Bangladesh is urbanizing rapidly. The annual population growth rate of approximately 4 per cent in urban areas is more than 2.5 times that in rural areas. The majority of the urban population in Bangladesh is concentrated in a few large cities. Dhaka – with 13 million people - accounts for about 40 per cent of the total urban population (UN-HABITAT, State of the World’s Cities 2008-2009). It is predicted that by 2030 about 80 million people will be living in Bangladesh’s towns and cities.
All city dwellers feel the consequences of this boom, but it is the poorest that are affected most; vulnerable to poor health and other risks, and with often limited access to public services. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reports that 21 per cent of the urban population is below the poverty line, a third of whom are extreme poor.
A number of national assessments have identified this issue as critical for the development of Bangladesh. The 2009 MDGs Progress Report, jointly prepared with the Government and the UN System in Bangladesh, includes specific references to the centrality of urban policies to poverty reduction. Importantly, stakeholders agree that the challenges arising from rapid urbanization can be met, and indeed, can be leveraged for positive impacts. Urbanization is a driver of economic growth and, managed well, will bring benefits not just to the poor in urban areas, but to the nation more broadly. Effective and positive urbanization requires a comprehensive understanding, the tackling of misconceptions, new partnerships, new policies and new approaches.
Such directions are also clearly identified in key Government planning documents, including the draft National Urban Sector Policy, the Outline Perspective Plan and the Sixth Five Year Plan. The next cycle United Nations Development Assistance Framework places specific emphasis on working towards improved pro-poor urban development. Several other development partners have indicated that a response to urbanization is reflected in their development work. A number of urban sector programmes already exist, including the Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction, Urban Governance and Infrastructure Improvement Project and the Urban Primary Health Care Project.
To build a broader base for action, and to develop consensus on the array of issues that Bangladesh’s rapid urbanization brings, a number of stakeholders have recently begun to see the need and value of a national-level, multi-stakeholder forum on urban issues.
In recent years Bangladesh has sent a number of delegations to the World Urban Forum and in early 2010 the Sylhet Conversation brought together a broad group of urban actors – including Government, civil society, academia, development partners and representatives of urban poor communities. These events have underscored the tremendous potential that participatory action has. They have provided an opportunity to learn from others, to network and to spur further collaboration, and they have stimulated interest in establishing a national-level forum.
Towards this goal, Bangladesh’s most eminent scholar on urban matters together with the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Land convened a stakeholder consultation on January 11, 2011 in partnership with the Secretaries of the Local Government Division and the Ministry of Housing & Public Works, with support from GIZ and UNDP. This consultation was a watershed which confirmed a broad-based commitment to the idea of a nationwide urban forum, titled the Bangladesh Urban Forum (BUF), and the process towards its institutionalisation.