The poverty fighter Didi of Godnail slum

Portrait of Shabdi D'Costa
Shabdi D'Costa is well known in her neighbourhood for her work in helping women emerge from poverty. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh.

Shabdi D’Costa was in her forties, barely surviving with her three daughters on her husband’s meager Tk 1,800 (US $22) salary, when she took a principled decision that she would find a way out of poverty by taking charge of the family finances.

“We barely had enough money to feed and clothe ourselves,” said Shabdi. “I needed to learn to manage our money so that we could plan for our rainy days.”

This was four years ago.

Highlights

  • 3 million people, especially women and children, benefitting from better living conditions and livelihood opportunities.
  • 150,000 households with improved access to sanitation and water.
  • Women in more than 90% of all office bearer posts in community-led committees.

 Her husband was a ‘peon’ or assistant at a textile factory in Narayanganj – an industrial town on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka – and the sum total of their family assets consisted of a bed.

Shabdi’s family are among roughly ten million people in urban Bangladesh who live in slums or shanties, continually faced with the threat of eviction, and deprived of access to basic services.

Desperate for a break, Shabdi turned to UNDP’s Urban Partnerships in Poverty Reduction (UPPR) which offered her a chance to meet women who shared her predicament and her urge to find a better life. As the ‘Didi’ or ‘elder sister’ whom local women sought out to ask for advice and arbitration, Shabdi was selected by her peers to represent the poor households of the Godnail slum in a UPPR Community Development Committee.

“I was very excited when I got this opportunity, because as a CDC member, I could avail training in savings and credit management in exchange for the unpaid work of helping other poor households – specifically families of single or abandoned women ” said Shabdi.

For two years, Shabdi volunteered her time as a CDC member, watching families from her slum graduate from poverty through small businesses and apprenticeships handed out through her committee.

“I watched and learned a lot in those two years – about how to prepare oneself for applying for a grant, and how to use this money wisely so that a business could be successful,” she says. “I learnt from the families that found happier days – and I learn from the ones who spent unwisely.”

In fact, Shabdi did so well as a community leader that at the end of two years she was offered a teaching job at a preschool in her slum, and now earns Tk 1,000 (US$12) a month, out of which she deposits Tk 50 into her savings account. As modest as that sounds she now has savings of over Tk 2800, along with a steady income.

When her husband Martin Marrak received a 6-month UPPR apprenticeship in driving lessons, they were on the path to happier days. The same factory where he previously worked, now offered him a job as a driver, with a salary of Tk 6,000 (US$75).

Shabdi’s story is representative of an abiding Bangladeshi reality, which has enabled the country to make great progress in reducing poverty. In the past two decades, the country has nearly halved its poverty – in terms of the national poverty line. One of the critical forces at work in lifting families out of poverty has been the enterprising spirit and resilience of families – and women like Shabdi – who needed just that little bit of training and resources to realize their aspirations for a better life.

While traditional schemes such as micro-credit have been successful is placing Shabdi’s rural counterparts on the path out of poverty, the urban poor have been a fast-expanding yet largely ignored community in poverty alleviation. And yet, it is estimated that a quarter of the world’s nearly one billion poor today, are living in urban areas.

UNDP’s idea with UPPR is powerful and simple in equal parts.

Small cash transfers from UPPR have so far put more than three million people in urban areas on the path to a better future. Modeled on Brazil’s highly successful Bolsa Familia (family grants) scheme, it offers education stipends, apprenticeships, block grants and access to safe water and sanitation, with women holding 90% of the office bearer posts.

“I am not very educated but I know enough to understand that education is the ticket out of poverty,” says Shabdi. “I took two loans totaling Tk 15,000 for my eldest daughter Borna’s education, and I have already paid them off .” Borna recently completed her HSC and now supplements the family income through private tuition to children from the neighbourhood.

“I want to ensure that my daughters get all the opportunities that I was denied because of my poverty,” says Shabdi.