UNFPAState of World Population 2002
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Chapter 5:

Urban-Rural Links: Transactions and Transformations

Thanks to better communications, closer links between rural and urban areas are shaping the course of future social and economic development. They influence behaviour and values on both sides of the rural-urban divide, and tend to blur the distinctions between them.

Trade, migration and remittances, the exchanges of goods, people and money, are the most obvious signs of the relationship between urban and rural areas. Other influences are less tangible: standardized curricula and increased access to education; the growing reach of the mass media; commercial advertising and campaigns by service organizations; the influence of cultural and religious networks, and the spread of urban services to the rural areas all increase the strength and depth of the interactions between them.

The traditional rural family lived on and from the land, which provided food, fuel, water and often clothing and shelter as well. They were secure when their hold on the land was secure, and when the land delivered what it promised. Bad landlords, bad government or bad weather meant deprivation and often famine.

For many rural families those times have gone, for better or worse. Fertilizers, flood control and irrigation remove some of the uncertainties from farming; but the small farmer still finds it hard to survive in the cash economy. Population growth, environmental damage and commercial farming mean that many rural people are landless and depend on cash wages. More and more they look to the cities for a livelihood, by their own efforts or those of their children.

If they stay on the land they look for ways to produce more and sell more. The rural areas around cities, even small cities in predominantly rural areas, offer urban markets. Improvements in transport and the development of intermediate markets provide additional opportunities. Assured sales permit increased risk, such as new and more productive technologies.

In search of security, many farm families are diversifying their sources of income. Employment opportunities in rural areas and small towns are most often in commerce and services, which demand some education and are often open to women. This has encouraged poor rural households to put a greater value on education, especially for girls, and on girls themselves. They may also look again at the value of children and decide in favour of investing in a higher quality of opportunity for a smaller number of children.

The effect of this diversification strategy is closer contact with urban centres and urban values. At the same time, for those who make the move to the city survival in urban areas may depend on rural skills such as finding a small piece of land to grow food or crops for sale. Migrants will also rely on social networks based on their places of origin, intensifying their linkages to their rural families and recreating some of their former social structures.

Remittances are an important form of exchange between urban and rural areas. Money flows in both directions, but the bulk of it consists of urban migrants' support to their families at home. Remittances can amount to as much as 50 to 80 per cent of the families' incomes, highest in lower income families, particularly those who are otherwise dependent on farm income.

Men earn more than women and send more home – but women are more consistent; young women, in particular, more than their brothers.1 Most women migrants send remittances and if they are in domestic work which provides food and lodging they send more of their cash income. For the poorer migrants remittances can be a large proportion of their total income. Recent migrants have frequently received help with their move, and they are more likely to send money home as repayment. Remittances are thus part of a pattern of linkages, obligations and voluntary mutual help which help forge the links not only among family and community members but between communities at different points on the rural-urban continuum.2

The impact of remittances on recipient families in rural areas has been a subject of considerable debate, centring round the distribution of use between consumption and investment. For poorer sending families remittances are part of a variegated survival strategy. They can support immediate basic consumption needs such as improved diets; provide better health care, for example, family planning; finance improvements to housing; provide security for risk-taking, such as innovations to increase productivity; or allow long-term investment such as annuities or education costs.

The volume of temporary migration can be substantial and increases as transport improves. In the case of Thailand, estimates of the number of migrants in the past five years increase by 50 per cent when temporary migration flows are added. People travel between and among urban and rural areas for a variety of reasons, including residence, employment, to distribute money, visit friends and family, and to transport products and goods. As people move, their ideas, values and aspirations are also transported. In many cultures, family and cultural events such as weddings, births, rites of passage and funerals, bring dispersed people together, providing opportunities for exchange of information and goods and for maintaining networks which can encourage further exchanges and migration. Better understanding of this process requires surveys and innovative data collection. For example, a specialized survey in China was able to collect much valuable information on migrants during the Spring Festival, when most circular migrants and many longer-term migrants return to their original homes to visit their families.3

Urbanization of the rural areas

The economic linkage of urban surrounds

Cities' production and consumption patterns have a wide impact on their surrounding environments. The "ecological footprint" of cities extends over wide areas, not just those immediately affected by pollution and generated waste, but also to the areas which supply them with food, fuel and new residents.

The overall effect is to create less a divide than a rural–urban continuum, along which each different locality finds a place. Prospects for sustainable development depend on the dynamics of the relationship between locations at different points on the continuum, and the effects of policy and market decisions on the relationship. The pull of the cities with their opportunities for employment and other personal advancement is reinforced by a push out of declining rural areas. Both are influenced by creating urban-type opportunities in rural areas, or decisions affecting a wide variety of transfers of goods, services, associations, communications and other exchanges.

