COVID-19 Shows That Resilient Cities Start with Better Livelihoods for the Poor

Resilient cities start with livelihood opportunities for the poor and vulnerable. Photo: ADB
Resilient cities start with livelihood opportunities for the poor and vulnerable. Photo: ADB

By Phillippa Keys, Yukiko Ito

Enabling poor households to become more resilient is key to achieving healthy, vibrant and diverse cities of the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic, occurring at the same time as many climate-induced disasters, presents an opportunity for cities and countries to consider the importance for livelihoods of enhancing resilience. Instead of focusing on individual livelihoods and attempting to make them more resilient, the focus should be on building the systems that enable individual households to be more resilient and prepared for any threat to their income. 

Poverty is increasing in Asia, the world’s fastest urbanizing region, with newly-poor people emerging from the pandemic mostly from cities. COVID-19 exacerbated the threats posed to the urban poor by climate change. The urban poor are highly vulnerable, facing a multitude of threats that can overlap and magnify one another. Most of them live in marginal and unsafe areas of the city, and whether employed or self-employed, are reliant on an informal and unpredictable cash economy, and face income insecurity. They are also integral members of society, providing essential services required during COVID-19 city lockdowns.

Existing livelihood strategies for the urban poor tend to focus on the protection of specific livelihoods from known climate-related events. This narrow approach is insufficient to build the resilience of the urban poor given the level of threat they face and the diversity of their livelihoods. It also fails to recognize the diversity of the urban poor themselves.

Examples of this narrow approach include building infrastructure through community-driven development programs and other initiatives that combine income-earning activities while simultaneously protecting existing livelihoods. These approaches reduce the vulnerability of individuals and livelihood activities by providing temporary income and reducing the likelihood of specific threats – such as the flooding of wet market vendor stalls.

They are insufficient however to prepare the urban poor for the threats posed by climate change, as well as other unknown threats of the future.

How then can urban poor households prepare
for the threats they are facing?

COVID-19 demonstrates that it is difficult to predict which livelihoods may be more exposed to risks than others. Previously ‘stable’ livelihoods for the poor (for example, those related to tourism) have suddenly become threatened or have disappeared altogether.

The impact on many individuals and households has been the complete cessation of their livelihood activity and thus the immediate loss of income. The impact of climate change is similarly hard to predict at the community level, and the impacts of a climate-induced disaster can have the same devastating effect on livelihoods and income. 

How then can urban poor households prepare for the threats they are facing? What investments can support them as they prepare?

Individuals and their households need to cope with limited external support, irrespective of the type of threat to their income that they face. This requires focusing on broader systems that will support households so that they can build their own resilience. 

This can be done in a variety of ways, including promoting household savings and safety nets; increasing opportunities for stable and diverse income sources; investing in market-relevant education and skills development; fostering inclusion; and increasing access to digital technology.

Action in these priority areas requires policy initiatives at different scales. At the national level, examples range from micro-insurance policies that address the intersection of disasters and climate change to initiatives that equip urban workers with digital literacy and initiatives that reduce the cost of internet access and the devices that the urban poor can use to access it.

At the household and community scale of intervention, the graduation approach should be considered. This approach lifts people from extreme poverty through holistic, time-bound and carefully sequenced interventions that include a consumption stipend, technical skills training, productive asset transfer, regular home visits for life skills training and coaching, enterprise development support, financial literacy training and savings promotion, and access to health care or health information. This approach strengthens resilience and tackles the multifaceted constraints faced by the poorest and most vulnerable households to recover from unanticipated shocks and vulnerabilities.

Focusing on these priority areas will empower poor urban households and enable them to benefit and contribute even more to building resilient and adaptable cities. Households with greater resilience will be able to recover more quickly when impacted by stresses, shocks or disasters. They will be better prepared for a crisis event - individually, as a household, as a community - and have processes in place to regain what was lost and take advantage of opportunities that may arise.

Shifting the focus of investment from the individual livelihood level to creating the systems needed to establish the enabling environment for household resilience will not be easy. Individuals, households, communities, cities, the for-profit sector, the nonprofit sector, and government agencies across all scales of intervention will need to work together in complementary and cohesive ways to ensure adequate investments in this effort. 

Building the resilience of urban poor households is key to achieving healthy, vibrant and diverse cities of the future. The most effective way to do this is to enable poor households to build their own resilience.