Poor African-Americans were the principal victims of Hurricane Katrina

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The world’s urban poor suffer most
from crime, violence and disasters

A report by UN-Habitat, edited by Sven Krüger

4 October 2007: The world’s poor are the worst affected by urban crime and violence, insecurity of tenure and forced eviction, and natural and human-made disasters, regardless of their geographical location. “Over the past decade the world has witnessed growing threats to the safety and security of cities and towns. Some have come in the form of catastrophic events, while others have been manifestations of poverty and inequality or of rapid and chaotic urbanization processes,” said the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.

The UN-Habitat publication Enhancing Urban Safety and Security: Global Report on Human Settlements 2007, published in October 2007, addresses some of the most challenging threats to the safety and security of urban dwellers worldwide.

The report pinpoints rapid urbanization as fast becoming a force shaping where and when disaster strikes and whom it most affects. Against the backdrop of increasing crime, in a world where at least two million people are forcibly evicted every year and where disasters have ever-broadening impacts, the report discloses trends and facts but also brings solutions to the table.

“The report gives a voice to those who are not usually heard and its findings are their silent call for action. It shatters the common misconception that the rich are most targeted by crime for their assets, or suffer the most in urban settings from security and safety concerns”, said Anna Tibaijuka, UN-Habitat Executive Director.

The study notes that over the past five years, 60 per cent of all urban residents in developing countries have been victims of crime. This is not, however, a uniform trend, as rates in North America and Western Europe are falling significantly, in contrast to those in Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Africa.

In Jamaica, for example, the vast majority of the nation’s murders occur in the capital Kingston, whilst African cities have the highest reported levels of burglary – illustrating that urban areas in general suffer more from crime and violence than rural areas.

Cities are also targets for terrorist attacks, as demonstrated by the bombings of Madrid, London and Mumbai, in 2004, 2005 and 2006, respectively. Yet the impacts of terrorist attacks are significantly small compared to common crime or other types of violence.

While the poor are at the receiving end of crime and violence, they also carry much of the weight of natural and human-made disasters. The report reveals that a staggering 98 per cent of the 211 million people affected by natural disasters each year from 1991-2000 was in developing countries.

In poorer countries, it is also women and children who tend to be most affected by disasters, as illustrated by the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, while the elderly and the disabled are most vulnerable to natural and human-made hazards.

With natural disasters having increased fourfold since 1975 and human-made disasters multiplying by ten between 1976 and 2000, the consequences of these events are severe. In economic terms, disasters in the past decade caused US$ 67 billions’ worth of damage per year, and since the 1950’s, economic losses associated with disasters have increased fourfold.

Overall, the 2007 UN report underscores the fact that the urban poor are more exposed to risky events than the rich, not least because they are often located in sites that are prone to crime and disasters. Furthermore, they have limited access to assets to avert risk or respond to damage, and are also politically powerless so they often do not receive social help.

Flooding is the most frequent and costly natural disaster type worldwide. The 2005 Hurricane Katrina alone was the costliest single natural disaster in history, with US$81.2 billion in economic damage in the US. As in many parts of the developing world, the poorest residents of New Orleans lived in the most hazardous areas of the city and suffered more casualties and economic damage than wealthier households. For instance, in one of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods – the Lower Ninth Ward – 98 per cent of the population was African-American and more than a third lived in poverty.

“The facts unveiled in this report paint a disheartening picture of the ones with the least, suffering the most. It shows an unequal and inequitable distribution of risk and vulnerability, but it also provides positive examples of success in dealing with safety and security concerns, whilst improving the lives of the urban poor,” said Anna Tibaijuka.

Further threats to urban safety are related to insecurity of tenure and forced evictions. The vast majority of today’s one billion slum dwellers live in developing countries and in the urban areas of the least developed nations. They account for as much as 78 per cent of the population.

“Many evictions are carried out in the name of urban redevelopment, with little regard for consequences among the poor, who are left without alternative shelter provisions,” noted Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General. “The resulting social exclusion swells the army of the poor and the angry.”

Tenure insecurity often results in forced evictions, with at least two million people evicted annually. The report denounces forced evictions that are most prevalent in areas with the worst housing conditions, and when evictions do occur, it is always the poor that are evicted.

“Basically, we are looking at a world where the equivalent of the entire population of Nairobi or Budapest, is moved without consent, forced out of their homes and given no alternative, every year,” stressed Anna Tibaijuka.

World Mayor 2023