Thursday, 27 December 2012

New paper: children's experiences of school in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Here is my working paper (pdf) for Innocenti on children's experiences of school in Dhaka. I interviewed teenagers from middle-class families and from slum areas to try and understand whether there were processes within the school that disadvantaged children from poorer backgrounds (in addition to processes outside the school). However, I couldn't find many children who were from radically different backgrounds yet in the same school. In other words, sorting between schools - and at the secondary level, this mostly means different types of private school - is so strong that it's hard to determine whether what happens /within/ schools also reproduces educational inequality. And there were some surprising similarities across different backgrounds; for instance, the experience of violence within and outside school was quite common. Nevertheless, it was clear that the middle class teenagers interviewed here had a lot more options when things went wrong and a sense of inevitability of reaching college; while those from slums were in a much more precarious position.

Parents from both types of background were paying substantial amounts both for private school fees, even while they often questioned the quality, and for private tuition, especially in the run-up to important exams. In many ways the dreams of private-schools-for-the-poor advocates have already come true in Dhaka (at the secondary level, anyway), and it doesn't work out particularly well for anyone (except possibly the richest, who were not included in this study).

Comments welcome.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A new paper in Energy Policy (not a journal I read often) argues that people living in five slums in Gujurat, India, have a kind of hierarchy of needs. They give high priority to basic infrastructure needs until those are fulfilled then shift their aspirations towards education, healthcare and jobs. The authors have a sort-of experiment in that three of the slums had been upgraded in recent years with water, sanitation, electricity, roads and flood protection, through the Slum Networking Project.

In non-upgraded slums people's highest priorities were, indeed, water, sanitation, roads, electricity, rain protection and housing. In the upgraded ones people gave highest priority to employment, housing (again), land, health and education.

I wasn't entirely convinced by the paper's psychological theory or application of it. Priorities were measured in a relative way (by ranking). Although the stark difference in priorities between the two sets of slums is interesting to see, it's not clear that education was any more important in the upgraded slums in any absolute sense. It may be that respondents simply prioritise whatever they are most lacking. (The paper doesn't present any data on school enrolments and its regression analysis, with relative rankings in both the dependent and independent variables, doesn't seem valid.)

However the authors refer to other research suggesting that energy provision is good for health and education. Perhaps most convincing is their argument that while governments have traditionally focused on improved housing (in practice this often means forced evictions) as a "panacea to social problems," access to services, and most of all in this case to clean water, is a more pressing need as perceived by the people who live in slums themselves.

Abstracting out and accepting that the paper's broad argument probably holds some water, one problem for education is that people sometimes choose to live in places where there are few schools. The good news is that investing in infrastructure may increase school enrolments among the urban poor (e.g. because they have electric light for homework). The bad news is that these arguments might be used as an excuse by governments or agencies for underfunding education in urban areas. I hope not. A question that needs to be asked before relying on infrastructure to boost enrolment rates, is whether infrastructure is the main obstacle to accessing (not just 'prioritising' or 'aspiring to') education, rather than, for instance, a simple lack of schools, unaffordable fees, or unacceptably low quality.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

"If in doubt, count"

A series of articles in Environment & Urbanization highlights the lack of data about informal settlements and how that leads to their exclusion from government services and public investments, including education. The papers focus on how the inhabitants of informal settlements can document themselves, in a series of initiatives in different countries undertaken by federations belonging to Shack/Slum Dwellers International.

In Accra, for instance, people living in an informal settlement were concerned that they were being targeted by a government resettlement programme that would shift them to the outskirts of the city, far from their places of work and with inadequate provision of education or transport. They enumerated their own settlement first in 2004, finding a much higher population than expected: around 24,000, with children under 15 making up more than 20% of the population. The enumerations gradually gained public recognition of the slum, and was eventually recognized as official data by local government. The data was used in public debates and helped to stay the threat of forced eviction, and following a second enumeration in 2006/7, it helped shift government policy away from forced evictions.

This is a continued struggle, though, as the article shows: after a change of government in 2008 the policy was about to be shifted back. Once again, community members had to campaign for evictions to be stalled so that another enumeration could be carried out. They argued successfully that they could not be relocated without first assessing their needs and numbers.

The other articles are on India, Uganda, Cape Town (South Africa), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Namibia, Zimbabwe and Xilapa (Mexico). There are also examples from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Fiji and Thailand. What surprises me is that none of the articles specifically highlight documentation of the shortage of government schools in and around informal settlements, and none of the projects seem to have been used to advocate for better education provision. Perhaps because it is often not within the power of local governments to open new schools? Or is education just not the top priority of these communities when faced with the more pressing threat of eviction and forced relocation?

