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The making of a megacity: how Dhaka transformed in 50 years of Bangladesh | Global development

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On the banks of the Buriganga, Old Dhaka’s boatmen only ever rest a moment before making their return journey, endlessly ferrying passengers back and forth across the river.

They pick them up at the Sadarghat docks, the historical trading hub that helped build the city, and row them towards the sprawling suburbs that have crept across what used to be open farmland two decades ago.

Old Dhaka is no longer the economic and political heart of the city, but Sadarghat is still the defining image of its perpetual movement and growth, of commuters living and working across the Buriganga, and new migrants forever stepping off crowded ferries, arriving from the countryside.

Dhaka reflects the trajectory of Bangladesh in the 50 years since independence, on 26 March 1971. At that time it was a small city of a million souls in a poor and underdeveloped nation, after decades of Pakistani neglect.

Now Dhaka is a megacity, an economic hub that has grown chaotically – outwards and upwards – to absorb the 20 million people who live there, with 400,000 arriving each year. Many have migrated with dreams of economic opportunities they cannot find elsewhere.

Aerial view of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
Aerial view of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Photograph: M Rahman/Alamy

Asaduzzaman Asad preceded most in his migration to the capital, arriving from the western district of Jhenaidah in 1966, when Dhaka was still the capital of East Pakistan, with the idea of starting a business.

“This town was very small. The number of three-storey buildings were few and you mostly just saw tin-roofed homes. There were ponds and canals and very few people. It was peaceful,” says Asad.

After independence in March 1971, Asad settled in Mohammadpur, an area still taking shape in the newly-settled north of the city. Dhaka was expanding quickly. In some areas the government allocated land for new arrivals to settle on, encouraging more migrants to head to the city. In other places, swathes of wetland and farmland were swallowed up by new neighbourhoods.

Passenger ferries docked on the Buriganga during a Covid lockdown imposed by the government.
Passenger ferries docked on the Buriganga during a Covid lockdown imposed by the government. Photograph: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy

New roads made travel and trade easier and Asad reaped personal rewards, with more customers for his grocery shop.

Bangladesh was infamously described as a “basket case” economy in 1971 by Henry Kissinger, who had opposed its creation. Half a century later, the country’s leaders often take pride in pointing out that they have proved him wrong.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted in October the country’s economic growth would still hit 4.4% in 2021 despite the coronavirus pandemic halving the previous year’s growth.

Most of that has been driven by Dhaka-based industries that have spawned a rapidly-growing class of super-rich, who live in leafy neighbourhoods, dine out on international cuisine and shop in gleaming malls or abroad. These industries feed on a constant flow of migrants fleeing deprivation or climate disasters, who move to places like the Kallyanpur and Korail slums, or the suburbs between Dhaka and satellite towns built for garment factories.

A view of Korail slum beside the Banani Lake in Dhaka.
A view of Korail slum beside the Banani Lake in Dhaka. Photograph: SK Hasan Ali/Alamy
Korail slum in Gulshan, Dhaka
Korail is one of the largest slums in Dhaka, accommodating a constant flow of new migrants to the city. Photograph: Stinger/Alamy

“There are problems here. There is also work here. As the crisis in our village increased, I came to Dhaka to find a living,” says Parveen Begum, 45, whose home in the coastal Bhola district was engulfed when the river flooded.

She settled in Kallyanpur, on a patch of government land known as a bosti, and found work in a garment factory. In the decade since, she has seen the area’s bamboo huts replaced first by tin homes and then more solid but haphazard structures along a network of paved alleyways.

Parveen and her husband pay 2,000 taka (£16) a month to rent a single room, in which they must keep the light on permanently because there is no natural light. Outside, the drains regularly clog with sewage.

“It’s not that I’m good here but there are more job opportunities than in the village,” she says. “We don’t want to live in this dirty slum, we’re always wishing we could go back.”

The 300 taka monthly salary Parveen earned when she arrived in Dhaka has increased to 3,600 taka. She believes that unless there is investment in rural Bangladesh the higher wages will compel many more people to leave their villages for the city.

