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UNICEF History

Children and urban development: Past and present

The following is a brief overview of how urban issues related to children have been addressed in the decades since the Second World War, viewed through the lens of UNICEF’s work. It summarizes a few of the main developments in thought and action that have led to the equity-focused approach described in ‘Children in an Urban World’, this year’s ‘State of the World’s Children Report’.

The present article is released in conjunction with a selection of historical materials on UNICEF and children living in urban areas. The most important sources for this article include Monograph XIV of the UNICEF History Series on Urban Basic Services (for the sections on the early years through the 1980s; the Monograph was authored by William Cousins) and the Innocenti Digest on Poverty and Exclusion among Urban Children (for the section on the 1990s and post-2000 era).

A snapshot: Constancy and change

The 2012 edition of UNICEF’s annual ‘State of the World’s Children’ report marks a return to a theme that has recurred in the work of UNICEF and its partners for children, since the organization’s founding in 1946: issues affecting children living in towns and cities.

Some issues, such as the need to provide basic services in health, education, water and sanitation, have remained constant. But there have also been changes in the way urban issues are approached, as the world has become increasingly urban in character, and as global understanding of what drives effective development, including urban development, has grown. Notably, an equity-focused approach based on understanding the barriers to accessing services, and the bottlenecks to providing services, offers the opportunity to achieve better results. 

© UNICEF/NYHQ1955-0006/Photographer Unknown
In 1955, a young woman and a boy sit inside a typical houseboat on one of the 'klongs' (canals) in Bangkok, Thailand. Newly trained health workers are slated to visit families who live on the canals.

1946-1961: First steps

During the first fifteen years after UNICEF’s founding in 1946, the organization supported work in several countries that included significant urban components. A 1962 progress report to UNICEF’s Executive Board (E/ICEF/447) mentioned support having been provided for "community centres and community social services for urban children and youth" in Myanmar (then known as Burma), Thailand and Uganda, and indicated that UNICEF’s general programmes often assisted children in urban areas through support for maternal and child health, social services, and improved nutrition. This was seen as part of UNICEF’s mission to assist children everywhere.

In 1961 the first UNICEF programme specifically designed for children living in urban areas was established in Mexico City, focusing on housing, sanitation and vocational education for youth. It is interesting to note that a 1961 statement to UNICEF’s Board, commenting on this project, included many elements still relevant today, by recognizing the significance of increasing urban populations for development, and by highlighting the need to work in coordination with the "self-help" activities of people living in areas targeted by the programme.

1962-1970: Establishing a systematic approach

In addition to noting urban activities since 1946, the 1962 Board progress report also sketched the basis for what would later become the Urban Basic Services approach of UNICEF – an approach that guided the organization’s work in urban areas for decades. The progress report mentioned the following priorities to be emphasized in programmes: "[U]rban community development; health services, including maternal and child health services and environmental sanitation; ...social services; prevention of juvenile delinquency; education and vocational training; aspects of housing; planning for new towns; and recreation."

The approach to urban issues suggested here is in keeping with other developments in the 1960s, a time when UNICEF increasingly began to complement its humanitarian work with multi-sectoral development intended to meet the needs of the ‘whole child’. It was by that time understood that child development was more effective if it took into account the relationships among different development sectors.

UNICEF programmes continued to incorporate urban aspects through the 1960s. Globally, the trend towards increasingly urban populations was already very clear, but there was to some extent a need to combat a ‘rural bias’ in attitudes to development, including among governments who were not eager to encourage what they saw as a problem of migration to cities. During this era, most of the growth in urban population was taking place in megacities, such as Mexico City (by contrast with the situation in 2012, when most urban growth occurs in smaller communities).

The 1970s: Evolving the approach

A series of studies and decisions from 1971 to 1978 had a major impact in the further evolution of Urban Basic Services, beginning with a major report to the UNICEF Board in 1971. The report, entitled "Children and Adolescents in Slums and Shanty-towns in Developing Countries" and authored by Constantina Safilios-Rothschild, recommended the improvement of services and housing in slum areas, rather than resettlement of slum dwellers. It again emphasised the community approach, but also highlighted the need to prioritize children in development planning, and called for partnerships between governments and poor people (all of which are themes in this year’s SOWC report).

Concerning the need for data, the report stated: "[W]e do not know how much of the slum population benefited from it because it is rare to find a division of urban statistics showing separately data for the modern sector and for slums and shanty towns." It would be hard to find a clearer foreshadowing of the call for better data that is included in SOWC 2012. The UNICEF Board mostly agreed with the conclusions of this report, and decided to increase the emphasis in urban programming on: young child nutrition, maternal health clinics, day-care services, and education for girls and for mothers.

In 1975, UNICEF’s Board concluded that the fear of encouraging rural-urban migration was still an obstacle, and that accelerating progress for children in slums depended on government partnerships with the urban poor. And in 1976, the Board and the UN General Assembly endorsed the approach of community involvement with the provision of basic services. This had grown out of field experience, including in rural areas, and exemplified the ongoing dialogue and development between theory and practice in urban development.

The last of the key papers from this period was the 1978 expert study on "Basic Services for Children of the Urban Poor", authored by Mary Racelis. Echoing conclusions of the Safilios-Rothschild report, this study noted the positive possibilities offered by the frequently close neighbourhood ties and creative income-generating potential present among the urban poor, and the potential for organization represented by the informal networks existing in such communities. We can see the realization of some of that potential in global networks of today such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI, discussed in this years’ SOWC report), which now reach across countries and work actively to help achieve rights.

