Time to check ‘urbanisation of poverty’

Urbanisation of poverty has to be controlled and stopped by active policy interventions by the government. Photo: World Bank

Urban people have been affected more than rural people in terms of the health crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic. One reason for higher urban suffering is the high population density in urban areas and inadequate facilities for them. This has been the trend across the globe. The "World Cities Report 2020" of the United Nations Habitat mentions that cities have been the epicentres of the pandemic. In Bangladesh, 78 percent of confirmed cases were concentrated in the capital and four major cities as of July 2020, according to the report.  

The pattern of human settlement is transforming fast in Bangladesh. The country has experienced rapid urbanisation over the last few decades. Predominantly from a rural based human settlement pattern in the early seventies the country has turned overwhelmingly towards urbanisation. In the seventies only 8 percent of the total population used to live in the urban areas, as opposed to 92 percent in the rural areas. Today, in 2020, this has changed dramatically as 39 percent of the total population live in the urban areas and 61 percent live in the rural areas.

Indeed, this is not only a Bangladeshi phenomenon but a global one. The share of urban population at the global level was 55 percent in 2018 according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. This rose from 30 percent in 1950. Asia and Africa have been urbanising faster than other regions in recent years. These regions are also projected to be urbanised further in the coming decades. It is forecasted that between 2018 and 2050, the world will see 2.5 billion more people in the urban areas. Half of this increase will be contributed by eight countries. These are India, China, Nigeria, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Pakistan and the USA. After India, China and Nigeria, the other five countries will contribute more than 50 million each to the increased urban population. Bangladesh is one of these five countries. The percentage share of urban population in Bangladesh is forecasted to be 46 percent by 2030 and 58 percent by 2050. Bangladesh's capital city Dhaka is projected to become the fourth largest city by 2030 after Delhi, Tokyo and Shanghai.

Urban areas are an integral part of Bangladesh's growth story. Undoubtedly, urbanisation in Bangladesh has brought along economic, social and cultural benefits. Global studies have shown that urbanisation has contributed to higher per capita gross domestic products in countries. Today's high-income countries grew through urbanisation. They have flourished by making cities the centres of production, business, commerce, and services. These countries also benefitted from the knowledge and innovation that cities create through human resources—many of whom are migrants from rural areas. In Bangladesh also, cities have now become focal points of economic activities. Therefore, they attract millions of people from the rural areas. These people take up several types of jobs—factory workers, drivers of various types of vehicles, rickshaw pullers, van drivers, construction workers, domestic help, salon workers and many more.

They migrate to the cities for better economic opportunities, better education, better healthcare and better services. However, expectations remain unfulfilled for many. They find an occupation and an income which they would not have in the villages. But a large number of them are engaged in the informal sector doing semi-skilled and unskilled jobs. Their income is low, unpredictable and inadequate for leading a decent life. They live in slums and substandard houses, eat insufficient food, have low education for their children and access to poor healthcare. Infrastructural development and other basic services such as water, sanitation and sewerage also fall short of the requirement of the population of the city.

The increased migration of rural people to the urban areas has resulted in increased poverty in the urban areas. In fact, rapid urbanisation has led to concentration of poverty in urban areas more than rural areas over time which has been coined as "urbanisation of poverty". This is because the cities are overcrowded and are unable to create enough opportunities. There are not enough jobs and facilities for all. Many are under-employed while some are unemployed even in large cities. Cost of living in urban areas is also higher than rural areas—a substantial part of their income is spent on housing since the demand for housing is very high compared to supply in cities, particularly in large cities such as Dhaka and Chottogram. Many live in the periphery of the cities to save on their housing. But additional cost and time of travel and lack of urban facilities do not make them better off either.  

The recently published report on "Urban Socioeconomic Assessment Survey" by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) reveals some of the features of urban population and the services they receive. The report is based on a survey conducted in December 2019 in the city corporations of the country. The survey reveals that urban households spend about 51 percent of total income on food and around 21 percent on house rent. They spend only 2.4 percent on education and 4.7 percent for medical treatment.

One of the important findings of the BBS survey is on the access to social security programmes by the urban households. The survey finds very limited coverage of social security programmes in the urban areas. The two programmes which covered the highest number of households were the primary student stipend availed by about 3.4 percent and the old age allowance received by 2.2 percent of the total households under the survey. 

The pandemic has been an eye opener on the need of the urban poor. Urbanisation of poverty has to be controlled and stopped by active policy interventions by the government. These should be attempted in a number of ways. First, the urban poor need support through a comprehensive social safety net programme. Second, more investment is required in basic amenities such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation in the poor urban areas. Third, they should have access to finance so that the youth and the women can become entrepreneurs. Fourth, skills development, training, and access to technology will help the poor find better jobs. Fifth, better urban planning and investment are needed for improving the conditions of slums and housing of the poor. Finally, urban poverty can be tackled to a large extent by developing the rural economy which is already transforming. More investment in rural infrastructure and facilities will check migration from rural to urban areas and reduce pressure on the cities. 

Without attending to the urban poor, several economic and social ambitions including poverty reduction and sustainable cities are not achievable. These goals are at the core of sustainable development.


Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.


Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of her organisation.


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