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What Works for the Urban Poor?

 The UPPR Experience in Bangladesh

The Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction (UPPR), one of the largest urban development programmes in the world, helped nearly three million people improve their livelihoods and living conditions in just 7 years between 2008 and 2015 in cities and towns of Bangladesh. This article highlights best practices of UPPR and explores the challenges of reducing urban poverty. Urban poverty has been left off the development agenda in Bangladesh, and the UPPR experience can show in practical ways how to bring it back to centre.

Popular approaches to poverty reduction in Bangladesh have remained focused on rural areas, and the perception prevails that investment in urban poverty reduction will incentivise further migration to Bangladesh’s largest cities. In Bangladesh, there are 9 million urban poor people at present. Incidence of extreme poverty was found to be only 7.7% in 2010, indicating a total number of extreme poor in urban areas to be only around 4 million in 2010. With the support of some governmental interventions and non-governmental interventions, the incidence of poverty has come down significantly in urban areas. However, it still remains high at nearly 21% (Islam, N. 2015).

Rapid urban population growth has continued steadily for the last four decades and is moving Bangaldesh towards an urbanised country. The principal driver of this growth since independence in 1971 has been migration, influenced both by the urban pull factor of expanding employment opportunities in cities and towns, and by push factors such as increased population pressure, surplus rural labour, rural poverty, environmental disasters and climate change. Such rapid and large-scale growth has posed unique and severe challenges to urbanites, mostly the urban poor, in the 500+ cities and towns across Bangladesh. The issues of low-quality housing, inadequate drinking water, drainage and sewerage facilities, pollution and traffic congestion are ubiquitous, whilst the population of homeless people in cities is on the rise and slums and squatter settlements have become an integral part of urban life in Bangladesh.

A core continual problem has been that urban poverty is not accorded the necessary priority at the national level, and at the heart of this is that the urban poor lack voice and influence in official spaces. While there has been some progress in political participation at the local municipal level, the wider impact has been limited by the highly centralised nature of national government, and the lack of appropriate mechanisms through which local demand can influence the national picture. Until there is a normative shift that recognises the urban poor as a legitimate group for government support, urban poverty will continue to face exclusion from national development plans. The limited understanding and dearth of information on urban poverty in Bangladesh in terms of scale and measurement are compounded by the limited understanding the multidimensional vulnerabilities of urban poverty. The limited spaces for the voices and representation of the urban poor in official spheres are sure to continue to exacerbate serious challenges that face the urban poor as well as the development of Bangladesh.

To understand urban poverty, conventional economic definitions use income or consumption indicators complemented by a range of social indicators to classify poor groups against a common index of material welfare. The main source of information is the Bangladesh Household Income Expenditure Surveys (HIES) conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, which reveals an alarming situation despite an overall improvement in the prevalence of poverty at the national level. However, debates in poverty measurement have argued to include multidimensional concepts such as vulnerability, entitlements and social exclusion, rather than solely relying on income and consumption poverty lines that obscure many of the inter-related deprivations of urban poverty.

The UPPR Approach: Lifting 3 Million People Out of Urban Poverty

UPPR’s theory of change for reducing poverty in poor urban settlements was premised on the notion that the communities themselves are best placed to identify their main priorities and the neediest amongst them. UPPR mobilized communities with the help of two grant mechanisms (SIF & SEF) that financed the interventions that communities prioritised, including education, health, nutrition and employment. UPPR helped communities develop and adopt development multi-sectoral planning tools for their communities through innovative approaches such as the Community Development Committees (CDCs) and “community contracting” of service providers.

UPPR Strategies in Poverty Reduction

Mobilizing and empowering urban poor communities was at the heart of UPPR’s poverty reduction strategy. The  activities were focused around four outputs: (1) Urban poor communities mobilised to form representative and inclusive groups and prepare community action plans; (2) Urban poor communities have healthy and secure living environments; (3) Urban poor families acquire resources, knowledge and skills to increase their incomes and assets and (4) Pro-poor urban policy environment delivering benefits for the poor. To achieve the outputs, the programme adopted a number of strategies and developed tools, platforms and utilised funds. Mechanisms to meet community needs, ensure sustainability and support transferability of the project were also created.

Mobilizing the Urban Poor to be the Drivers of Change

The urban poor have not been equipped with an institutional/governance framework that supports their efforts to improve resilience and to access opportunities for upward mobility. The rural bias in government policy and programs as well as NGO-led interventions have led to many achievements for the rural poor of Bangladesh, with the rural poor benefitting both directly and indirectly from investments in infrastructure, services, human capital, and social protection. This has not been the case for the urban poor. Municipal governance has allowed little scope for participation by the urban poor, although the Local Government Acts (2009) for City Corporations and Municipalities has led to some progress. The urban poor continue to be neglected by both national and municipal governments as legitimate urban citizens with the right to voice their concerns and influence not only their development but the development of their towns.

To nourish the voice of the urban poor to demand their needs, UPPR worked to mobilize the urban poor to build their own organizations to not only give them control over their own development and poverty reduction but also to form an effective block to take their demands to the municipal authorities. UPPR’s community-based approach was mostly led by poor and extremely poor women, which empowered them to manage their development to meet their own needs and those of their family and community. In particular, the UPPR approach was about creating space for the most vulnerable members of the communities, especially the poor and extremely poor women, and empowering them to make decisions and implement solutions.

