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:
Facilitating Bottom-Up Innovation through Video-based Learning Platform
Local villagers being trained to shoot videos
American Idol, a television show in the United States, has inspired thousands of people to make videos for stardom in music, dance, cooking and more. Can this phenomenon be applied in development? Digital Green, a non-profit, is doing exactly that by using a similar approach to improve agriculture development in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. It uses participatory video as a medium to create star farmers and facilitates a rural library of digital videos providing decentralized and localized agriculture solutions to farmers, using the thrill of appearing "on video" to amplify the organization’s reach within their social networks.
Digital Green’s mission is to solve one of the intractable problems of the agriculture sector – lack of localized knowledge and extension services. For instance, in India alone, the agriculture extension system employs more than 100,000 people but very few access it (less than 6 percent), and only 40 percent get information from other sources. Tackling this information gap is critical to enhancing the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers in India, who have low productivity and constitute over 80 percent of India’s farmers. Digital Green is offering an innovative solution, and initial results are promising.
Sewing Floor, Armana Apparels, Dhaka. Photo: Shobha Shetty
Contradictory trends in female labor force participation in South Asia continue to pose a puzzle for policymakers. On the one hand, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, one of the mainstays of the national economy, has a high female labor participation rate of 85%. On the other hand, the female labor force participation rates continue to fall in India in spite of recent high economic growth. During my recent visit to Dhaka, I was once again reminded about the enormous challenges of tackling these issues.
I was in Dhaka to attend the 7th Meeting of the BEES (Business, Enterprise and Employment Support for Women in South Asia) Network. Founded in May 2011, the BEES network, facilitated by the World Bank, brings together 15 civil society organisations that work for the economic empowerment of poor women across South Asia. Currently, the network represents women at the bottom of the economic pyramid, with a collective reach of over 100 million. It was a sombre coincidence that the week of our visit marked the first year anniversary of the horrific Rana Plaza disaster in which over 1,100 perished.
The rise of the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh in the last decade has been stunning by every measure. By 2013, about 4 million people - almost 85% women - were working in the US$22 billion-a-year industry. The industry now contributes to over 75% of Bangladesh’s export earnings and accounts for over 10% of GDP, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China.
But what does it mean for the millions of women employed in this industry? Thanks to Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), one of the Bangladesh BEES network members and co-host of the Dhaka meeting, I was lucky to visit the Awaj (“voice”) Foundation to understand this issue better. Founded in 2003, the organisation focuses on empowering female RMG workers. We got an opportunity to meet Nazma Akter, the feisty General Secretary of the foundation and a former garment worker. After spending 7 years in the ready-made garment industry as a young girl, she turned to activism on behalf of her fellow women workers. She is now a well-recognised national name and Awaj has a direct outreach to 60,000 women workers (and 600,000 indirectly).
Female farmers in Tamil Nadu after attending a farmer training session in the village.
In India, the state of Tamil Nadu has about 4% of the geographical area of the country, 7% of the population and only 3% of the water resources. Hence, it is one of the most water stressed states in India and its crops rely on river water and monsoon rains. Yet, Tamil Nadu is one of the leading producers of agricultural products in India, famous for its turmeric and rice among others. Thus the need to conserve and manage scarce water resources is critical to the success of agriculture of the state, which accounts for more than 20% of its economy.
In Unit #95 (Photo: Martje van der Heide)
“This is unit number 95”, Preeti told me. “It is the standard model.” Geeta Devi the owner shook her head. “Look up”, she said, “This is our house.” I looked up and saw what she meant: there was a beautiful lotus flower design in the ceiling. “My husband made it” Geeta said proudly. “This is our house”.
The tireless Preeti works with village communities to help them build back better (Photo: Martje van der Heide)
Preeti Bisht is the community worker for SUDHA who is mobilizing the victims of the Uttarakhand floods in this small village on the Mandakini River, well on the way to Kedarnath. She took me all the way to unit number 107 and in passing showed me the school. I soon discovered that none of the house units were standard. Some people added a room, others an extra window in the kitchen to show the amazing view up river. And the houses that were already finished were painted in every color imaginable as houses in Uttarakhand are meant to be.