Many observers argue that the penetration of capital into the rural economy of the less developed world during the second half of the 20th century contributed to the dismantling of subsistence agriculture. At the same time, expanding industrialization and a growing gap between rural and urban wages led to increased opportunity in the cities. Consequently, many marginalized individuals saw relocation from the countryside to the city as their only rational alternative.
Swelling rural-urban migration soon contributed to an oversupply of urban labor. In many areas of the Third World, the developing gap between the level of urbanization and rates of industrialization led to a severe shortage of employment opportunities.
As rapidly expanding cities filled with the ranks of the unemployed, a reserve army of low productivity workers found relief in informal income opportunities, both legal and illegal. The many migrants placed a disproportionate strain on the whole range of urban resources as they found themselves mired in inescapable poverty, lacking access to such basic services as housing, sanitation, and education. Despite these problems, however, the wide gap between rural and urban wages (and a perception of urban consumer-oriented affluence) encouraged continued in-migration.
Motivated largely by economics, most migrants were convinced that they faced better life prospects in their country’s most densely populated areas. Many cities grew into what urbanists called “giant cities.” According to E. Mingione, while conditions were often deplorable
no matter how poor and difficult appear the working and living conditions of Third world masses in large cities in the slums, barrios, favelas. and squatter areas, they remain comparatively better than those in the countryside.
As Farhad Kazemi notes in the case of Iran
the largest single group (43%) of cityward migrants in 1972 consisted of migrants without any education . . . [most of whom had] migrated either to seek work or a better job.
This group believed that — even if forced to become part of the marginalized or informal labor force — urban earnings would be superior to their rural counterpart. They perceived that (even though an individual might suffer unemployment in the short run) lifetime income was generally higher for urban workers than for rural workers fully employed through a working life. This understanding explains the satisfaction of most migrants and is also consistent with the interpretation of the city as an ‘engine of growth’ where even the informal economy provides access to production opportunities not available in the rural environment. In actual fact, the Third World city became a “theater for accumulation,” providing opportunities for large numbers of entrepreneurs to succeed.
Rural-urban migration was, of course, a primary factor in the growth and expansion of cities in client states, just as it was in the rest of the less developed world. However, at times, client cities were also impacted by additional population movements and changes in ethnic composition, some influenced by Cold War militarism. Taipei absorbed large numbers of migrants from mainland China as a consequence of the communist takeover there; Isfahan dealt with a large influx of foreigners affiliated with various defense manufacturers as well as with large numbers of emigrants in the wake of the 1979 revolution; and Havana lost human capital in three waves of emigration while accommodating an influx of Soviet managers and technicians.
Photograph by Cathy Arkle.