Inputs for the National Policy for Integral Urban Development

Bolivia is currently in the process of developing a National Policy for Integral Urban Development, which is very important given the rapid and unorganized process of urbanization that the country is experiencing. Although our Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia is not yet ready, we already have interesting data that can serve as inputs for the elaboration of this policy.

What the data tells us is that the urbanization process can help us move faster and more efficiently towards the Sustainable Development Goals, as cities provide more benefits for the population, and at a lower cost, due to significant economies of scale and agglomeration. However, certain problems are more prevalent in cities than in rural areas, especially in regard to health. Finally, because of the large number of migrants arriving to metropolitan areas each year, municipal governments have difficulties providing all basic services in a timely manner, which means that there are large numbers of people with unsatisfied basic needs in the cities. In this article we show some data that supports these conclusions.

In the graphs below we have divided the 339 municipalities of Bolivia into four groups:

  • RRR: Totally rural (172 municipalities)
  • RRU: Predominantly rural (91 municipalities)
  • UUR: Predominantly urban (51 municipalities)
  • ZMC: Metropolitan areas and departmental capitals (25 municipalities).

Figure 1 shows that urban municipalities (UUR and ZMC) receive fewer transfers from the central government per person compared to rural municipalities (RRR and RRU), and that urban municipalities invest less per person than rural municipalities.

Figure 1: Public resources available, by type of municipality

Source: Own elaboration based on data from the Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia,
provided by the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

Still, urban municipalities are more successful in reducing poverty and inequality. No matter how we measure poverty, results tend to be much better for urban municipalities, and especially for municipalities that are departmental capitals or that belong to one of the three metropolitan areas of the country. Figure 2 shows poverty levels according to three different ways of measurement (1), and also shows the average level of inequality in electricity consumption (proxy of general household consumption) between households within each municipality. 

Figure 2: Poverty and inequality levels, by type of municipality

Source: Own elaboration based on data from the Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia,
from different sources. See details in note (1).

In cities, the population is better educated, especially women. This, together with economies of scale and agglomeration, makes the population more productive, which means that they can pay more taxes and thus contribute to the fiscal sustainability of their municipalities. In contrast, the 172 completely rural municipalities, on average, do not even manage to raise 1% of their income locally. More than 99% of municipal income consists of transfers from the central government, indicating acute financial unsustainability (see Figure 3). Even in metropolitan areas and departmental capitals, local tax revenues only reach 21%, indicating a strong dependence on the central government.

Figure 3: Schooling and local tax collection, by type of municipality

 Source: Own elaboration based on data from the Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia,
the 2012 Population and Housing Census and the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

Not everything is automatically better and easier in cities. Even though chronic malnutrition in children and anemia in women are lower in cities, there are a number of other health problems. The clearest example is HIV, with a much higher incidence in metropolitan areas and departmental capital (see Figure 4). In fact, more than three-quarters of all HIV cases diagnosed between 2014 and 2017 were concentrated in only 5 municipalities: Santa Cruz de la Sierra, La Paz, Cochabamba, El Alto and Oruro (2). The rate of homicides registered by the police is also a lot higher in metropolitan areas, although the low rates in rural areas are likely to be due to incomplete registration.

Obesity problems also tend to be higher in urban areas, especially in intermediate cities (see Figure 4). In metropolitan areas and departmental capitals, the obesity problem is smaller than in other urban areas, probably due to better education and higher incomes.

Figure 4: Health problems, by type of municipality

 Source: Own elaboration based on data from the Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia,
from various sources.

There are few indicators that are worse in cities, but in absolute terms, big cities concentrate many problems. For example, the percentage of young males between 15-24 years of age who are not in employment, education or training (NEET) is relatively low in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (9.6%, compared to the national average of 11.3%), but still Santa Cruz de la Sierra is the municipality with most male NEETs in the country, followed by La Paz, El Alto and Cochabamba (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Number of male NEETs in Bolivia, by municipality, 2012

Source: Own elaboration based on data from the Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia,
calculated with data from the 2012 Population and Housing Census.

This chart is typical. Although Bolivia’s four large cities tend to have the best indicators in terms of human well-being, they also concentrate the most people with deficiencies in the same aspects.

This is mainly due to the large number of migrants arriving to these cities each year. Figure 6 shows the 25 municipalities that are growing the fastest in Bolivia, according to the increase in the number of residential electric meters (with positive consumption) in each municipality. Santa Cruz de la Sierra and El Alto each add about 11,000 new families annually, who all need potable water, sanitation, electricity, health, education and various other public services. 

Figure 6: Population dynamics, 2013-2016 (Annual increase in the number of residential electric meters with positive consumption)

Source: Andersen, Branisa & Calderón (2019).

However, as we saw in Figure 1, public investment is directed more towards the places of origin of these migrants than to the places of destination, which means that the host municipalities are always lagging behind in terms of provision of basic services.

It also causes an under-utilization of many of the investments made in rural areas. Figure 7 shows a striking example. Analyzing data from all electricity meters in Bolivia, Andersen, Branisa and Calderón (2019) calculated the percentage of meters that had consumption of 0 kWh in May 2016 (the last month analyzed). In many municipalities of the Bolivian Altiplano, more than 20% of households with electricity service, are not using it regularly.

Figure 7: Proportion of residential electricity meters with zero electricity consumption during May 2016, by municipality

Source: Andersen, Branisa & Calderón (2019).

In conclusion, urbanization constitutes a remarkable opportunity to improve the living conditions of the population. In Bolivia we have the advantage that there are several different cities that attract people (Santa Cruz de la Sierra, El Alto, La Paz and Cochabamba), instead of just one mega-city. It would be ideal to develop more centers of attraction, and Figure 6 above shows some municipalities with potential.

However, for cities to handle the large number of migrants, they need more resources. Resource allocation should take into account migration patterns, to ensure that migrants quickly get access to basic public services at their destinations.

In cities, because of the high population density, public health need more attention. This includes good water and sanitation services, good hygiene practices, access to reproductive health, civic education to live well, road safety education for drivers and pedestrians to reduce accident rates, green areas and public spaces for mental and physical health, public transportation systems to reduce the need for private cars, and much more.


(1) The first measure of poverty is the Unsatisfied Basic Needs Index calculated by the National Statistics Institute based on the 2012 Population and Housing Census data. The second is a Multidimensional Poverty Index also calculated with Census data, but including more dimensions of deprivation (see description), and the third is a more up-to-date measurement of poverty based on electricity consumption in all homes in Bolivia, according to their electricity meters (see description).

(2) See here.



* Lykke E. Andersen, Ph.D., Executive Director, SDSN Bolivia.

The viewpoints expressed in the blog are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of their institutions. These posts are part of the project “Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia” that is currently carried out by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in Bolivia.

The influence of language on human and economic development in Bolivia

Languages are the main communication tool of the human species, but the impact they have on the interaction between people and the development of societies is often ignored. Currently, 7,111 languages are spoken worldwide, of which 1,058 are spoken in the Americas, that is, 15% of the world’s languages. On average, each native language in the Americas is spoken by only about one thousand people. However, Quechua is the most spoken native language in the Latin American and Caribbean region (LAC), with almost 7.7 million speakers. Aymara is the sixth most widely spoken native language in the LAC region, with 1.7 million speakers (1). Quechua and Aymara are by far the most spoken native languages in Bolivia.

In 2009, Bolivia established 36 official native languages besides Spanish. According to Ethnologue’s Expanded Graded Intergenerational Scale, thirteen of these languages are threatened or shifting (2); twelve are moribund, nearly extinct or dormant (3); two have 8 and 83 speakers respectively (4); and one did not register any speaker during the 2012 Population Census (5).

While Spanish is the integrating national language, used in the cities, in media, and for almost all interaction with the government, more than 2.5 million people in Bolivia spoke a different language than Spanish as his/her main language (according to the 2012 Population Census). Most of these spoke either Quechua (1.4 million) or Aymara (0.9 million), but a minority spoke 63 other languages, including several foreign languages.

