PaP, Dhaka, Nairobi: Why are megacities inevitable in the poorest countries?


Port au Prince

You’d have to be blind, sans hearing and sense of smell not to ask the question when you travel around Port au Prince. It does not look, sound or smell of urban decay, so much as a grinding misery that mutates from week to week. And yet, like Nairobi and Dhaka, Port au Prince continues to draw people from the countryside into its suffering heart. Nairobi has three million people; Dhaka 15 million and Port au Prince at least three million, which is a third of Haiti’s population.

History records famously poor megacities, as described by Harvard’s Edward L Glaeser in his paper on rapid urbanization in poor countries. There was Rome, at the time of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. And like Rome, Beijing and Baghdad approached population levels of one-million some time between 800 and 1200. Each of these was chiefly inhabited by poor people but each of these had the great advantages of a strong public sector and a strong empire that was able to bring food into the capital and battle the problems that come with density and congestion.

Not so Port au Prince and Kinshasa. Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo “are among the nations with the lowest ratings of governmental competence in the world,” says Mr Glaeser.

This is what makes it so unfortunate that urbanization, as Mr Glaeser says, “has been  particularly dramatic” in the DRC, Zimbabwe, Mali, Haiti, Pakistan, Senegal and the Cote D’Ivoire. UN data estimates that the rate of urbanization in poor countries more than doubled from 18 per cent in 1950 to 47 per cent in 2011. And there’s no turning back.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac