World Vision's work in cities - tackling the rise of urban poverty

More than half of the world’s population live in urban areas – hundreds of millions of them in slums and informal settlements. See how World Vision works alongside urban communities to tackle disadvantage and help children thrive.

The changing face of poverty

Our world is rapidly urbanising – now more than half of the world’s population live in urban centres. These patterns are accelerating – more than 60% of the world will be urban citizens by the year 2050.

World Vision, like many aid and development organisations, once worked mostly in rural areas. But the state of global poverty has changed, and World Vision’s work is shifting with it. Our commitment is to work with the most vulnerable children and communities – and these days, many of them are in cities. As of 2012, more than one billion children - almost half of the world’s children - live in cities, millions of them in slum conditions. It is estimated that an additional one billion people will live in informal slum communities in 2030. This is the urbanisation of poverty.

That’s why World Vision has made important investments in urban research and programs in recent years.

What makes urban communities different?


Urban contexts have a range of languages, religions, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. World Vision’s traditional approach of collaborating with community leaders needs to be adapted in urban environments to recognise that.


Urban environments are densely populated – and there is also an amazing density of stakeholders, NGOs, government partners and private sector actors. This density presents great opportunities for urban poverty reduction – but can also create a range of challenges.


Cities are always changing. While rural communities are stable and change occurs gradually, cities change rapidly – people move homes, children change schools, parents look anywhere for work. Urban development needs to be able to respond quickly to these rapidly changing scenarios.

What are the challenges that people in urban areas face?

Urban inequality remains an endemic and worsening phenomenon. Across the globe we see high levels of urban poverty, unemployment and slum dwelling, contrasting with wealthy shopping districts in the city centre and gated communities in the suburbs.

Often we think that proximity to services like schools, medical care, shops and public transport automatically translates to access to these essential services. Unfortunately, for the urban poor proximity doesn’t automatically equal access. People living in poverty in urban areas all around the world can be unable to enrol in schools, access medical care or find stable and safe employment. Unlike in rural areas, the main challenge is not the physical distance between families and these facilities but social, political and financial barriers that prevent them from using them.

People living in urban areas may live with:

  • Overcrowded living conditions
  • Lack of access to clean water – or having to pay very expensive rates to buy it from a private water seller
  • A lack of proper sanitation and hygiene facilities
  • High rates and spread of disease – slums are often inundated during monsoons leading to urban flooding and the very high risk of epidemic diseases
  • Pollution, garbage and waste in the streets – a lack of government services means that waste piles up in slums, encouraging the breeding of disease carrying pests like rats and feral cats.
  • High crime rates – rapidly expanding populations of adolescents experiencing unemployment, addiction and turning to gangs results in increasing crime rates.
  • Child labour and trafficking – children as young as six or eight can be forced to work long hours in dangerous jobs to support the living expenses in urban centres.
  • Road traffic injuries
  • Sexual abuse
  • Violence

World Vision works to tackle the challenges of life in urban communities in ways that are suited to community needs and dynamics. From encouraging children to learn about and advocate for their rights, providing safe spaces for youth to develop life skills, and improving access to healthy food and education, that can look different in each context around the world.

Researching the rise in urban poverty

The unique challenges facing people living in urban poverty require responses and programs designed specifically to address them. Plus, issues of poverty and vulnerability in urban areas are as diverse as cities themselves. In 2008, recognising an organisational need to respond and adapt to the growing trend of urbanisation and its negative impact on the most vulnerable groups, especially children, World Vision began a five-year Urban Research Initiative to investigate how our current development models could be applied in urban settings. This first phase confirmed that children are the first casualties of urban poverty – often exposed to abuse and exploitation, denied their human rights and unable to enjoy their childhoods.

World Vision wants to create “Cities for Children” that are safe, resilient, prosperous and healthy where the children and youth thrive, especially the most vulnerable. Our argument is that the younger generation, when given the appropriate space and tools, are able to actively advocate for their right to playgrounds, green and clean spaces for better quality of life, street lights for safety, equity and social inclusion to ensure peaceful neighbourhoods in the city.

How World Vision works in cities

Helping children in Surabaya raise their voices

This project in Indonesia’s second-largest city focused on working with children’s groups to support their ability to express their opinions and contribute to the development of their community. Children identified a number of key priorities that they saw to make their community more child friendly – including a clean environment, parental support for their education and that children needed to be safe from abuse. Through the project, World Vision facilitated a range of opportunities for children to advocate for their priorities and built up children’s groups as spaces for children to learn and develop life skills.

Empowering Cambodian communities to claim their land rights

Cambodia’s complex history of land ownership laws has left vulnerable communities living in informal settlements at risk of forced eviction from their homes. World Vision’s work around the capital city Phnomh Penh has focused on increasing community awareness and understanding of their land rights, and strengthening their capacity to advocate for those rights. In the duration of the project, over 50% of communities that World Vision has targeted have progressed secure land tenure in their current location. Other communities that have not progressed towards formal land recognition have still been able to prevent eviction. Communities have even been successful in getting government funding for roads and other essential services.

Addressing water, sanitation and solid waste in Bangladesh’s urban slums

About four million people live in slums in Dhaka – that’s equivalent to the entire population of Melbourne. To improve the health and livelihoods of Dhaka’s urban poor, World Vision has been working in partnership with communities, the Dhaka Water and Sanitation Authority, the Dhaka North City Corporation and Habitat for Humanity to bring safe and improved water, sanitation and waste services to vulnerable families. As a result of the project there are now water supply systems providing piped water, sustainable and popular sanitation systems for children, women and families, and waste collection points leading to a clean and hygienic community. Schools and community WASH clubs provide education about good hygiene practices, leading to new handwashing behaviours that are helping to reduce waterborne disease threats.

You could help to make it all happen

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