With the absence of formal mechanisms for the urban poor to organise, UPPR promoted the development of community organisations/ structures. Poor urban communities were supported in forming Primary Groups (PGs), each comprising around 20 households. In turn these groups formed CDCs to assess the community’s physical and socio-economic needs and develop plans to act upon these.

The Participatory Identification of the Poor was amongst the most innovative and inclusive aspects of UPPR. This process gave the communities responsibility for defining poverty and identifying those most in need. Each community discussed and agreed upon relevant social, economic and physical poverty criteria to identify the poverty status of all households. Households were then categorized as extremely poor, poor and non-poor. These groups came together and engaged in the development of Community Action Plans (CAP) , which entailed identifying the needs of their communities and designing apt solutions to tackle them in order to improve living conditions and reduce poverty. Such independent community-led planning helped members realize that they not only have the capacity, but also the right to identify their own problems and shape appropriate solutions to alleviate them.

CDC Clusters were further organised in Federations at the town level. The CDC Federations supported the CDCs by providing training, assisting in establishing partnerships and linkages, and most importantly, mobilizing resources from Local Government Institutions (LGIs) and advocating LGIs for pro-poor planning. As of August 2015, poor households had been mobilized into 813,005 CDCs. Furthermore, all 23 Federations were provided office space on the premises of City Corporations/Municipalities. This has allowed for greater collaboration between them and has resulted in regular and pro-active negotiations with LGIs on pro-poor services and policies. 

Understanding the Multi-dimensional aspects of Urban Poverty: UPPR’s Comprehensive Approach

The urban poor are mostly employed in low-paid jobs in the informal sector with limited access to formal sector employment. They have limited access to land and mostly settle in sub-standard/poor quality housing built on vacant public and private land; often forced to move to low-lying peripheries of the city. Utility services such as water supply, sanitation and garbage disposal services are poor in quality or non-existent. They also suffer from poor nutrition, insufficient access to health care services and limited access to education. (Ullah et al. 1999; Hossain 2004b; 2006a).

UPPR worked with communities to improve these different dimensions, for example, through improving access to basic services, community infrastructure and livelihood skills. One of the key aspects of UPPR’s approach throughout the project was to understand the multi-dimensionality of urban poverty. In order to measure the impact that the project had, UPPR used the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) methodology to assess changes in poverty in their areas of intervention. It looked into poverty from the dimensions of health, education, and standard of living. These three dimensions were comprised of ten indicators; nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, children’s school enrolment, cooking fuel, latrine, drinking water, electricity, and assets. The MPI study was first conducted in 2013 and a follow-up was conducted one year later. In 2014, 23.5% of households were multidimensional poor, a drop from 33.3% in 2013.

To address the multiple vulnerabilities facing the urban poor, UPPR conducted interventions that formed and integrated and comprehensive approach. Seven key areas of action are presented below.

Creating Opportunities for Women Leadership Helped in Women and Girl’s Empowerment

UPPR worked with women and girls to overcome their disadvantaged social position by encouraging them to take on decision-making positions in their communities. Emphasis was placed on empowering the extreme poor and poor women. This focus extended to households vulnerable to the risk of social exclusion, including those that were female headed, had at least one disabled member, or belonged to an ethnic minority or other socially excluded groups . The responsibilities that they assumed improved their communities, empowered women politically and facilitated their ability to assert their voices. Having women take a central role in community structures has initiated gradual improvements for them both within their communities and within their households. The community organisation structures were also highly effective in empowering women to take on leadership roles.

‘Savings & Credit Groups’ Ensures Financial Inclusion and Rooted the Concept of Community Banking

Households invested in their own future through savings and credit groups and they have demonstrated that poor communities with low-income levels are not only able to accumulate savings, but can also operate and manage their own savings and credit operations utilizing local resources. A share of the profits from the savings and credit scheme also went towards supporting group management costs that has provided the basis for long-term sustainable community empowerment. Aside from the funds provided by UPPR, members pooled capital of savings and credit groups to provide loans to community members for microenterprise activities, housing and infrastructure repairs and emergency situations.

Integrated Effort Sets Model to Ensure Tenure Security

Land tenure security plays a crucial role in urban poverty reduction. This is a fundamental requirement for the progressive integration of the urban poor in the city and one of the basic components to affordable housing. It is widely understood that tenure security can help urban poor households to progress out of poverty by relieving them of the fear of eviction and increase their income through investment and business opportunities. Additionally, tenure security for the poor serves as a foundation to pursue other rights – the right to health and education services, as well as the right to occupy or sell a house or land. Whilst these entitlements are problematic for both landlords and municipal governments, they are essential for social well-being and for improving housing conditions.

