Global Development Institute Blog

By Sally Cawood

In March 2014, IDPM PhD Student Sally Cawood boarded a plane to Dhaka for her first taste of urban life in the Bangladeshi capital, dubbed one of the most ‘unliveable cities’ in the world. In this blog Sally describes how this two week trip fundamentally altered her views on urban slums (bustees), their residents (busteebashees) and her PhD.

In Dhaka, at least 5 million people live in slums known as bustees, with thousands more joining the world’s most crowded city every day (See Banks et al, 2011; Ahmed, 2012; Cox, 2012; Shikdar, 2012). As opposed to passive vehicles of hyper-urbanisation, I argue in my PhD that bustee residents are highly networked and active agents, a view shared by others (see Roy and Hulme, 2013; Slum/Shack Dwellers International; Asian Coalition for Housing Rights). My research focuses on the drivers, forms and outcomes of grassroots collective action among this neglected group.

Like many first year PhD students, I’ve had my head stuck in a book (well, many books) and stared at a computer screen for the past six months. However, with support from the Brooks World Poverty Institute (BWPI), I ventured into the real world to attend the CITICON (Cities in a Connected World) workshop on Urbanisation and Sustainable Cities in Bangladesh and ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) one-day workshop on access to water and green spaces for the urban poor living in Dhaka and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. While highly insightful, I saw little of Dhaka in these first few days of hotels and workshops. I was eager to get out and explore, walk among and observe the hustle and bustle on the streets below.

Unexpected Diversity

After three days inside, I visited two bustees located on privately owned land. You can read all you like about a place, or the idea of a place such as a ‘slum’, but no book, photograph or workshop presentation could capture the diversity of these settlements. Despite all their negative and homogeneous connotations bustees are highly diverse and vibrant places. Each settlement faced significant social, economic and political challenges, with threat of eviction being a major concern. However, each varied in terms of history, services available (water, electricity and sanitation facilities), housing and land type, security of tenure, household number, population, social structure, level of community organisation and NGO engagement. This, I did not expect.

Now You See Me…The Paradox of Visibility/Invisibility

During my first week, I visited a further three bustees, one on the western embankment, another in a narrow side street, and one in a graveyard, where we met with community leaders who openly shared their concerns. The small settlement on the river embankment was surrounded on all sides by diggers and building works. Eviction seems inevitable in such a place, yet, where would its residents move to? Will they claim their right to adequate resettlement? Who will ensure resettlement takes place? These questions are often left unanswered. I hope that my PhD research will shed light on the role that coordinated and ‘strategic’ collective action can play in seeking answers.

I began to see how bustees and busteebashees are both highly visible but also deeply invisible. Often located on the doorstep of, or opposite large NGOs and research organisations (such as 40 year old Karail slum opposite BRAC), these settlements are at the heart of urban development and for many, are a stark visual expression of urban poverty in Dhaka. This may be so, but the picture that emerged for me was much more complex. As opposed to separate manifestations of poverty, these bustees are deeply integrated within Dhaka’s economic, social and political landscape.

Days Numbered?



The pictures above show land clearances, with shacks left on stilts and others surrounded by rapid development. Ironically, much of the cheap construction labour will come from these informal settlements

(Sally Cawood, 8/03/14)

While many NGOs are working on water provision, micro-credit, informal education and micro-enterprise, there was little longer-term, progressive engagement with community groups. Why? I began to see how the complex and dangerous story of housing and land markets in Dhaka affects collaborative action. Regarded as ‘too complicated, too political, too hot an issue’ many NGOs prefer to work on ‘tidy, easy’ micro-credit, water, sanitation and capacity building projects, that are ‘unlikely to ruffle any feathers’ (ACHR, 2012: 50). The most valuable interventions seemed to be those in which NGOs facilitated community action (i.e. self-help, savings and credit groups), yet these seemed few and far between.

PhD Pathways 

Despite the contradictions emerging in the urban landscape, I met many inspiring individuals both within and outside of these settlements. I met with community architects, who are facilitating community planning and self-builds, talked with researchers who conducted the largest slum survey in Dhaka to date. I was helped enormously by friends at BRAC University and learnt a great deal from UNDPs Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction (UPPR) team. By the end of the trip, I could walk around with confidence and felt my Bangla was improving!

The experience helped me to refine my PhD focus. I found that busteebashees rely on their friends, family, neighbours and local musclemen (mastaans) to a significant degree. Social networks, kinship ties and clientalist relationships dominate lives characterised by insecurity and uncertainty. People organise and help each other, as one might expect. Yet, this organisation varied from more mundane, everyday functions such as waste collection, sorting and disposal, to longer-term community savings, planning and self-builds.

To other early career researchers I would say take every chance you get, apply to conferences even if they seem ‘above your head’, take the initiative and don’t be afraid to get out there. I learnt more in this two week trip than months of reading…some things you just have to see.