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Urban poverty is probably worse than we think

Slums in Mumbai, India. (Sarah Jamerson/flickr)

Surveyors have essentially used the same tools to count the number of poor people living in urban centers around the world for more than three decades. With potentially outmoded tools, it’s likely that the numbers they report are off base, most likely too low, according to researchers from the Overseas Development Institute.

Quibbling over numbers might seem a bit trivial, but numbers matter when it comes to how governments and aid groups prioritize where and how they support the world’s poor. Bad numbers could mean that resources aren’t used where they’re needed most – too much in some places, little to none in other places.

“With urbanization currently accelerating in many countries, raising the profile and improving our understanding of deprivation in urban contexts are becoming increasingly urgent,” Paula Lucci, Tanvi Bhatkal and Amina Khan of the London-based think tank, wrote in their analysis.

One problem is that there is disagreement on definitions, with different groups using different measures. For example, the U.N. classification for a household in a slum is wildly different from the classification used by the Indian government. As a result, India’s estimates are two to four times lower than the U.N.’s.

The situation more complex than simply going out and counting the number of people in a given area – though that is a problem, too. Politics come into play, and depending on the political goals, the count can go up or down. It’s tough to get an accurate picture of how many people live in a densely populated area with no land-deeds nor basic services, such as access to clean drinking water. Some politicians might want to see lower numbers in order to reduce the enormity of the issue; while others want to count more people so they can get more money allocated to programs.

All of this means that anywhere between 88 million and 176 million people around the world are living in slums and aren’t represented in official population figures. One example of this gap is Kenya’s Kibera slum. The government census says that about 170,000 people live in the slum that is smaller than New York City’s Central Park. But surveys by outside groups and satellite images show that it is likely that more than 200,000 people live in Kibera, and it could be up to 270,000. That means as many as 100,000 people are not being counted.

“The controversies over the population numbers in Kibera show how we lack some very basic information. What evidence is there to determine the success or failure of a policy or programme if we do not know how many people these intend to benefit in the first place?” the researchers wrote.

Economist Morten Jerven has been calling attention to bad data for a few years. His focus is placed more on the issue of economic growth and production, but the issue is the same. Data and numbers are significant drivers of how decisions are made and determining whether things are getting better or worse. But what does it mean when the numbers used have major problems? Knowing how many people live in slums is not a fact to save up for a game of trivia, it is a number with real implications.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]