Dhaka, Bangladesh | © Franca Roiatti

The New Urban Poor at Risk of Malnutrition

BY: Franca Roiatti - 29. January 2024
© Franca Roiatti

In a small room dotted with gold light seeping through the roof, Jakin Khan and his wife, Shafali Begum, are filling a sack with clothes, dishes, pans and spoons. They are about to leave their village on the southwestern coast of Bangladesh and head to Dhaka. He will work on a construction site or rent a rickshaw to carry people and goods. She will cook for the migrant workers who take turns sleeping on the floor in a tiny, rented room in the capital. They are among the 300,000-400,000 people that migrate every year to Dhaka in search of better economic opportunities. Many never go back to their village.

The metropolitan area of Dhaka has more than 22 million inhabitants. It is one of the fastest-growing megacities in the world — and one of the most densely populated. Dhaka city hosts over 30,000 people per square kilometer; in 40 percent of the city’s residential areas, the population density is three times as high.

This rapid, unplanned growth is putting a strain on infrastructure and basic services, worsening environmental risks and exacerbating inequalities. Dhaka is a giant construction site choking on pollution from congestion, industry and burning garbage. A metro rail system and new highways are under construction, but keeping up with the pace of traffic expansion seems nearly impossible.

High buildings and whole new neighborhoods are mushrooming, eating up the last green spaces to accommodate a growing middle class. Migrants such as Jakin and Shafali and day laborers often end up in one of the 5,000 informal settlements across the city, where the lack of proper sanitation and waste management services are particularly acute. According to the last government survey on urban health, less than one in three families living in informal settlements have access to adequate toilets.

New urban poor

In a country that has made considerable progress in ending poverty, low-income urban dwellers remain extremely vulnerable to economic shocks. A 2022 survey by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies found that half of the poor living in cities fell below the poverty line because of the impacts of COVID-19, thus becoming “newly poor.” Recovery in urban areas has also been slower than in rural ones, mainly because of rampant inflation (above 9 percent) that threatens the sustainability of Bangladesh’s economic success.

Will the country be able to maintain the rapid pace of economic growth in this challenging international scenario? In a report published last summer, The Asia Foundation highlighted that only 1 in 4 survey respondents were convinced that Bangladesh is heading in the right economic direction, and just 39 percent thought it was on the right political track. This might explain, in part, the low turnout in the general elections held on January 7. Officially, 41.8 percent of eligible voters went to the polls (down from 80 percent in 2018), but critics say the turnout could be even lower. The ruling party, the Awami League, won 222 out of 300 seats, reconfirming Prime Minister Sheikh Asina for a fourth term. But the major opposition force, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), along with other parties, boycotted the elections, which were preceded by acts of violence and the incarceration of thousands of opposition leaders and activists.

Ensuring the resilience of poor urban households in this unstable economic environment is thus a key concern, especially considering that in 25 years more than 100 million Bangladeshis will live in a city. Many of those will be people forced to leave their villages because of the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels, more frequent cyclones and soil salinization. It is unclear to what extent Dhaka and the second largest city, Chattogram, will continue to provide livelihood opportunities to internal migrants. A large subset of the new urban dwellers will probably live in secondary cities, such as Khulna or Jashore, where people from the coastal area are already heading during the lean season; or they’ll end up in Cox’s Bazar, a major national tourist destination on the southeastern coast that attracts families from the surrounding areas in search of jobs in construction and the hospitality industry.  

Improving urban food systems

Helvetas is working with the municipality of Cox’s Bazar to improve nutrition in 12 informal settlements that host around 30,0000 people. In these areas, thirty percent of children under 5 are stunted. Most of the families living in vulnerable neighborhoods where Helvetas is implementing the project say they are worried about not having adequate resources to buy nutritious food.

With the help of a group of women trained by our local NGO partner, Prottyashi, Helvetas raises communities’ awareness of the nutritional value of food and good hygiene practices. Women gather to learn how to best prepare, cook and store vegetables, clean kitchen tools, or properly wean their babies; young people meet to discuss their eating habits and how to promote the consumption of healthy food. Helvetas encourages families to start cultivating vegetables – even in the limited spaces available – with the help of Local Service Providers (LSPs). LSPs are women and men from the communities trained by the project to assist families by explaining how to prepare soil, which vegetables to grow, and how to set up an organic trap for pests. They offer collective lessons at demonstration plots, pay regular visits to households, and give advice on request. Participants are presented with the possibility to set up a small business selling quality seeds, compost and other agricultural inputs.