These papers, combined with the experience of UNICEF’s urban programme work to date, were key factors in the refinement and expansion of UNICEF’s Urban Basic Services approach that took place during the 1970s and early 1980s. By 1982 the organization had programmes in 43 countries for children living in urban areas; an Executive Board report assessing this work noted that the community-based, multi-sectoral approach was successful but complex to execute. For this reason there was a growing recognition of the need for stronger cooperation among all organizations involved in governance and development: governments themselves, bilateral and UN agencies, and NGOs.

It is also worth noting that UNICEF’s approach to urban programmes differed from the traditional approach. Traditional urban development at that time emphasized building up the physical infrastructure of cities and promoting formal economic development, whereas UNICEF emphasized providing low-cost basic services in health, nutrition, education and sanitation to all poor children and women in urban areas.

© UNICEF/NYHQ1989-0230/Cerni
In 1989 in Guatemala, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Audrey Hepburn walks up a steep street in the urban slum community of El Mezquital, near Guatemala City. A sign on the building behind her indicates that the street is called 'UNICEF'. Ms. Hepburn is visiting UNICEF-supported programmes in several countries in Central America.

The 1980s: Change and adaptation

The 1980s saw a number of major new developments in the world’s approach to children’s issues. One such development was the Child Survival and Development Revolution (CSDR), in which simple primary health care techniques were applied in a concerted effort to overcome common infections of early childhood, and thereby effect a ‘revolution’ in reversing the increasing numbers of child deaths worldwide. With respect to UNICEF’s work for children living in urban areas, support for the CSDR involved many UN, NGO and national partners, and mainly took the form of urban primary health care, campaigns for universal child immunization and improvements in water and sanitation.

Another major development was the growing worldwide movement to codify the universal human rights of children in a new legal document, which culminated in the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in November 1989. UNICEF’s involvement in the process leading up to the CRC was in a sense catalysed by the organization’s urban work: UNICEF had been involved in advocacy and programme support for children living and working on the streets, and children at risk of exploitation or abuse. These issues were addressed together as ‘Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances’ (CEDC). The complex work around CEDC led to UNICEF throwing its convening power behind the eventual development and adoption of the CRC.

The late 1980s also saw the first of a series of in-depth research papers and consultations on the urban child led by the Innocenti Research Centre  (then known as the International Child Development Centre).

1990s and post-2000: Growth, governance and new issues

By the end of the 1990s and the turn of the millennium, there were already more than twice as many children living in urban areas in Africa as in North America. Rapid urban growth rates continued, but it was by that time understood that rapid growth alone was not a reason for poor human development. Many rapidly growing cities had achieved better conditions than slower-growing ones. The call for improved data intensified, as it became apparent that aggregate urban figures for key child development indicators were masking more serious problems in particularly deprived urban areas and populations.

Good local governance and urban policy had long been understood as the basis for successful development; by this time, more than 10 years after the adoption of the CRC, the dialogue around governance had come to reflect the fact that children’s rights and good governance reinforced each other. Periodic declarations from high-level international meetings (with participation of UNICEF, other UN organizations and an increasing number of national and international NGOs), such as the Declaration on Social Development (1995), the Declaration on Human Settlements (1996) and the outcome document – "A World Fit for Children" – from the UN Special Session on Children (2002), all helped reinforce the need for development of good governance at local and national levels.

Earlier eras had seen an emphasis on community involvement in urban development; the discussion had by now evolved to recognize increasingly the value of child participation in local governance. This in turn helped give rise to the Child Friendly Cities Initiative (CFCI) in 1996.

Also emerging onto the global urban agenda were the issue of public spaces for children, including green spaces and play areas; urban environmental sanitation; and the need to address the vulnerability of children and families from lower income urban households to economic problems – a recognition that seems prescient today.

Today: Children, equity and urban development

All of the progress in thinking and action, briefly sketched above, has contributed to today’s vision of how to ensure the best possible outcomes for children living in towns and cities across the globe: Effective national development means development with and for children, and as the world becomes increasingly urbanized, it must also mean development in an urban context.

The need for improved basic services was recognized early on; it is now very clear that effectively implementing such services requires better data to understand the nature of exclusion and the barriers to progress. Partnerships for development have grown, at first organically, and then in a more systematic way through global meetings. Effective partnerships at both global and local levels are now seen as a key to progress. Early recognition of urban disparities in nutrition led to the decades-long demand for better data, which is now seen as a key to progress.

Above all else, the moral, legal, financial and developmental imperative of equity resonates with particular power in an urban context. The contrasts between opportunity and deprivation, wealth and poverty, vibrant potential and systemic decay, are all visible with unparalleled sharpness in modern cities.

Yet there is strong cause for optimism as well: Key enabling factors underpinning an equity-focused approach – including analyses demonstrating better development results from an equity-focused approach, and international instruments like the CRC that provide a framework for equitable progress on children’s issues – are in place. The "State of the World’s Children" report for 2012 discusses all of these issues and provides a framework for action, for and with children in urban communities everywhere.

Historical documents

In conjunction with this article, UNICEF is making available a selection of historical documents on urban development and children, including those linked from the text of this article, as well as others.



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