Rural Farmland or Urban Slums?

“Since 1980, the proportion of the developing world living in urban areas has grown to about 50 percent, from 30 percent, and according to the World Bank, that migration of hundreds of millions has been instrumental in pulling down poverty rates — and will be for a broader set of countries going forward.”

NY Times Article “Is It Crazy to Think We Can Eradicate Poverty?”

This article is interesting for so many reasons.  After my first visit to Cambodia, I was clearly in the minority in a class on Eco-theology because I actually wanted to argue for the benefit of cities and at the same time was wary of over-romanticization of remote and rural living (especially in the developing world).  But looking at this now from Cambodia, I decided to focus on how we might think about the issues in this particular context.

First, I asked a friend, a Filipino who works on development with a Christian organization, who’s been in Cambodia for years what he thought about this argument.  When I asked, in his experience, is quality of life better in poor rural Cambodia or in the slums here, he responded first by claiming not to have any sort of objective answer.  He thought that in the villages life is better.  This largely spawns from his insistence in relationality being the key to quality of life.  But, in the course of our conversation, he wanted to grant that there is some benefit to living in the city (slums) as the article suggested.  Perhaps when people come here (to Phnom Penh), although it’s not necessarily their intention, they are exposed to more, able to access services, and realize their own potential.  But because spirituality and relationality were so important to him, the amount of money you make and access was not necessarily the best indicator of good quality of life.

Second, Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF) from Cambodia just sent a contingent to this very World Bank conference on eradication of poverty in Washington D.C.  They were mostly trying to highlight the detriment of Cambodia’s land titling process on the indigenous communities here subsequent the moratorium on Economic Land Concessions.  This Economic Land Concessions program allows the government to lease up to 10,000 hectares of state land for up to 99 years to private companies for industrial agriculture.  The detriment to the poor has been documented in various reports, including the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee report on the important of Large-Scale Investments in Farmland.  This includes effects of policies that subsidize one product, like the E.U.’s duty free access to Cambodian sugar, which has had deleterious effects as foreign investors or “big people” have bought up large amounts of land to set up plantations, leaving the rural poor with less access to natural resources and food security.  (The particular paper HBF presented is about the difficulties indigenous communities face, especially when in close proximity to Economic Land Concessions, for obtaining collective titles even when these economic land concessions have been halted and private titling expedited.)  At least one HBF staffer thinks that ensuring people have their own land, changing the focus to supporting small farms, is the most logical next step for Cambodia and will have the greatest positive impact.

While this article about poverty eradication and the goal of eradicating poverty can be (and should be) interrogated in various ways, the article also brings up interesting questions.  How do we measure quality of life?  What are the effects of international and national policies on people in the developing world?  Why are individuals in the developing world increasingly moving to the (mega-)city slums and how it it benefit (or harm) them?

3 comments on “Rural Farmland or Urban Slums?

  1. Alan England says:

    I’m reminded of an Old Testament professor who once quipped, “A fool can ask enough questions in a minute to stump a wise man for a lifetime.” There are sooo many issues hiding behind this question.

    I think traditional wisdom (at least in my generation) was that it was better to be in rural poverty than in the urban slum, in part because of the maintenance of familial contacts in the rural setting. In the US many blacks escaped from the racism-laden poverty of the South to the hopeful promises of the urban North. One result of this trade was urban poverty, intensified by the concomitant disintegration of many black family systems for a complex of reasons. As Ronnie Reagan (whom I would never quote under any other circumstances) might ask, “Are you better off now than . . .[before].” The answer to that may be quite subjective.

    Sociological/anthropological bean counters may have some answers here, but I’m hesitant to make that judgment on others’ behalf. Were the starving rural poor of Mao’s time worse off with their moderately intact social support systems than today’s urbanized & industrialized FoxCom workers? Hard to say (the grass is always browner on your own side of the hill).

    Being a 60’s/70’s liberal trained under the influence of Paul Erlich’s “Population Bomb,” I still think poverty is related to the abundance/scarcity of resources, sustainability, and the dastardly deeds of the inheritors of the robber baron mentality. And a few hundred other things.

    Another impression: Questions like this are academic. That doesn’t mean they are unimportant. Working through such questions may lead us to new understandings and perhaps, new approachs to alleviating poverty. This old philosophy major now has less interest in such questions and more interest in how to address such issues on a micro level: how, in this given setting, can we do something to improve matters?

    All this reveals again why I didn’t major in (or even take) Econ. Questions like this make my head spin. Quoting Asleigh Brilliant, author of “Pot Shot” cards, “I don’t have the solution, but I certainly admire the problem.

  2. Glenda Schubert says:

    This is an idealists question, a philosopher’s question that really has no answer. Both situations have pluses and minuses. Having grown up in a rural, lower class situation, I had my needs met, a loving support system throughout the lifetime of my parents, and a joyful childhood. Children who grow up in urban slums have a difficult time finding parents home to care for them because they are working long hours making enough money to stay in a city. These children can overcome the struggles they have and make lives that are better than where they started. In both cases it comes from the tenacity and strength of the individual to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” I admire my former students who lived in south Stockton with very little to help them but became successful professionals – Stanford graduates, professors, and a variety of successful business people. So, which is better? I prefer a rural lifestyle over a crowded city.

  3. LKS says:

    I agree with you both that this question of rural farmland or urban slums is sort of a trick question, “a philosopher’s question” or “an academic’s question” in that it certainly has no right answer for all time and all people. Yet, I think it’s helpful to ask in order to bring to light our presuppositions for the work we do to positively impact others including social justice work and policy-making. And perhaps most importantly are these presuppositions shared by those we are trying to benefit?

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