© Helvetas/Franca Roiatti
Jannatu Ferdous, 22, in her garden in Bagh Ghona, an informal settlement in Cox’s Bazar. Jannatu participates in the IC4N project, which provides seeds, seedlings, fertilizer and support to vulnerable families in informal settlements to start a homestead garden. © Helvetas/Franca Roiatti
© Helvetas/Franca Roiatti
A cooking demonstration in Pollaina kata in Cox’s Bazar. Through the IC4N project, women gather to learn how to cook nutritious meals and share good hygiene practices to follow while preparing them. © Helvetas/Franca Roiatti
© Helvetas/Franca Roiatti
Aysha Begum, (left) 53, owner of a demo plot of the IC4N project, works with LSP Hamida Begum, 35, in Teknaf Pahar, Cox’s Bazar. © Helvetas/Franca Roiatti
© Helvetas/Franca Roiatti
Awareness session on nutrition with a group of women in Teknaf Pahar in Cox’s Bazar. The IC4N project facilitates the organization of meetings in which women can discuss nutrition, pregnancy, medical checks, breastfeeding and weaning their children. © Helvetas/Franca Roiatti

Reclaiming spaces to grow food in areas particularly exposed to floods and landslides is proving challenging. Last year, hundreds of gardens were ruined or washed away by cyclones and heavy rains. During cyclone Hamoon, which hit the coast of Cox’s Bazar in October 2023, more than 600 families had their houses damaged or completely destroyed. With the help of the City of Zurich, which is co-funding the Inclusive Cities for Nutrition (IC4N) project, Helvetas is supporting these families to rebuild their homes and to cultivate a garden again.

In the meantime, Helvetas is engaging with market sellers to enhance their knowledge and adoption of good hygiene standards to transport, handle and store food items.

Providing technical support to the municipality of Cox’s Bazar and promoting a political dialogue are the cornerstones of the city-to city cooperation envisaged by the City of Zurich through the IC4N project, which also involves the city of Mbeya in Tanzania.  

With our guidance, both Mbeya and Cox’s Bazar are working to improve the governance of their local food system and will share best practices to foster joint learning.

In Cox’s Bazar, Helvetas is supporting the municipality to analyze and better understand its role in the local food system. We encourage city representatives and public officers to coordinate with district and government authorities implementing policies on food safety and security, and actively participate in shaping decisions aimed at improving access to adequate nutrition, especially for vulnerable urban dwellers. Moreover, we assist Cox’s Bazar municipality in developing a strategy to share data, information and good practices among relevant food system stakeholders, such as market sellers, food producers and schools.

In March, representatives from Mbeya and Cox’s Bazar will participate in the first study trip to Zurich. They will visit urban gardens and learn about Zurich’s food strategy, including how stakeholders are constantly engaged to build a more sustainable food system through the local food policy council, the Zurich Food Forum. They will also share challenges and potential solutions, consolidating city-to-city cooperation.

About the Author

Franca Roiatti is a communications advisor for Helvetas. Before joining Helvetas, she worked as a journalist and covered foreign affairs, development and sustainability issues. She currently lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Our Work in Bangladesh

Helvetas has been working in Bangladesh since 2000, and 80 staff are currently implementing 11 projects. Together with our local NGO and private sector partners, Helvetas supports smallholder farmers to integrate more efficient market systems and offers skills development opportunities to the most disadvantaged groups to strengthen their possibility to find a job. We reinforce the capacities of communities and local organizations to advocate for their rights and promote women’s participation in political and economic life.

Every year, millions of Bangladeshis leave to seek job opportunities abroad. Helvetas assists aspiring migrants in taking informed decisions and migrating safely by knowing their rights and having considered risks and opportunities.

Bangladesh is one of the countries most exposed to the impacts of climate change. In the coastal belt, families are losing their livelihoods and access to clean water. We support them by transferring capacities on climate-smart agriculture and offering opportunities to gain alternative skills. We also assist the poorest communities and households by installing sustainable and resilient water systems.

In the areas most vulnerable to extreme climate events, we are working with communities and local authorities on Disaster Risk Reduction. Preparing people to face emergencies is also part of our humanitarian intervention.

Since 2017, over one million Rohingya who fled violence in Myanmar have been living in refugees’ camps outside Cox’s Bazar. Following a triple nexus approach, we support both refugees and nearby villages with cash-for-work rehabilitation and restoration projects selected by the communities. We encourage families living in the camps to grow vegetables, even in small spaces, with the assistance of experts from local communities.

Urban Engagement

In 1960, only 1/3 of the global population lived in cities. Today, it’s 55% and growing. Helvetas looks for ways to ensure that this rapid urbanization benefits the poor and the marginalized.

Food & Nutrition

Helvetas works to combat the world’s hunger problem by connecting disadvantaged women and men to stable supplies of affordable, nutritious and healthy food.