From one meal a day to three

Asea Begum weighs potatos in the small grocery store she runs out of her home in Mymensingh district, northern Bangladesh.
Asea Begum inside her home grocery store in Mymensingh district, northern Bangladesh. (Photo: UNDP)

Inside Asea Begum's home, shelves teem with jars containing pulses, grains, spices and dried biscuits. A little girl runs in with a small plastic bottle that Begum fills with cooking oil in exchange for a few coins.

Asea Begum runs a small grocery store out of her one-room house in the Mymensingh district of northern Bangladesh. The store is a primary source of income for Begum, and allows her to provide for her family.

Highlights

  • UNDP's UPPR initiative has improved living standards for more than 2.3 million people in Bangladesh.
  • Some 14,000 high-school age girls continue to stay in school as a result of education grants, and more than 250,000 people have benefited from social development activities.
  • More than 90 per cent of all posts in the UPPR initiative's community-led committees are held by women.

Not long ago, however, Begum and her family ate just one meal a day, consisting of plain rice and a few pieces of chili. Her children were always hungry and her husband, who pulls a rickshaw all day, was continually exhausted.

All this changed when Begum received a loan of 6,000 Bangladeshi Taka (about US$85) from her local community development committee. The loan allowed her to start a small grocery business and thereby signicantly increase her income.

After repaying the loan, she also borrowed cash to buy goats, which she raises and sells in front of her house. Her monthly income is now about US$15, after expenses, and she has become a member of her local community development committee.

These committees, made up of women like Begum, are the core of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) US$120m Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction (UPPR) initiative.

UPPR, which began in 2008 and will run until 2015, is implemented by various governmental and non-governmental partners and UN agencies. It currently has 100 government staff and 400 mostly national UNDP staff.

The project is the largest of its kind in Bangladesh and one of the largest in the world. Its goal is to reduce urban poverty in the country and improve the livelihoods and living conditions of Bangladesh's three million urban poor and extremely poor people, especially women and girls.

“Poverty reduction initiatives have the best effects when they target women,” explains programme manager Richard Geier, “because [women] are the most affected, under-employed, and they are the ones caring for children.”

UPPR’s committees provide the necessary support for members to embark on income-generating activities and obtain eco-friendly job skills training. They also assess the community’s needs in order to develop action plans for providing needed services, such as health facilities and legal assistance.

“We are mobilising community members, integrating them into community organisations, and this helps them become empowered to address their needs,” says Geier. “They used to be isolated, but now they know they can seek help.”

In 2010 alone, UPPR formed more than 6,000 new primary groups with over 125,000 members to plan and implement physical improvement activities for their healthy and secure living environments. More than 1,700 community contracts were approved for more than 1,000 community development committees.

The committees, which also encourage members to form savings and credit groups, are highly effective in promoting the kind of development local people want and need.

As a result of the committees’ work, the slums covered by the UPPR initiative now have 12,370 more latrines, 2,122 more tube wells, 46 more kilometres of drains and 128 more kilometres of footpaths.

The UPPR initiative’s strategy also includes policy advocacy, which helps to develop policies that support the poor and implement them at national and local government levels.

It’s a strategy that seems to be working so far.

By selling groceries and rearing goats, Begum has been able to replace her house’s flimsy bamboo walls with sturdier material and her family now eats three meals a day including vegetables and fish. Best of all, through her local community development committee she has a cadre of other women on whom she can rely for support.

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