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?