: Ramifications of Urbanisation and Poverty

Globally, sustainable development is recognised as a potential pathway for building resilient cities, reducing poverty and safeguarding the natural environment. With its aim to achieve a symbiotic relationship between the economy, society and the environment, the concept of sustainable development has increasingly focused on fostering adaptive capabilities and creating opportunities to maintain or achieve desirable social, economic and ecological systems for both present and future generations (Cobbinah et al., 2011; Folke et al., 2002; WCED, 1987). As a result, international policies, programmes and institutions over the past three decades have been considerably shaped by the idea of sustainable development. For example, the emergence of international organisations such as United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Human Settlements Programme(UNHABITAT), in addition to organisation of  several international congresses including United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio 2012, Rio+20 or Earth Summit 2012) underlies global commitment towards realising the ideals of sustainable development in developing countries. Unfortunately, the meaning of sustainable development, in terms of its practical application, remains unclear in many urban areas in developing countries.

However, with current and emerging global challenges such as climate change, rapid urbanisation, environmental degradation, increasing poverty, food insecurity and financial crisis, a practical understanding of sustainable development is necessary and urgent especially in developing countries (World Economic & Social Survey, 2013). Although some developing countries such as China have made considerable progress in relation to achieving the economic dimension of sustainable development through improving quality of life, the ideals of sustainable development largely remain a distant reality across developing countries, due to factors such as rapid urbanisation and increased poverty. Urbanisation is described as  demographic (UNDESA/PD, 2012), ecological (Tavernia & Reed, 2009), sociological (Pivo, 1996) and economic (Bao & Fang, 2012) phenomenon that concentrates population in urban areas and has the potential to either stimulate or retard growth and development of these areas in both developed and developing countries.

Recent urbanisation trend and poverty conditions have compounded and weakened the capacity of developing countries to achieve sustainable development. According to the United Nations (2013), about 1.2 billion of the world’s population, mainly from developing countries, live below the poverty line (below US$ 1.25 a day). For example, Africa has been identified as the only region where incidence of poverty has been increasing over time, with the continent’s share of global poverty expected to reach 82% in 2030 (Alkire & Santos,2011; Chandy et al., 2013). At the same time, official United Nations statistics indicate that developing countries are expected to experience an unprecedented rate of urbanisation in the foreseeable future United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division [UNDESA/PD] (2012) amidst persistent poverty conditions (Garland et al., 2007; United Nations, 2013). For instance, the urban population of Africa, which was about 400 million in 2010, is projected to more than triple to about 1.3 billion in 2050 (UNDESA/PD, 2012). In such situation, the question often arises: Is the concept of sustainable development applicable to developing countries? In our article “Rethinking sustainable development within the framework of poverty and urbanisation in developing countries”, published Environmental Development journal, emphasis was placed on understanding the ramifications of poverty and urbanisation in the efforts to achieve sustainable development in developing countries.

Table 1: Urban Population Dynamics


As presented in Table 1, urbanisation levels in developing countries more than doubled from 17.6% in 1950 to 40.1% in 2000. This trend is expected to exceed 50% by 2020, and further increase to 64.1% in 2050. It is implied that over 90% of global population growth over the next four decades will occur in urban areas in developing countries (UNDESA/PD, 2012). Recent reports suggest that the rapid urbanisation that has characterised developing countries is unguided and has resulted in an unsustainable exploitation of resources such as land and energy (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; UNDESA/ PD, 2012). As a consequence, developing countries are considered to be at the crossroads of urban transition, with damaging consequences on sustainable development. Alternatively, basing the understanding of poverty in developing countries on its multidimensional nature, developing countries are worse off in terms of human development and welfare compared to the developed countries (Alkire & Santos, 2011). For example, recent research shows a translocation of poverty from rural to urban areas with over one third of urban residents in developing countries living below the poverty line (Ravallion et al., 2007).

Given the persistent nature of poverty and the scale of spontaneous urbanisation, evidenced by lack of access to basic services, rising urban poverty, rapid deterioration of the natural environment, unemployment, growing informal economic activities, urban sprawl and informal settlements (Kumar, 2014; Ravallion et al., 2007; UNEP, 2007; UNHABITAT, 2010), the purpose of sustainable development in developing countries seems to be lost. In a sense, sustainable development remains unrealistic, until issues of poverty and urbanisation are holistically addressed. For example, the poverty and urbanisation interactions have hindered the realisation of the objectives of sustainable development initiatives such as creation of protected areas and tourism development; organic agriculture; sustainable urban planning; and use of renewable energy sources in many developing countries including Brazil, India, Pakistan, China, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana among others (United Nations, 2013; UNEP, 2011; Charnley, 2005). Therefore, the state of poverty and urbanisation in developing countries calls for renewed optimism, in terms of addressing the various challenges of poverty reduction and urbanisation to spur the realisation of sustainable development. That is to say, for the ideals of sustainable development to be achieved in developing countries, the various manifestations of poverty and urbanisation need to be carefully considered, analysed and incorporated into strategic and local policies geared towards sustainable development.

This post has been jointly written by Paul Amoateng, Patrick Brandful Cobbinah, Research Fellow at the School of Environmental Sciences, Institute for Land Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, and Michael Odei Erdiaw-Kwasie, Ph.D. Candidate at the Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba .


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Bao, C. & Fang, C. (2012). Water resources flows related to urbanisation in China: Challenges and perspectives for water management and urban development, Water Resources Management 26(2), 531-552.

Chandy, L., Ledlie, N., Penciakova, V., (2013). Africa’s Challenge to End Extreme Poverty by 2030: Too Slow or Too Far Behind? Brookings. ( chandy) (accessed 04.09.14).

Charnley, S., 2005. From nature tourism to ecotourism? The case of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, Human Organisation, 64(1), 75-88.

Cobbinah, P.B., Black, R., & Thwaites, R. (2011). Reflections on six decades of the concept of development: Evaluation and future research. Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa, 13(7), 134-149.

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Paul Amoateng

About Paul Amoateng

Paul Amoateng is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Water and Society, under the School of Environmental Sciences, Charles Sturt University in Australia. Paul's PhD is funded by the Faculty of Science of the university. His research interests are related inter alia to sustainable urban development, public policy and administration, urban water resources management, flood risks in informal settlements and climate change and adaptation.

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