Although Bangladesh has achieved much in the way of poverty reduction and human development, progress has been slower in some urban areas.
Issues such as slow-down of quality job growth, low levels of educational attainment (notably among the youth), and lack of social protection measures have taken the wind out of the proverbial urban reduction “sail.” As the country starts fresh in the new year, it is an opportune time to reflect on some of the key issues affecting urban poverty.
Despite the steady growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), successive Household Income and Expenditure Surveys (2005 to 2010 and 2010 to 2016) suggest that Given the accelerating rate of urbanization, it suggests that more people live in extreme poverty in 2016 than they did in 2010. With nearly 44% of the country’s population projected to be living in an urban setting by 2050, this issue is only likely to intensify.
Several factors may be driving this trend. Absence of education and skills dampen labor market participation and productivity. Among those who participate in the labor-force in urban areas, 19% of men and 28% of women are illiterate. For those who received at least some training, a recent study shows that only 51% of eighth-grade students met equivalent competency in the native language subject (Bangla). The figures were markedly lower for other subjects. Similar trends carry through to technical diploma and tertiary level institutes. As a result, many prospective employers report reluctance to hiring fresh graduates.
Urbanization in South Asia
On a foggy winter morning in Dhaka, 41-year-old Jahid was sipping tea by a roadside stall.
“Life was very peaceful back in my village,” he reminisced, “but there was no work, so I moved to Dhaka. Even if I live in a slum, my children are better off here.”
Jahid is one of the 500,000 people that move to Dhaka city each year. Driven by the promise of economic opportunity as well as poverty in rural and coastal areas, it is estimated that half the population of Bangladesh will migrate to urban areas by 2030.
Urbanization can be catalyst for growth. Density – the clustering of firms and workers – can drive productivity, innovation and job creation. It is the benefits of agglomeration that once drew the country’s most important industry – the ready-made garments sector to Dhaka city.
However, it is the costs from congestion that are now pushing factories away, mainly to peri-urban areas. Why are factory owners leaving?
For starters, the tide of new migrants has overwhelmed urban infrastructure, basic services, as well as the stock of affordable housing – eroding the both the livability and competitiveness of Dhaka city. A recent World Bank report described South Asia’s urbanization trajectory as “messy and hidden” – reflected in the large-scale proliferation of slums and urban sprawl.
This was the first local election in 10 years in most places of the country. Voters elected council members of three tiers of local governments: district, urban councils, and union council/ward.
How will these elections impact the lives of average citizens?
International experiences have shown that the main benefit of elected local bodies is their closeness to citizens, which allows them to be much more responsive – although with sustained hard work -- to improving local services such as waste, water, sewerage and transportation.
In a report about managing spatial transformation in South Asia launched at the 3rd Pakistan Urban Forum, we highlighted that (see chapter 3 of the report).
To that end, we identified three closely related "deficits" -- empowerment, resource, and accountability -- which, if tackled properly, could lead to improved local urban governance.
The recent local elections in Pakistan are important steps toward reducing these three deficits. The new local government laws, which were enacted in most provinces in 2013, started to re-empower local governments after the expiration of the earlier 2001 Local Government Act.
Urbanization growth is already stretching cities’ resources. and Karachi ranked 135 out of 140 countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 livability index.
Robert Solow once said: “Livability is not a middle-class luxury, it is an economic imperative.” But how related are livability and economic development? Furthermore, how can we define and measure livability?
Recently as part of the South Asia Urbanization Flagship Report, Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability, our team compared a sample of South Asian cities with peers from around the world. The report’s framework considered livability (along with prosperity) as being a key outcome of urbanization.
We wanted to highlight that while urbanization has undoubtedly contributed to economic growth in South Asia, its impact on livability is more complex. As they have grown, South Asian cities have faced challenges arising from the pressure of their populations on basic services, infrastructure, land, housing, and the environment. This has helped to give rise to what the report terms “messy” urbanization, characterized by slums and sprawl, not to mention levels of ambient outdoor air pollution that rank amongst the highest across cities globally.
The report suggests that to have a full understanding of the urbanization process in South Asia, it is necessary to discuss not only the positive productivity benefits that are associated with urban size and density, but also the negative “congestion” forces. How successfully South Asian cities manage these forces will help to determine the quality of life not only of the region’s current half a billion urban residents, but also of the additional 250 million that will be added over the next 15 years.
South Asia is not fully realizing the potential of its cities for prosperity and livability, and, according to a new report by The World Bank, a big reason is that its urbanization has been both messy and hidden. Messy and hidden urbanization is a symptom of the failure to adequately address congestion constraints that arise from the pressure that larger urban populations put on infrastructure, basic services, land, housing, and the environment.
Urbanization provides South Asian countries with the potential to transform their economies to join the ranks of richer nations in both prosperity and livability. And, indeed the region has made strides in the early part of the century when its urban population grew by 130 million. Average GDP per capita is up and absolute poverty is down.
A key characteristic of urbanization is that the coming together of people and enterprises in towns and cities -- a process known as agglomeration – improves productivity and spurs job creation. That’s particularly the case in manufacturing and services. Over the long term, successful urbanization is accompanied by a convergence of living standards between urban and rural areas as economic and social benefits spill beyond urban boundaries.
So how is South Asia doing in realizing the potential of its cities for prosperity and livability? What are the challenges facing the region’s countries as their urban populations grow? Are they meeting those challenges or are policy reforms needed? And, if so, what type of reforms?
On September 24, the World Bank will release a new report titled, “Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability.”