Out of curiosity, we made a map of the most spoken language in each of the 339 Bolivian municipalities, excluding Spanish (6). Impressively, 16 different languages appear on the map, including three foreign languages. Quechua is by far the dominant non-Spanish language, spoken in 177 municipalities. This is followed by Aymara in 111 municipalities, which are all grouped together in a tight cluster in the Bolivian Highlands. The third most spoken non-Spanish language at a municipal level is Portuguese, dominating 19 municipalities along the border with Brazil. The fourth is Guaraní, which is spoken in 12 municipalities in the Chaco region close to Paraguay. The fifth is German, dominating in 6 municipalities, but it is a particular dialect spoken by a large number of Mennonites living in Bolivia. The sixth is Cavineño, dominating just three municipalities in the Bolivian lowlands. The remaining 11 languages are all concentrated in just one or two municipalities each.

Map 1: Most spoken language in each Bolivian municipality, excluding Spanish, 2012

Source: Authors’ elaboration based on the 2012 Population Census.

The municipality with the most different languages spoken every day is Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where at least 49 different languages are spoken fluently (main language). This is followed by La Paz with 43 different first languages and Cochabamba with 42. This is of course due to a large number of diverse people dwelling in the main cities of Bolivia.

Language diversity is great. The problem arises if some of these people do not speak the main, integrating language, since they will, to a large extent, be excluded from participation in public life, except at a very local level. People who do not speak Spanish in Bolivia will have great trouble in school, trouble receiving basic services from the government, and trouble obtaining information about what is happening in Bolivia and beyond.

Therefore, for the upcoming Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia, we think it is important to include an indicator showing the percentage of the population (3 years or older) who do not speak Spanish (7). This is an indicator of inequality of opportunity, which is why we have included it under SDG target 10.2 which is about promoting social, economic and political inclusion.

In 2012, on average about 9.7% of the Bolivian population (aged 3+) did not speak Spanish, but there is substantial variation between municipalities, ranging from a few percent in the main cities to more than half in several municipalities in Cochabamba and Potosí (see Map 2).

Map 2: Percentage of population (aged 3+) who does not speak Spanish, 2012

Authors’ elaboration based on the 2012 Population Census.

Figure 1 shows a positive correlation between the share of people who do not speak Spanish in each municipality, and the level of Extreme Energy Poverty. While speaking Spanish does not assure low poverty, not speaking Spanish virtually guarantees very high levels of energy poverty.


Figure 1: Relationship between language exclusion and extreme energy poverty

Source: Authors’ elaboration based on information from the 2012 Population Census and Andersen, Branisa and Calderón (2019).


While speaking Spanish is important for integration into national processes, speaking English facilitates representation and voice in global institutions (target 10.6) as well as collaboration on and access to global science, technology and innovation (target 17.6). We, therefore, suggest to include the percentage of the population aged 18 or more who speak English as another indicator in the Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia. As shown in Figure 2, this indicator is inversely related to Extreme Energy Poverty at the municipal level.

Figure 2: Relationship between foreign language skills and Extreme Energy Poverty

Source: Authors’ elaboration based on information from the 2012 Population Census and Andersen, Branisa and Calderón (2019).


Another language indicator that is frequently used as an explanatory variable in poverty studies in Bolivia is mother tongue (language in which you learned to speak). This is often used as a proxy for “indigenousness”, but it clearly covers many more aspects than the simple ability to communicate (e.g. culture and location). We feel that the two indicators proposed above (Percentage of population who does not speak Spanish, and Share of adult population who speaks English) constitute more precise indicators of exclusion and inclusion, with a clear path of causality.


(1) See Ethnologue

(2) Aymara, Araona, Bésiro, Cavineño, Chimán, Mojeño-Trinitario, Mojeño-Ignaciano, Mosetén, Sirionó, Tacana, Yaminawa, Yuki and Yurakaré.

(3) Baure, Canichana, Cayubaba, Itonama, Leco, Machajuyai-Kallawaya, Machineri, Maropa, Movima, Pacawara, Tapiete and Toromona.

(4) Moré, Uru-Puquina.

(5) Guarasu’we (presumed dead).

(6) We used data from the 2012 Population Census to calculate the municipal level indicators presented in this article. Specifically, people are asked what languages they speak, and we use their first answer to determine the language they speak in on a daily basis.