For the improvement of tenure security, UPPR took a two-track approach. Firstly, it worked towards influencing relevant policies through the establishment of strategic partnerships and advocacy for more inclusive urban planning, using SLM as a tool. UPPR worked with relevant local government institutions and successfully obtained the respective Mayors’ official endorsement of the SLMs. By endorsing these maps, the Mayors allowed inclusion of slum settlements into Town Master Plans and permitted the future inclusion of slum dwellers in government programmes. Settlement mapping and community registration processes are an incremental development move in the continuum from informal land rights to formal tenure rights. Secondly, UPPR provided operational support to the improvement of tenure security through the development of alternative approaches to forced evictions and models for security of tenure. For example, in Gopalganj, a group of very poor families, who had been living as tenants with no contract for more than 30 years, paid rent in a highly polluted waterlogged area with no toilets or clean water supply, were able to negotiate with the landlord for a long-term lease of 20 years if the community, with the assistance of UPPR, improved the settlement themselves.  The landlord agreed to sign a contract with each household for a long-term lease (20 years) and allowed the tenants to readjust the physical locations of housings on a planned layout within the same land.

Need Based Funds in a Flexible, Adaptive Way Promote Efficiency of the Human Capital

Social-economic fund (SEF) grants were provided to beneficiaries to improve their livelihoods and expand their economic opportunities. This approach facilitated local, context-driven solutions by the community organisations for increasing skills and improving livelihoods. UPPR connected poor urban people with apprenticeships to build skills and enhance their employment prospects. Potential apprentices worked with UPPR staff to choose a skill area, such as garment making, mobile repair or electrical engineering, and then UPPR and the community worked together to identify suitable placements and negotiated the terms and conditions of training. Apprentices were paid a stipend to support them during their training and the expected end result was that they would gain employment with their trainer or have the necessary skills to find employment elsewhere. Additionally, some individuals were provided with a block grant to start a small business. Theses recipients worked one-on-one with a mentor from the community to learn about using the funds and running the business. Businesses established through the block grant included grocery stalls, tea stalls and the purchase of assets for daily rent such as rickshaws or carts.


Accelerating Improved Nutrition for the Urban Extreme Poor

Many poor households in Bangladesh cannot afford a sufficient quantity or quality of food and often fall weak and sick from malnutrition. Failure to improve the nutrition of infants and children in particular has significant effects on their ability to learn and generate income in the future, which makes it difficult for them to break out of the intergenerational poverty cycle. Poor nutrition behaviour and lack of access to essential vitamins and supplements can lead to illness and reduces the breast milk supply available for infants. In absence of a stable income, poor households may also struggle to cover the cost of doctor’s visits and medicines in cases of illness, further aggravating the problem of malnutrition. Hence, many households are not able to seek or are forced to give up treatment not only for themselves but also for their children. To help urban poor overcome the situation, UPPR undertook direct nutritional interventions, targeting mainly women, adolescent girls and children under the age of five. The strategy included the distribution of iron and folic acid (IFA) supplements to pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as adolescent girls. De-worming tablets and multiple micronutrient supplements were supplied to children under the age of five and services such as training, workshops and counselling on nutrition, exclusive breastfeeding and hygiene practices were undertaken to raise awareness of healthy and proper practices.

Community Contracting for Transparency and Community Ownership

Financial support was provided to poor and extremely poor communities living in hazardous environment to contract physical improvements in their neighbourhoods through the Settlement Improvement Fund (SIF). The works included the extension of drains and footpaths, the construction of latrines, reservoirs and water wells to improve sanitation and hygiene conditions, improved access to roads and markets, as well as a range of other activities in response to the priorities expressed by communities. As all SIF investments were contracted by the communities themselves, UPPR not only stimulated local economies by supporting local manufacturers and businesses, but also promoted community empowerment. Being directly involved in the planning and execution of the project, the community members learned and developed skills that could be utilized for future employment as skilled and unskilled labourers. Further, a sense of ownership over the final output was developed over the implementation process, resulting in communities contributing to ensure the quality of construction and maintenance. 

Investing in Education Results Many in Diverse Ways

In order to help urban poor children stay in school, UPPR provided an education grant that supported more than 90,000 vulnerable girls and boys to achieve their primary and secondary school certificates. Furthermore, other initiatives undertaken in many towns were focussed on keeping girls in school for longer and included awareness-raising campaigns, youth development programmes, prevention of early marriage interventions, and trainings on gender-based violence. With the help of education grants and increased awareness on the importance of completing school, UPPR helped poor urban girls and boys to access education and aimed to prevent them from dropping out due to early marriages and other poverty related causes. This has allowed the recipients to build up human capital that will help them to escape the poverty cycle in the long run. 

Sustainability of the UPPR Model

The community organisation model has proved to deliver benefits beyond the life of the project, and organisational structures of the community people continue to function. UPPR’s role as a partnership broker in building linkages has resulted in stronger relationships between service providers and communities as it had taken approach of doing development work differently where community was empowered by creating their own skills and ability through various tools. The key issue is whether municipalities come to view CDCs as long-term development partners, and UPPR’s investment in building community planning skills is relevant here; and a second important issue is whether service providers come to view poor urban communities as “markets”, and UPPR’s investment in building community contracting skills is relevant here. This community focused approach has strongly enabled sustainability as the linkages have endured beyond the ending of the project and communities been empowered to take ownership of their well-being. 

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