Reverse the urbanisation policies that empty Asia's countryside

22 March, 2013


by Chandran Nair

Financial Times

Who opposes urbanisation? No one, it seems. In the past decade, as hundreds of millions of people have left the countryside, the cheerleaders for more and bigger cities have grown increasingly numerous and vocal.

But is urbanisation really an economic panacea for the 60m who become city-dwellers each year? And will it deliver the returns expected across Africa and Asia?

The evidence should give us pause. Take the recent pollution in Chinese cities, or the worse levels of Indian ones. Then there are the ever greater numbers living in urban squalor – for example, the 60m to be added to slums this decade on top of the 825m already living in such places. And, despite being home to just over half the world’s population, cities account for more than 70 per cent of its waste and greenhouse gases.

So why is urbanisation deemed crucial to global development? The answer is the entrenched belief that, as creators of prosperity, cities are the key to modernity.

Such thinking must be replaced with a more nuanced approach that recognises the countryside’s potential to create equitable, sustainable development. This is particularly true in Asia, where governments are happy to fund urban development but not to invest in rural areas. In China, for example, less than 10 per cent of government spending in the 1980s and 1990s was allocated to the rural economy, despite the fact it supported 75 per cent of its people.

This is not a call to reverse urbanisation. It is a call to strengthen rural development, to make the villages and townships that still house most Asians places that offer decently paid work and support a proper education, health and cultural infrastructure. It is about reversing policies that empty the countryside and discount its economic value.

Bold new policies should be built around three elements.

First, we must understand how cities are fed by industrialised agriculture, using massive inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides aided by large-scale mechanisation. By removing work opportunities, this displaces rural populations.

In light of the challenge of feeding 10bn people by mid-century, we need to look at measures that will add value to the rural economy. This will call for repricing inputs and ecosystem services such as watersheds and biodiversity to reflect their true environmental costs and benefits, which would in turn nudge modern farming towards being more labour intensive.

This is far from fanciful. Japan – where farmers are even now resisting attempts under talks to set up a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to open the country up to imports – has a tradition of labour-intensive agriculture. It is highly subsidised but remains part of most landscapes, including many urban ones. More than 5m Japanese still secure their food direct from farmers.

One reason for Japan’s continued fondness for artisan farming is high prices for inputs, especially energy. As a result, the cost of labour remains competitive in both the traditional and modern sectors – and Japan retains a bias towards employing people rather than machines, despite being a leader in the construction of industrial robots.

Second, governments should direct greater investment to rural transport, irrigation, communication and storage infrastructure. This would allow farmers to reach markets where consumers can pay a premium for value-added foodstuffs and reduce Asia’s high levels of wastage.

Rural energy provision should be stepped up. In India, 400m people have no electricity in their homes. But whereas energy for urban households is subsidised, country-dwellers are left to fend for themselves. The same is true of water supply and sanitation services.

Third, governments should take a fresh look at property rights for the rural poor, granting farmers secure ownership to encourage them to invest in their land rather than leave it for poorly paid urban work.

Of course, such measures will not end the superficial attraction of cities to the displaced rural poor. However, by supporting the search for sustainable economies that guarantee a decent livelihood to all, they will show there are alternatives to abandoning centuries of links to the land for a precarious urban existence.

The writer is founder and chief executive of the Global Institute for Tomorrow and author of ‘Consumptionomics’



Chinese Translation:



《消费经济学》作者 程子俊 为英国《金融时报》撰稿



在事实证据面前,我们应该停下来想一想。看看中国城市最近的污染情况、或是印度城市更加糟糕的环境。接下来还会有更多的人居住在城市的肮脏角落里 ——例如,目前全球城市的贫民窟中已有8.25亿人口,在这个十年内,这个数字还会再增加6000万。此外,尽管城市人口只占全球总人口的一半多一点,但 城市产生的垃圾和温室气体却占全球总量的70%以上。


我们必须摒弃这种思维,代之以更细致入微的思考方式,要认识到农村创造公平、可持续发展的潜力。这一点尤其适用于亚洲。目前,亚洲各国政府很乐于投 资发展城市,不愿意投资农村地区。例如,上世纪八、九十年代,中国政府支出中只有不到10%用于发展农村经济——尽管农村养活着中国75%的人口。





这并非不切实际的想象。日本拥有劳动密集型农业的传统(即便是现在,日本农民也在抵制向进口产品开放日本市场的企图——开放日本市场是跨太平洋伙伴 关系(TPP)贸易协定谈判对日方提出的要求)。日本农业享受高额补贴,农村地区风景秀丽、甚至与很多城市的风光融为一体。逾500万日本人仍直接从农民 手中获取食物。






本文作者是Global Institute for Tomorrow创始人、首席执行官,著有《消费经济学》(Consumptionomics)一书