Addressing governance challenges of urbanisation in BD

Shanawez Hossain and Ahmad Tousif Jami | Sunday, 26 November 2023

Urbanisation poses a critical challenge to Bangladesh today as the unplanned and uncontrolled growth of the country's urban space and population places immense pressure on public utilities and services. This strain is particularly evident in providing basic services such as water and sanitation, waste management, and housing. Therefore, besides the promising data of contributing the lion's share to the national GDP, Bangladeshi urbanisation is featured regularly among the least liveable cities in the Economic Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Thus, this rapid urbanisation poses serious challenges and promises to the socioeconomic and infrastructural transformation of the country, particularly in the Least Developed Country (LDC) graduation by 2026, reaching a middle-income country by 2031, and realising the vision to become a developed nation by 2041.
Contextual understanding
The 21st century is becoming an urban century, with an urban population projected to become 66 per cent of the global population by 2050. Although Bangladesh is also not detached from this historic metamorphosis, the urban transition is primarily levelled through the economic lens, leaving aside ethical and governance aspects of service delivery and Quality of Life (QoL) issues.
For example, among urban centres of Bangladesh, though Dhaka is just 1 per cent of Bangladesh's total area, it hosts around 10 per cent of the country's total population, contributing around one-third of the country's GDP. More importantly, around 83 per cent of this GDP comes from its informal sectors, run by primarily marginalised groups who are the main victims of informal and poor public services in the city. So, the social aspects of Bangladesh's urbanisation need attention, prioritising equitable access to public utilities and services.
Dhaka, despite its economic significance, as of 2023, is ranked as the 7th least liveable city globally by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Three primary drivers of urban growth are natural population increase, territorial expansion, and rural-to-urban migration. With 12 city corporations, 327 municipalities, and 570 urban centres, urbanisation occurs rapidly and unevenly, placing substantial stress on formal urban governance and resources. This leads to a crisis in delivering services related to housing, transportation, utilities, and public health.
The skewed distribution of the urban population intensifies the pressure on major cities, particularly Dhaka. The unplanned and uneven urbanisation in Bangladesh has emerged as a significant challenge, negatively impacting the provision of crucial public utilities and services, thereby hampering the QoL in urban areas. This disproportionately affects low-income groups, leading to a vicious cycle of urban informality and economic disparity. Hence, it is imperative to outline and effectively implement several actions to drive significant improvements in service delivery in urban Bangladesh.
The impact of inadequate service delivery disproportionately affects vulnerable communities, especially low-income households dwelling in informal settlements with limited access to essential services. These individuals are also more susceptible to environmental hazards such as waterborne diseases and air pollution. Although some planned urbanisation initiatives have been undertaken, the desired outcomes have often yet to be achieved, leading to concerns over informal governance and the political economy that leaves specific segments of society without adequate access to public utilities and services. Rapid urban growth has made heavy demands on urban utilities and services such as electricity, gas, water, sanitation, sewerage, garbage disposal, transport, and social services, e.g., health and education, and so forth. In each of these sectors, scarcity or inadequacy of the service and mismanagement in general have caused crises.
The following actions, if effectively and equitably implemented, would assist in addressing the aforementioned governance challenges related to urbanisation in Bangladesh.
Strengthen local government institutions
In addressing the governance challenges of unplanned urbanisation in Bangladesh, a crucial first step is strengthening local government institutions. These institutions are on the front lines of service delivery to urban communities but often face resource and capacity constraints. The government of Bangladesh must allocate more support to local governments to enhance their ability to plan, finance, and execute service delivery programmes effectively.
This support can come from increased financial assistance, specialised training, and technical support to empower local authorities. Moreover, aligning these service delivery programmes with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can provide a comprehensive framework for achieving sustainable and equitable urban development, ensuring that the services reach those who need them the most.
Regulate informal practices and address data gaps
Unplanned urbanisation often involves informal practices such as street vending and rickshaw pulling, which are integral to the urban economy. However, these practices can contribute to congestion and pollution. To tackle this challenge, the government should develop policies and regulations to formalise these activities while minimising their negative impacts on urban life.
Simultaneously, it is crucial to ensure that informal workers gain access to essential services and social protection. Investment in data collection and analysis is also vital to gain a deeper understanding of citizens' needs and challenges, thereby informing evidence-based policy-making and targeted service delivery programmes. By regulating informal practices and addressing data gaps, Bangladesh can create a more sustainable and harmonious urban environment.
Prioritise inclusivity and equitable access
In the face of unplanned urbanisation, the government must prioritise inclusivity and equitable access to public utilities and services. Regardless of income, gender, or social status, all citizens should have fair access to these vital services. This involves addressing the specific needs of vulnerable groups such as women, children, and older people.
Offering financial subsidies to low-income households for essential services and developing specialised programmes to enhance access to education and healthcare for these vulnerable groups are essential steps in achieving this goal. By focusing on inclusivity and equitable access, Bangladesh can ensure that its urban development benefits its citizens, fostering a more just and prosperous society.
Engage local philanthropic organisations
In addressing the governance challenges of unplanned urbanisation, it is vital to recognise the role of local philanthropic organisations as valuable partners. These organisations can complement government efforts by providing essential services and support to urban communities.
Collaborating with them to develop and implement innovative service delivery programmes, such as vocational training for unemployed youth or improved waste management in informal settlements, can yield significant benefits. In cases where large-scale changes are not immediately feasible, initiating pilot projects in smaller areas to test new service delivery approaches can pave the way for potential scaling, promoting flexibility and adaptability in addressing urban governance issues.
Invest in skills development
To navigate the rapid urban population growth, the government must invest in skills development programmes. These programmes should target workers in public utilities and services, equipping them with the necessary skills for effective service delivery. This includes training for water and sanitation workers, waste management personnel, healthcare providers, and other essential service professionals.
Providing financial incentives to encourage their participation in these skill development programmes will ensure a competent and motivated workforce. Such investments are crucial to meeting the rising demand for skilled workers in public services and improving the overall quality of service delivery in urban areas, ultimately mitigating the challenges posed by unplanned urbanisation in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh's urbanisation stands at a crossroads, with its potential impact on its ambition to become a developed nation by 2041. Addressing service delivery challenges within the context of unplanned urbanisation necessitates a comprehensive and pragmatic approach that prioritises Leave No One Behind (LNOB). Multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships are crucial for creating sustainable urbanisation to meet future needs.
By implementing the recommended actions, Bangladesh can make significant progress in providing public utilities and services equitably and sustainably. These actions, including strengthening local government institutions, regulating informal practices, aligning with SDG targets, addressing data gaps, prioritising inclusivity, engaging local philanthropic organisations, and investing in feasible changes, can set the stage for inclusive growth and improved living standards for all citizens as Bangladesh pursues its goals of becoming a middle-income country by 2031 and a developed nation by 2041.

Dr Shanawez Hossain is an Assistant Professor at the Global Studies and Governance (GSG) Department at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). Ahmad Tousif Jami is a Research Assistant and Student at GSG, IUB.
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