Friday, 20 April 2012

Utilising the skills and qualifications of urban refugees

Some key findings from the Women’s Refugee Commission Report, No Place to Go But Up – Urban Refugees in Johannesburg, South Africa, show that the existing skills amongst urban refugees in Johannesburg could be utilised to potentially lift them out of poverty.
‘Forced migrants, compared to South Africans, are more likely to be vulnerable to poverty and violence […] Education levels and skill sets vary among the different forced migrant groups. Many Zimbabwean migrants have good English language skills and education, but most are found in unskilled labor: service industries, construction, painting, welding and carpentry. Forced migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) appear to be predominately young, urban, male and educated. Many, even those with specialized skills, work in unskilled or low-skilled work: street vending, braiding hair or washing or guarding cars. Somali asylum seekers and forced migrants are predominately young and urban; most have completed primary or secondary school, and several own businesses.’
You can download the full report here.

What do you think?

If existing skills of urban refugees are not being utilised, can increased access to education in such settings provide a path out of poverty?

Thursday, 19 April 2012


This Mendeley group is a place where I will be keeping education and urban poverty references and anyone else can also add them there. Alternatively you can download the references as an RIS file.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Last week there were forced evictions and demolitions in Korail, the large slum opposite the HQ of the huge non-governmental organization BRAC, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. People have been left without shelter, water or food and many had no advance warning. Apparently schools are among the buildings demolished and, unsurprisingly, amid the disruption, children have missed school and exams. Two children are said to have been killed when their house was destroyed. BRAC staff give their perspectives here and here, and an official reaction here.
There was peaceful demonstration on the day following the evictions. “Without relocation, slum will not disappear,” the signs said, “Don’t destroy schools, mosques, and madrassas.” (source)
Korail is one of the areas I studied in 2008 and 2009. It was not the worst slum I saw in terms of either living conditions, poverty or education. It gets severely flooded in the rainy season and access to water, toilets and cooking facilities was limited. But it was also – as these researchers who lived there for several months comment – a vibrant place with some sense of community. As they also say, resettlement schemes rarely help the urban poor. Urban low-income groups are the engine of the city's (and the country's) economy, but are criminalized every time they seek shelter or basic services. These demolitions highlight the lack of a humane and coherent policy.

Sunday, 8 April 2012


Here is an interactive version of the chart that was in the research agenda I posted earlier.

(Needs a fairly up to date version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox or Internet Explorer. If it doesn't work well try viewing it on a separate page. Let me know if there are any bugs)

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

"My home my own way"

Interesting video made by architecture students at BRAC University, Bangladesh as part of a collaboration with ClimUrb, a research project at the University of Manchester. The students worked with residents of a low-income settlement to design resilient and low-cost housing. Ultimately, though, no new housing was built. But clearly the students learned a lot about the lives of the residents ('We even spent a night there!'), and some went on to build low-income housing elsewhere.

My Home My Own Way from BWPI on Vimeo.

A research agenda

Although there is huge variation in the lives of people who are poor and live in cities around the world (not to mention the difficulties in defining who these people are), I think there are enough common threads to make education and urban poverty a meaningful research topic. In this draft research agenda I try and describe those common threads, explain why urban poverty is increasingly important, and list what I see as some of the most pressing questions. In brief:

  1. What can we say with existing data? Do household surveys like DHS and MICS cover the urban poor, including marginalized groups like those who live in slums and recent migrants? To some extent we can check this by triangulating with other sources, like specific slum surveys.
  2. What access do the urban poor have to education, and what are the barriers? This is fairly obvious but important to answer carefully. Relying on household surveys with limited coverage of marginalized groups may not tell us much.
  3. Is education a path out of poverty? Cities may be centres of economic opportunities, but can the urban poor avail of these, with or without an education?
  4. What happens inside schools? Are urban poor children stigmatized by their backgrounds? Or supported and treated equally?
  5. What type of provision? NGOs often step in where government school provision fails, tailoring their services to the circumstances, such as timetables that allow for children's work. But where are the models of NGO programmes that coordinate well with government services, avoid being cast as second-rate education for the poor, and help young people find better jobs afterwards?

Inevitably this is a very partial list and biased by my own experience and background. I'd love to hear what other people see as the most pressing questions. Respond below or get in touch to write your own post.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012


My earlier work on slums in Bangladesh is here and here, or this poster gives a quick summary.

Monday, 26 March 2012


Poverty is increasingly urban, and among the urban poor are some of the most disadvantaged in society: people who live in slums, migrants and displaced people, and street children. Urban poverty in developing countries is rising on aid and research agendas, but there is still an information crisis when it comes to the barriers to education for these groups.

As part of my fellowship (research proposal) at the Unicef Innocenti Research Centre, I will be posting to this blog regularly (time permitting). The plan is a combination of survey data analysis and some new qualitative fieldwork. I want to see what existing household surveys can tell us about education amongst the urban poor, and to try and explore whether they are even covering slum households. The new fieldwork, in Bangladesh during April-June 2012, will explore ways that children living in slums are helped or hindered within schools by their relationships with teachers and other students.

The aim is for this to be both a research resource and a place for news and debate on urban poverty and education. I would welcome collaboration – please contact me if you're interested in posting.