The United Nations’ method for projecting future economic growth in developing nations may be significantly off the mark. Urbanization, which refers to the transition from a rural economy to a more productive urban economy on a national scale, has been the benchmark used by United Nations in determining and forecasting growth in developing countries. According to economist Philippe Bocquier, the current UN urbanization model overestimates the growth potential of cities and towns by roughly a billion people, and, as a result, overstates the long-term economic growth prospects for many of the world’s developing nations.
The reason for these miscalculations is that the current urbanization model assumes that economically poorer nations will develop in roughly the same pattern as their Western counterparts. This assumption is wrong, Bocquier maintains, because it fails to consider all the different types of urbanization that can occur.
Rapid urbanization, in particular, produces less economic growth and thus is less sustainable. “A more rapid urban transition,” he says “means a lot of stress on all basic services providing health, sanitation, education, transport, etc. In recent years, developing countries in subSaharan Africa and Asia have experienced a considerable deterioration of these services, which were built with the expectation that they would be renewed or extended. In practice, they were not, because the economic growth did not meet the needs of a growing population, whether in rural or in urban areas.”
Urban growth will continue but not in the way the United Nations expects, says Bocquier. He has developed a new model that charts urbanization on a per country basis. According to his calculations, the proportion of the world population living in cities and towns in the year 2030 would be roughly 50%, substantially less than the 60% forecast in the UN model. He cites 10 developing countries that would contribute more than half of all urban growth between 2025 and 2030: Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, Ethiopia, Iran, Germany, Colombia, and Korea.
“What is important to notice here is that most of the 10 are developing countries and that China and India are not among them,” says Bocquier. “High urban growth in the long term would occur, contrary to the common belief, not in the two most populated nations in the world but in other developing countries.” For instance, according to UN estimates, the urban population of China is expected to increase by 293 million before the year 2025. Bocquier projects this number will be closer to 74 million.
Bocquier’s findings point to serious challenges in addressing the hunger and poverty concerns of the developing world. “If urbanization is less than expected, this is rather good news for the environment, as we can expect less pollution. But the prospect of most of the world population remaining rural and poor is not very encouraging, knowing also that urban saturation in developing countries also means a slowing urban economy and therefore rising urban poverty.”
Bocquier admits he is not sure how to remedy the situation, but is certain that something must be done, and soon: “The future I am speaking of is just one generation away. . . . We can still do something about the future, but we’d better be quick.” -Patrick Tucker
Source: “World Urbanization Prospects: An Alternative to the UN Model of Projection Compatible With the Mobility Transition Theory” by Philippe Bocquier, The Journal of Demographic Research, Germany, 2005. Web site http://www.demographic-research.org.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2005