Why Equity and Inclusion Should Be at The Core of UNICEF’s Urban Programming in Unequal Cities

Sudeshna Chatterjee
Chatterjee, S., Cocco-Klein, S., Oranga, B., Sera, D. and Jobin, D. 2020. Evaluation of UNICEF work for children in urban settings. New York: UNICEF
Publication Year:
  • SDG 1 - No Poverty
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Currently 4.4 billion people live in cities comprising 56 percent of the global population. The current urbanization trends are contradicting the common perception that urbanization and prosperity are synonymous. Most urban growth is happening in low and middle-income countries on the back of informality—informal settlements, informal provision of services and informal employment—exacerbating poverty and inequality in cities[i]. Not surprisingly, child poverty and exclusion are increasingly an urban phenomenon. Over 50 percent of urban employment in the global South and, in some cases, up to 80 to 90 percent operate in the informal economy[ii], characterized by low pay, instability and without access to legal and social protection[iii]. And the poor and women make up a disproportionate share of the urban informal workforce[iv]. The experience of poverty in urban areas is distinct from that in rural areas. All basic needs have to be paid for, often at a high-cost. Such factors are often not captured in poverty measurements[v]. Further, social protection systems are not effectively designed for urban areas and coverage of the lowest income quintiles is higher in rural areas by 7 to 24 percentage points[vi]. However, in order to address children in poverty and inequality to leave no one behind, it is very important to consider the array of indicators linked to child well-being beyond just income. UNICEF Briefing Note# 2 on Child Poverty[vii] points out the pitfalls of not considering other child well-being indicators while looking at rising incomes: "Household income could surpass the poverty line because children beg in the streets or are engaged in hazardous work. Household income could increase because parents work extremely long hours, leaving children abandoned, neglected, and without any adult supervision, comfort, or guidance" (p. 7).

Inequality is concerned with the unevenness in the distribution of resources and opportunities[viii]. High levels of inequality (and hidden inequalities as in the examples above) are an obstacle to poverty reduction as they make it difficult to reduce poverty even when economies are growing[ix]. In cities, unequal access to essential infrastructure, services and employment can deepen inequality and cumulatively have a much greater impact on lives, livelihoods, and long-term prospects[x] including and especially for disadvantaged urban children. Multidimensional poverty measurements in the urban context should take into account the cost of access to core infrastructure (including housing and adequate living environments), basic services and social protection to understand the extent to which children are deprived of capabilities, opportunities and financial security that are fundamental for their full development and essential for the fulfilment of their rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)[xi].

Cities and urban areas are not homogeneous units, and have inherent inequalities within them, which tend to be spatially concentrated[xii]. Intra-urban disparity is an outcome of spatial segregation of different population groups within an urban area based on multiple factors such as overall income, housing affordability and daily commuting expenses, which influence people’s decisions on where to live within urban areas.[xiii] Typically, low-income populations reside in areas of either concentrated community level disadvantage such as in slums and informal settlements, lacking land title and without adequate access to and availability of quality social and infrastructural services, or live with individual and household level disadvantage[xiv] such as children in care homes or poor families living in the backyards of rich homesteads in South Africa, or in servant quarters of family homes and apartments in Indian cities.

UNICEF and its partners typically programme for children to address rights deficits wherever they are most disadvantaged, marginalized and vulnerable. Given the urbanization of child poverty, impoverished and marginalized urban children represent a new frontier for UNICEF’s equity-focused work. When child well-being is assessed, children living in cities on average perform better than their rural counterparts. Cities provide greater access to clean water and sanitation and services such as health and education. However, these averages often hide profound disparities, masking large inequities within the jurisdictions of cities, and in a number of countries, the poorest and most vulnerable urban children fare worse than their peers in rural areas[xv]. Without addressing these inequities, it will not be possible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The evaluation of UNICEF Work for Children in Cities identified equity and inclusion as a key driver that should set the vision of change for UNICEF’s urban programming, underpinned by the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda.  The driver draws from multidimensional indicators for reducing poverty, inequality and social exclusion of disadvantaged urban children (see Table 6, p.20, Evaluation of UNICEF Work for Children in Urban Settings)[xvi]. The dimensions are relevant to UNICEF programming including in partnership with other UN agencies and include:

  • Data and evidence
  • Quality services for children
  • Housing and tenure security
  • Poverty and employment
  • Violence

Of these dimensions, the urban evaluation found that UNICEF has most experience, strength and competitive advantage in the following two areas.

