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The ‘urban/semi-urban/rural’ classification debate – is it still relevant and adequate for evaluators?

1 November 2017

Creative Consulting & Development Works (CC&DW) team members attended a SAMEA conference from 23rd-27th of October 2017 at the Hilton Hotel, Sandton Johannesburg. SAMEA (South African Monitoring & Evaluation Association) brings together delegates, from government, private sector, nonprofits, universities and international organisations to share knowledge on monitoring and evaluation.

Fia Janse van Rensburg and Sitho Mavengere presented a paper titled; Is the seemingly simple ‘urban/semi-urban/rural’ classification still relevant and adequate, and are evaluators aware of the discourse on geographic typologies in South Africa?  This paper was motivated by the argument that in development thinking and evaluation practice and subsequent evaluations there is continuous reference to typology of ‘urban/semi-urban/rural areas’.

The key question in this paper, is whether the ‘urban-rural’ dichotomy, or an ‘urban-semi-urban-rural’ continuum actually exists. This typology is widely used, but there are differing definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ exists, so although the same label may be used, the conceptualisation could differ. There is no standard definition of urban or rural characteristics as there are different geographical typologies that are used in South Africa.  Migration and changing settlement patterns shows up the limitations of the ‘urban-rural’ classification, and questions its ability to adequately respond to the reality of social, economic and developmental diversity of populations residing in areas classified as ‘urban’.

Evaluators need to be aware how the geographical classification can contribute to intervention effects.  More importantly, evaluators should be able to identify and use the appropriate geographical classification system to ensure adequate coverage of beneficiary groups in an evaluation. In South Africa, informal settlements are developing in affluent areas resulting in both urban communities and informal communities living side-by-side. When evaluations are being commissioned for these areas the interventions are classified as located in urban areas, yet it is both urban and informal.

For the evaluations to measure the effects of the programmes or projects, the geographical classification should play a pivotal role for the interventions to produce the desired effects. Therefore, evaluators need to understand contextual issues, including appropriate geographical classification of programmes implemented in South Africa.

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