THE third world is rapidly becoming a place of city dwellers. For many politicians in developing countries, that may be a somewhat fearsome change. They worry about angry crowds of 20,000 and more marching on the presidential palace.
But to William Dillinger, a World Bank urban expert, ``Urbanization is a good thing.'' That's because those living in the cities have both higher living standards and fewer children.
``It's better than the pill,'' says Mr. Dillinger whimsically. ``Kids are an asset in the country and a liability in the city.'' In nations where most people are farmers and children can work in the fields, population usually grows about 3.5 percent a year - doubling in 20 years. In more urbanized countries, population growth slips near 1.5 percent. That makes a huge difference.
In the United States, 77.5 percent of people already lives in urban areas. Indeed, the 1990 census showed that for the first time a slight majority live in metropolitan areas of more than 1 million. At the turn of the century, 46 million Americans lived on farms or in small rural communities, only 30 million in the cities.
Other industrial nations have followed a similar pattern of urbanization. About 92 percent of Brits live in cities, 86 percent of west Germans, 77 percent of Japanese.
And developing countries are rapidly being transformed from a world of villages to a world of cities and towns. Americans, says Dillinger, should not think of a third world citizen as a peasant behind an ox, but as a big-city resident.
``Since 1950,'' notes a new World Bank report, ``the urban population of the developing world has grown from under 300 million to 1.3 billion persons.''
Each year, the population of third-world cities has grown by 45 million to 50 million - almost twice the population of Canada. Unlike before, the majority of new residents in cities are born in those cities. They didn't move in from the country.
World Bank demographers are saying that by the year 2000 - only nine years hence - another 600 million people will be living in third-world cities. In 1960, only Shanghai in the third world had a population of more than 10 million. By the end of the century, 17 of 23 cities in the world with more than 10 million population will be in developing countries. ``Mexico City and Sao Paulo are projected to grow to 25 million people - a number equal to the entire world's urban population at the dawn of the ind ustrial revolution in 1750,'' states the Bank report.
In the US, the 1990 census found 18 million people in metropolitan New York, which includes parts of New Jersey, southern Connecticut, and Long Island as well as New York City proper. The Los Angeles metropolitan area numbered 14.5 million.
Abroad, the megacities of the industrial world include London, Tokyo, Osaka, and Moscow. (Paris has less than 10 million.)
In the third world, the names of some megacities may be less familiar: Lagos, Kinshasa, Algiers, Bogot'a, Tianjin, Cairo, Beijing, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, Tehran, Seoul, Shanghai, Bombay, and Calcutta, as well as Sao Paulo and Mexico City.
Dillinger maintains that the biggest problem for megacities and dozens of other smaller third-world cities is management. Central governments must not carry out fiscal and monetary policies so inflationary that investors won't lend long-term for new homes or factories. In some cities, excessive regulations mean it could take a decade or longer to build a housing development - if the rules were followed; thus squatters build their own illegal barriadas, bidonvilles, and bustees. B ad management means that Sao Paulo has more cars than telephones, that Lagos companies install their own expensive generators because public power is unreliable, that jammed traffic slows drastically the movement of goods around Cairo, or that an inadequate and leaky water system in Karachi sometimes results in diluted sewage flowing into underground water pipes, endangering public health.
The central governments of most countries should divest some power to city officials, says Dillinger. Too often, many urban water, sewer, road, and other infrastructure projects are treated as ``pork barrel'' by third world politicians.
Such changes, Dillinger believes, will come as urbanization and education advances. ``It is easier for people to demand things when they are clumped together.''