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.

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