Expanding urban markets generate demand for rural products, including raw and processed agricultural products, crafts and other manufactures. This demand invigorates rural regional centres and small cities as collection and distribution points. This can spur improvement in rural economies which generate demand and expand local markets, initially for locally-produced non-farm goods and services, then increasingly for other domestic and for imported products.

The growing national integration of market systems mirrors the increasing global integration of trade. Both within nations and between nations these developments can sustain the structural transformation of economies. Such systemic change offers both great opportunities and challenges to a smooth and equitable course to sustainable development.

Environmental issues for the urban surrounds include airborne pollution, the release of treated or untreated liquid wastes into lands and water systems, and demands for fuel and other supplies. Sprawling squatter communities have arisen around many major cities, dependent on the cities for opportunities yet often independent in administration and adaptation. Surrounding communities provide cities with labour, services and products. In Latin America and Asia, urban systems linking two or more cities are increasingly common as crowded central cities become less and less viable.4

Even small towns and cities impact on surrounding villages and rural settlements. The exchange of goods, cash and services allows small towns and their rural surrounds to stimulate each other's economic and social development. Studies show that 20–30 per cent of the rural labour force is primarily involved in non-farm economic activity.5 In some settings in sub-Saharan Africa up to one third of household income is derived from non-farm sources. The non-farm income (from agricultural wage labour, employment in town or marketing of rural produce or crafts, for example) of rural families affects agricultural productivity.6

Non-farm income is particularly important to landless people and to small landholders. Women, whose land ownership rights are often restricted, are major contributors to non-farm income, exploiting whatever opportunities local conditions allow. The least successful and most vulnerable households are those which depend only on their direct agricultural production and sale of their labour. The most successful households have incomes from both rural and urban activities.7 Investment in children's education enables families to take advantage of formal employment opportunities and use their available resources more productively.


The past two decades have seen a dramatic expansion of exposure to mass media in rural areas. Since these are almost by definition urban media and present an overwhelmingly urban portrayal of life and values, their impact on attitudes and behaviour has been profound.

Radio is the medium with the widest coverage. Developing countries as a whole average 176 sets per thousand of population. In Latin America and the Caribbean there are 344 radio sets per thousand of population, in West Asia and Northern Africa 240, East Asia and the Pacific 195, Sub-Saharan Africa 142 and South Asia 79.8

These figures underestimate radio's actual reach. For example, Bangladesh is estimated to have 44 radio sets per thousand of population but representative national surveys indicate that in urban areas more than half of the married women of reproductive age have listened to a radio within the last week and in rural areas more than a third.9 South Asian surveys show that more than half the married women of reproductive age report having a radio in their household.10 Many people listen to other people's radios or hear them in public places. Studies in India have recently shown high levels of exposure to radio broadcasting both within urban and rural areas, whether or not listeners actually own a set. Nearly two thirds of urban dwellers and more than a third of rural residents listen to radio at least once a week.

The pattern is more pronounced where radio ownership is higher. Studies in Asia and in Latin America and the Caribbean indicate that more than half the women of reproductive age in urban and rural areas live in a household with a radio, in urban areas more than three quarters. In sub-Saharan Africa, urban radio ownership reaches similarly high levels although rural ownership can be much lower.11 Increasingly, in more parts of the world, rural and urban people alike are exposed to similar communications from similar sources.

Television, video and films expose viewers to a common window on styles of life and behaviour, an impact increased by the supranational reach of the media. Television is extremely popular where it is available. UNESCO statistics indicate that in the early 1990s there were 56 television sets for every 1,000 persons in developing countries as a whole. Latin America and the Caribbean had 163, West Asia and Northern Africa 112, East Asia and the Pacific 44, South Asia 31 and sub-Saharan Africa 23. In the least developed countries the number was only 10 per 1,000. Television has been spreading at a very rapid pace over the last decade, around 20 per cent per year in developing countries overall.12

In Bangladesh, over 60 per cent of the married women of reproductive age in urban areas see television in some form at least once a week. Rural exposure to television was lower by far than radio, reaching only 12 per cent. Again, reach exceeds ownership – in urban areas more than one and a half times the percentage of owners report watching television at least once a week; in rural areas, there are more than three times as many viewers as owners.13 Data from India similarly show that nearly 70 per cent of urban and nearly 20 per cent of rural married women of reproductive age watch television at least once a week.14 Television increasingly exposes viewers to a wide range of national, regional and international viewpoints.

