“I wanted to be a doctor,” said Batashi, a 13-year-old girl with an infectious smile, “But I had to leave school after class 3, there was no one else to look after my brothers.”
I met Batashi on a muggy afternoon in Korail, the largest slum in Dhaka city. Nestled in the shadows of the city’s glitzy condo buildings, Korail is home to 16,000 families that cram into just .25 square kilometers. Driven from their rural homes by poverty, about 500,000 people – roughly the population of Washington DC – migrate to the city each year.
This makes Dhaka one of the fastest growing cities in the world – a dubious honor for an already overstretched city. It is estimated that by 2030, close to 100 million people – almost half the population of Bangladesh – will be living in urban areas. Many of these migrants will inevitably end up in slums like Korail.
The air quality of Bangladesh’s capital - Dhaka - has dipped considerably in the last 10 years or so as the economy boomed, more factories were set up and the number of cars on the roads increased day by day. Air quality in Dhaka is quickly becoming one of the major health concerns for its residents; reliable and sophisticated data are thus urgently needed to help address this.
A proposal to establish a research center with modern and reliable laboratories for monitoring atmospheric pollutants in Dhaka, submitted by the Center of Advanced Research in Science (CARS) in University of Dhaka, received a research grant of about BDT 34.5 million (about US$ 442,000) from the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP). The sub-project titled: “Establishing an Air Quality Monitoring Center” is headed by Dr. Shahid Akhtar Hossain, a professor of the Department of Soil, Water and Environment.
Let me tell you when magic happens. It transpires when few brilliant minds, optimistic hearts, energetic young people, and a fantastic facilitator meet. The Ideashop: Coding your way to opportunity organized by the World Bank in partnership with the Bangladesh StartUp Cup on June 14th at its Dhaka Office showed us glimpses of such magic. And it is only the beginning of our journey together.
Confident that the solutions to many of the challenges facing youth can come from within themselves, the World Bank and Microsoft has launched a regional grant competition in four South Asia countries – Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka. The regional grant competition titled Coding your way to opportunity invites innovative ideas from youth led organizations and NGOs that will expand coding knowledge amongst youth and help them secure gainful employment.
Buy a leather case for your wife’s smartphone on Amazon, select shipping from China with an estimated delivery time of 4-6 weeks, and then be pleasantly surprised when it turns up on your Virginia doorstep in 11 days. The marvels of the modern age – of technology, globalization, and shrinking distances.
Where does South Asia stand on export delivery? Figure 1 illustrates that compared to other economic units around the globe, it is a lot more difficult to trade with(in) SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Agreement). It also shows that bureaucratic hurdles and the time it takes to trade go hand-in-hand. While the region does relatively well on trade with Europe or East Asia, intra-South Asian trade has remained low and costly. It costs South Asian countries more to trade with their immediate neighbors, compared to their costs to trade with distant Brazil (see below)! In fact, it is cheaper for South Asian countries to export to anywhere else in the world than to export to each other (Figure 3). In other words, South Asia has converted its proximity into a handicap.
Image: Author's Illustration
Freakonomics Radio recently aired a podcast entitled “If Mayors Ruled the World”, based on Benjamin Barber’s new book of the same title, which contends that cities are a good template for governments to rule by, largely due to their mayors who are often uniquely positioned and focused on solving actual city problems. So much so, that he argues for the formation of a “Global Parliament of Mayors” to solve the world’s problems.
Even so, being a mayor of a South Asian city is no easy task. The challenges of city management in South Asia are compounded by its burgeoning urban population. In fact, according to the UN, roughly 315 million people are expected to be added to urban areas in the region by 2030. That number weighs in close to the entire population of the US today. It is no surprise that the theme of managing the challenges of urban transformation was at the top of the agenda at the recent South Asia Regional Workshop and Mayors’ Forum, hosted in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
The Mayors’ Forum, attended by a number of mayors and city leaders from South Asian countries and around, provided insights to what some successful mayors have done for their cities. By being visionary, and at the same time pragmatic problem solvers, mayors have seized opportunities to transform their cities, and quite often out of necessity and within highly constrained environments. Mayors took the opportunity to show how, despite significant institutional and financial limitations, they were able to take proactive initiatives to transform their cities. These were what they had to say: