In Bangladesh, poverty eradication efforts ripple through communities

20 Jul 2010

By UPPR Staff

20 July 2010, Mymensingh, Bangladesh — In Mymensingh, a district in northern Bangladesh, it was not so long ago that Asea Begum, 35, and her family had only one meal a day, consisting of plain rice and a few pieces of chilli.  Her growing children were always hungry.  Her husband, who pulls rickshaws all day, was continually exhausted.

Asea Begum, 35, has relied on her district’s Community Development Committee for social and economic support. (Photo by UPPR)

It is dark inside Begum’s one-room house, which also doubles as her grocery store.  The shelves fashion jars containing pulses, grains, spices and dried biscuits.  A little girl runs in with a small plastic bottle which Begum fills with cooking oil in exchange for some change.  Begum started this shop with a loan of 6,000 Bangladeshi Taka (about USD 85) from her local Community Development Committee (she later became a member of the committee).  

After repaying her first loan, Begum took another loan to buy goats, which she raises and sells in front of her house.  After paying all her expenses, she has about $15 left every month.  

The core of UNDP’s $120 million Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction initiative is made up of the Community Development Committees that comprise women like Begum.  These committees support their members with a myriad of incoming-generating activities and eco-friendly job skills training.  The members prioritise the community’s needs — access to essential services such as health facilities and legal assistance, for instance — and develop an action plan to address them.  The urban slums within the initiative’s coverage now have 12,370 more latrines, 2,122 more tube wells, 46 more kilometres of drains and 128 kilometres of more footpaths thanks to its Settlement Improvement Funds.  

The community-based mechanism has proved to be highly effective in promoting the kind of development local communities want.  At the end of 2009, Bangladesh had more than 1,200 Community Development Committees consisting of 1.7 million people from 23 towns and cities.  The committees also encourage the members to form savings and credit groups.  

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

The Community Development Committees provide social and economic support for poor women who bear the grunt of poverty in urban slums in Bangladesh. (Photo by UPPR)

Jointly supported by UNDP and the U.K. Government, UPPR aims at improving the livelihoods and living conditions of three million poor and extremely poor people, especially women and girls, living in 30 urban areas throughout Bangladesh.  Drawing upon UNDP’s earlier experience of poverty reduction work in the country, the initiative is implemented by various governmental and non-governmental partners and UN agencies.  Currently, the programme has 100 government staff and 400 mostly national UNDP staff.  The initiative began in 2008 and will run through 2015.

The Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction’s strategy consists of policy advocacy as much as it does community empowerment.  It actively supports pro-poor policy development and implementation at national and local government levels through developing knowledge products, sharing international and regional experiences, and publicising best practices.  UPPR has formed partnerships with government agencies and projects, donors and NGOs to come up with strategies and funding for programmes that will enable the Bangladeshi Government to meet the challenges of urbanisation, a key element of attaining the Millennium Development Goals.

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

Begum’s committee has provided assistance far beyond simple loans.  When her oldest daughter, who has intellectual disability, was abandoned by her husband and returned home, the family’s still meagre income was not enough to feed an extra person.  Begum’s tenuous situation made her eligible to apply for a block grant to expand her business.  She purchased a refrigerator with the grant, which enabled her to store more goods for longer period of time.  This has increased her income to a sustainable level, and the community has access to a product, which they did not have before.  

Begum’s life remains far from easy, but by selling groceries and rearing goats, she has been able to replace the flimsy bamboo walls with sturdier material.  Her family eats three meals a day, which often includes vegetables and fish.  Most of all, she has a cadre of other women whom she can rely on for support.  

The improvements in her life have inspired two other residents in her community to take up on similar ventures.  She is not worried about competition, said Begum, because she has good-quality products and her customers come from far away to purchase them.

For more information, contact Richard Geier at richard.geier@undp.org.