Though starting from a lower base, the availability of video cassette recorders (VCRs) has been increasing at an even faster pace, with phenomenal growth in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Asia. In these regions, VCRs doubled or tripled in availability during the last half of the 1980s, reaching a level of one VCR for every seven televisions. Video parlours and other sites for public viewing have also been increasing rapidly.

Illiterate women are less likely than any other group to watch TV, listen to the radio or go to the cinema. In India, for example, only a third of illiterate married women of reproductive age had recent exposure to one or other, compared with 93 per cent of women with high school or higher education. Illiteracy not only prevents women reading; it inhibits their watching and listening as well. The coming of radio and TV has pushed illiterate women, and to a lesser extent the poor as a group, still further out to the margins of society.

The mass media bring change wherever they go; but change does not have to be random. Successful media campaigns have changed attitudes and behaviour in a variety of areas, from basic literacy to health care and family planning. In some countries the only sex education teenagers ever receive is via radio programmes where their questions can be answered.

Convergence of consumption tastes

One effect of easier travel, frequent migration, and the spread of mass media has been to increase rural demand for different foods and a wider range of consumer products. This has long been a feature of higher income in urban households and is now observed when rural incomes increase.15 The effect over time will be a further blurring of distinctions between urban and rural areas.

One of the marked distinctions between urban and rural areas in developing countries is in consumption expenditures. Urban housing costs are generally higher: frequently twice as high expressed as a share of household expenditure. Urban expenditures are also substantially in cash, compared with rural areas where subsistence production plays a larger role. As urban income increases more is spent on transportation: the distance from the place of work and the availability of transport to work are important considerations in urban areas. In many cities low-income families live as close to work as they can manage or spend considerable time walking or cycling. At low incomes high proportions of total expenditures go to basic needs, particularly food.16 As income increases households shift to higher quality foods, which often take less time to prepare as well as having higher nutritional value. Recent years have seen the growth of sizeable markets in convenience foods in response to this large demand.

The urbanization of consumption patterns extends to health care, including reproductive health and family planning. Knowledge of modern family planning is almost universal even among illiterate rural populations, and demand is increasing rapidly. From the policy point of view, a rapidly rising demand for family planning, assuming that it results in lower fertility in rural areas, would weaken the link between urbanization and population growth, and permit more flexibility in policy. Wider availability of reproductive health and family planning services in rural areas strengthens women's position and helps to secure family and community structures. This will help to slow urban migration and relieve some of the pressure on cities.

Rural lifestyles in urban areas

Urban agriculture

Agricultural skills transferred from rural areas or learned and adapted to urban conditions can play an important role as a survival strategy and income generator in urban areas, particularly in poor communities. Much of a city's fruit and vegetables may be produced in or just outside the city itself. In some cities this is exaggerated by an expansive definition of the metropolitan area, but in many cities it is common to use land near residences, vacant plots and gardens and on marginal or vacant land for household consumption and marketing. A study of six towns in Kenya found that two thirds of the urban households surveyed grew some of their own food or fuel and that half kept some livestock. In Lusaka, Zambia, in some low income areas more than half of all households maintained food plots.17 Civil servants in Kampala and Dar es Salaam, among others, commonly supplement their meagre salaries by means of their home gardens. The large proportions of migrants from rural areas among urban populations in sub-Saharan Africa have contributed to the scale and visibility of urban food production in the region. Such observations have, however, been made in all developing regions and some developed countries as well.

The full extent of the contribution of urban agriculture to food needs and its potential for expansion remains to be assessed. A recent United Nations Development Programme publication systematically collates much of the currently available information.18 Various promoters of "sustainable cities" approaches to urban planning have emphasized the environmental benefits obtainable from further development of agriculture in cities: reduction of organic waste disposal burdens, reduction of water pollution and (with low cost treatment or restriction to non-food crops) use of waste water.

Experience and policy considerations alike point to a blurring of traditional distinctions between urban and rural life. Better communications permit the exchange of populations on a much greater scale than ever before, though the scale is not and may never be completely known. With ease of movement and better communications come exchange of values. The rural extended family still survives in Asian and African cities, where it substitutes in many ways for social security services such as unemployment benefits, old age pensions and subsidized health care.

The urban dependence on the mass media rather than on traditional forms of entertainment is spreading to the village: half the population of India watched all or part of the national TV dramatization of the Ramayana. Urban behaviour patterns are close behind, including, for example, the use of cash for wages and purchases, women leaving the home to work and the routine use of modern family planning methods.

Women are a large part of the transformation, whether as urban workers or participants in rural government. A dramatic change in their traditional roles is taking place; whether it will be for their benefit and the benefit of the larger society depends on whether their contribution is welcomed and made a full part of national and international development policies.