Data and evidence

A critical first step toward reducing urban inequality is identifying the patterns of poverty and exclusion experienced by children and families. The urban evaluation found that UNICEF country offices most commonly engages with urban disparity through data analysis. Cross-sectoral administrative data is particularly important in urban areas, including on service delivery (see pp. 45-46, & 93, Evaluation of UNICEF Work for Children in Urban Settings)[xvii]. In the countries (Brazil and Philippines) where UNICEF work for children in cities has the strongest monitoring systems, embedded in programming models using an integrated approach, the primary evidence source is the cities’ own data typically generated at the service delivery point. Such data already includes impact/outcome indicators for children. Household surveys such as MICS and demographic and health surveys (DHS), and other surveys such as the census, are an essential part of UNICEF urban approaches, providing important data to inform national and sub-national situation analysis and to identify programming priorities. However, few country offices rely on large surveys to track urban programming due to the substantial time lag between the surveys and the difficulty in generating large enough samples to conduct intra-urban data analysis for vulnerable areas such as slums and informal settlements. Community-based data can be an important component of urban work, and the potential exists to work with international and national organizations working in slums and informal settlements. Realtime community feedback, collected through SMS and other channels for dialogue adds an additional layer of information, giving decision-makers better insight into the experiences of urban populations.

For monitoring the SDGs at city level, there are few standard city-level indicators, inconsistent spatial analysis, and widely different capacities to regularly collect and report reliable data.[xviii] The new UN systemwide global Urban Monitoring Framework (UMF) provides a useful tool for evidence strengthening so that a city’s development can be monitored against the New Urban Agenda Commitments and the relevant Sustainable Development Goals.

Quality services for children

A major entry point for UNICEF’s urban programming in a country is through reducing equity gaps in service delivery by strengthening the capacity of local authorities to reach the most marginalized and impoverished children living in urban settings. The quality of urban services accessed by the marginalized and disadvantaged is often poor and accessed at a great cost of time, money and health such as when queuing to fill water at a private tanker that may come a few times a week. 

For reducing equity gaps in access to quality services, the urban evaluation found that UNICEF was applying different strategies depending on the scale of the urban settings. Brazil and the Philippines have adapted the integrated models developed for smaller municipalities to larger cities. The Platform for Urban Centres (PCU) and Priority Cities models are less focused on municipal policy implementation at scale – but rather on reducing persistent inequities in large cities. The Child Friendly Cities model in Spain has started differentiating approaches in large and small cities as well to facilitate better service delivery and more meaningful child participation. However, the majority of UNICEF country offices use sectoral approaches to extend quality social services to children and reduce urban disparities. The most common sectoral approaches are in Social Policy (including Child Poverty and Social Protection), Health and Nutrition, Child Protection and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene).

Lessons from UNICEF's urban evaluation

The country specific good practices identified in the global urban evaluation, conducted in 2020, centre on UNICEF’s traditional areas of strength in data and evidence, strengthening basic services for children, and working with local governments and adolescents. Though poverty and inequality are addressed in the situation analysis, their urban specificity is less sharp. There is also emerging work on violence most notably from the large cities in Brazil from the perspective of improving services in crime-prone underserved areas. However, the role of exclusionary planning that deepen structural inequities in cities are not currently part of UNICEF’s programming architecture. A major component of inequality reduction—tenure security and adequate housing—is a big gap in UNICEF’s equity focused urban programming. Housing is of course neither a mandate nor an area of expertise of UNICEF, but in collaboration with sister UN agencies UNICEF can be an advocate for promoting secure housing for children living in multi-dimensional poverty in unsafe homes, especially in the post-pandemic world.