(7) To determine whether people speak Spanish, we use not only the language in which they learned to speak, but also the first two languages they mention that they speak. This interpretation is generous, and does not necessarily mean that people can write an essay without errors, or interpret a complex text, but just that they can probably make themselves understood when interacting with doctors, teachers, bureaucrats and other people you need to communicate with to obtain public services.



* Lykke E. Andersen, Ph.D., Executive Director, SDSN Bolivia.

** Lily Peñaranda, M.Sc., Chief Development Manager, SDSN Bolivia.

The viewpoints expressed in the blog are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of their institutions. These posts are part of the project “Municipal Atlas of the SDGs in Bolivia” that is currently carried out by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) in Bolivia.

Convocatoria para Estudios Transversales para el Atlas Municipal de los ODS en Bolivia

La Red de Soluciones para el Desarrollo Sostenible en Bolivia (SDSN Bolivia) está actualmente elaborando
un Atlas Municipal de los ODS en Bolivia en base a más de 80 indicadores, cubriendo todos los 17
Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible. El Atlas proveerá un diagnostico muy detallado de la situación de
cada uno de los 339 municipios en Bolivia entre los años 2012 y 2018, y servirá como línea base para la
implementación de la Agenda 2030 en Bolivia. El mismo será presentado en marzo del 2020, durante el
lanzamiento oficial de SDSN Bolivia.

Con el fin de otorgar valor adicional a los datos, queremos desarrollar, junto con los miembros de la Red,
una serie de estudios transversales que proveen conclusiones y propuestas accionables, que servirán
tanto para la formulación de políticas públicas, como para aportar en el proceso de toma de decisiones
de las empresas privadas y acciones de la sociedad civil. Estos estudios, con sus propuestas concretas,
también serán presentados en el gran lanzamiento de SDSN Bolivia en marzo del 2020, y ayudarán a
definir las prioridades de la Red en los siguientes años.

Por eso, nos complace hacer el llamado oficial a los miembros de SDSN Bolivia para participar del concurso
de realización de Estudios Transversales con Propuestas Accionables para el Desarrollo Sostenible en

SDSN Bolivia pagará Bs. 30.000,- para cada una de las propuestas seleccionadas. Esperamos financiar alrededor de 10 estudios.

Fecha límite para envío de propuestas: Jueves 1 de agosto del 2019.

Ver detalles de la convocatoria abajo.



The Private Sector for Children, advancing in the design of private policies aimed at early childhood

Throughout a very productive breakfast, SDSN Bolivia participated in a session of The Private Sector for Children workgroup, promoted by the Global Compact Network through the Bolivian Private Company Confederation and by UNICEF Bolivia. We would like to stress that we are very proud of the participating companies, including representatives of the banking sector, telecommunications, mining, food processing companies and leading players from academia and civil society. Having said that, the team is getting closer to concretizing steps towards implementing private policies in favour of early childhood, which would have huge impacts on the move towards gender equality in childcare within families across Bolivia. These efforts would also improve the quality of parental care within thousands of families, as well as a conscious co-responsibility of the private sector by taking on a participatory role in their employee’s family development.

Maria Paula Reinbold, education and development officer for early childhood at the Regional Manager of the Early Childhood Area of UNICEF’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, prepared a thorough presentation on early childhood for us. Thanks to her we were able to understand the benefits of these policies for both the productivity and profitability of the companies that implement them, as for employees who would benefit from them.

Policies were mainly discussed on parental leave, which not only grants paid leave to the mother but also to the father when his child is born. We also worked around the implementation of lactation rooms, which is, in fact, a policy on which several representatives of the banking sector have successfully advanced. As another important aspect, the possibility for participating companies to be able to implement quality care services for children, as well as maintenance subsidies for them, was envisioned.

These proposals are based on studies and hard work done by UNICEF experts and other entities that, on the one hand, demonstrate that during the first 5 years a person’s learning abilities and development process is higher than during the rest of his/her life. On the other hand, it is understood that without developing adult’s abilities to exercise parenthood, it would be difficult to aim for improvement in early childhood care.