The good practices highlight the value of inter-sectoral coordination and results-based management in cities.  A key lesson learned is that urban approaches need to be integral to achieving the goals of Country Programmes, and not be run as side projects. In the most successful urban programming models, UNICEF ensures that the programme has 1) a clear rationale grounded in situation analysis 2) are integrated into the country programmes, 3) are linked with national and sub-national governance structures and policies, and 4) are supported by a robust planning and monitoring framework with comparable work plans and indicators.


[i] Mahendra, A., R. King, J. Du, A. Dasgupta, V. A. Beard, A. Kallergis, and K. Schalch. 2021. “Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities.” World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

[ii] ILO. 2020. World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2020. Geneva: ILO.

[iii] ILO. 2003. Guidelines Concerning a Statistical Definition of Informal Employment. Report on the 17th International Conference of Labour Statisticians. Geneva: ILO.

[iv] Chen, M., and V. Beard. 2018. “Including the Excluded: Supporting Informal Workers for More Equal and Productive Cities in the Global South.” Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

[v] Chatterjee, S., Cocco-Klein, S., Oranga, B., Sera, D. and Jobin, D. 2020. Evaluation of UNICEF work for children in urban settings. New York: UNICEF

[vi] Gentilini, U. 2015. "Entering the City: Emerging evidence and practices with safety nets in urban areas". Social Protection and Labour Discussion Paper No. 1504, Washington DC: World Bank.

[vii] UNICEF. 2018. Briefing note #2 Child poverty: Briefing notes on SDG global indica- tors related to children. (Retrieved from UNICEF Data: Monitoring the situation of children and women: ors-related-to-children/).

[viii] Yang, L. 2017. "The relationship between poverty and inequality: Concepts and measurement". CASE Discussion Paper No. 205, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, LSE, London.

[ix] Cook, S. 2012. "Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics". In: Ortiz, I., Daniels, L.M. & Engilbertsdóttir, S. (eds.) Child Poverty and Inequality: New Perspectives: pp. 69–78, New York: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Division of Policy and Practice.

[x] Mahendra, A., R. King, J. Du, A. Dasgupta, V. A. Beard, A. Kallergis, and K. Schalch. 2021. “Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities.” World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

[xi] Chatterjee, S., Minujin, A. and Hodgkinson, K. 2021. "Introduction: Leaving No Child and No Adolescent Behind". In S. Chatterjee, A. Minujin, K. Hodgkinson (Eds). Leaving No Child and No Adolescent Behind: A Global Perspective on Addressing Inclusion through the SDGs. Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, pp-9-36.

[xii] Kilroy, A. 2007. "Intra-Urban Spatial Inequality: Cities as ‘urban regions’", World Development Report: Reshaping Economic Geography, Washington, DC: World Bank.

[xiii] Portnov, Boris A. 2010. ‘Intra-Urban Inequalities and Planning Strategies: A case study of Be'er Sheva, Israel’, International Planning Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 137-156.

[xiv] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2018. Divided Cities: Understanding intra-urban inequalities. Paris: OECD.

[xv] United Nations Children’s Fund, Advantage or Paradox? 2018. The challenge for children and young people of growing up urban, New York:UNICEF.

[xvi] Chatterjee, S., Cocco-Klein, S., Oranga, B., Sera, D. and Jobin, D. 2020. Evaluation of UNICEF work for children in urban settings. New York: UNICEF

[xvii] ibid

[xviii] Simon, D., Arfvidsson, H., Anand, G., Bazaz, A., Fenna, G., Foster, K., Jain, G., Hansson, S., Evans, L. M., Moodley, N., Nyambuga, C., Oloko, M., Ombara, D. C., Patel, Z., Perry, B., Primo, N., Revi, A., Van Niekerk, B., Wharton, A., & Wright, C. 2016. 'Developing and testing the Urban Sustainable Development Goal’s targets and indicators – a five-city study'. Environment and Urbanization28(1), 49–63.


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