Dhaka could become the world’s fourth most populous megacity by 2030, according to the UN, and few believe the city is well prepared for this growth.

Residential buildings keep getting higher with no regard for planning laws. There is little space between buildings, electricity cables are slung low in a tangled mess and the sewage system, which is still cleaned manually, is routinely overloaded by heavy rains.

Dhaka’s air quality routinely ranks among the worst in the world and the roads are so congested that traffic has slowed to almost walking speeds of 4 mph, down from 13 mph a decade ago.

“Sometimes I think the whole of Dhaka is a bosti, you cannot simply have a decent city life, even if you have a nice apartment,” says Dr Shahadat Hossain, an urban planning expert at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany.

“You cannot see any park developments, children go to school and come home and stay inside … social infrastructure is absolutely missing,” he says. “Your relation with the city is with your apartment, your workplace and the school your child goes to, but you have no relationship with anything in between because the roads, the community you live in, is foreign to you.”

Aerial view of a newly urbanised area and brickfield, in Dhaka.
Aerial view of a newly urbanised area and brickfield, in Dhaka. Photograph: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy

Hossain says that while industry has thrived, there is been a lack of comprehensive strategy to support the city’s residents. Corruption has made things worse, leaving the powerful able to exploit laws or, in the case of the Keraniganj suburbs, buy up land for affordable housing projects then sell them at prices beyond the reach of ordinary workers.

Asaduzzaman Asad sees benefits in the changes to the small city he came to in 1966. Today his business is thriving and there are opportunities that exist nowhere else in the country. But he is worried the city is becoming an intolerable place to live.

“We need decentralisation, we need good medical treatment in villages, good education and alternative livelihoods,” he says. “We can easily predict the future of Dhaka. If this unplanned development continues, this city will become uninhabitable.”

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UN food summit will be ‘elitist’ and ‘pro-corporate’, says special rapporteur | Global development

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The UN global food summit is “elitist and regressive” and has failed in its goal of being a “people’s summit”, according to the special rapporteur on food rights.

As world leaders prepare to attend the virtual event on Thursday, which aims to examine ways to transform global food systems to be more sustainable, Michael Fakhri said it risked leaving behind the very people critical for its success. In an interview with the Guardian, Fakhri said neither the worsening impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the right to food, nor fundamental questions of inequality, accountability and governance were being properly addressed by the meeting.

“The summit is being led by scientists and research institutes who are pro-corporate sector,” Fakhri said. “People say, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, let’s see if it is the ‘people’s summit’ it is claiming to be.”

“But they have failed in what they had set out to do. It is not the people’s summit. It is elitist.

“In the day-to-day operations of the summit, corporations do not have a role,” said Fakhri. “But the leadership picked comes from organisations that believe corporations are part of the solution.”

Called by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, the meeting was welcomed for recognising that farming has been largely ignored in climate talks. But its progress has been mired in controversy, as arguments continue over the causes of growing hunger and diet-related disease and whether the event is biased in favour of hi-tech intensive farming.

Agnes Kalibata
Agnes Kalibata opening a pre-summit meeting in Rome in July. Photograph: Giulio Napolitano/UN Photo

Guterres’ choice of Agnes Kalibata, the former Rwandan minister for agriculture, to lead the summit was met with protests last year, given her role as president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), which has been accused of promoting damaging, business-focused practices.

In March, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism, a group of more than 500 civil society groups with at least 300 million members, said it would boycott the summit and set up a parallel meeting. In a separate initiative, 148 grassroots groups from 28 countries, which make up the People’s Coalition on Food Security, urged the UN to sever the “strategic partnership” with the World Economic Forum, the organisation that hosts the annual Davos economic summit for the global elite.

Kalibata responded to criticisms at the time saying: “The entire purpose of the summit is to embrace not only the shared interests of all stakeholders but also – importantly – the areas of divergence on how we go about addressing the harsh reality humanity faces. If we are to build more inclusive food systems, we must be prepared to have inclusive debate.”

Fakhri said: “They claim to be listening to people. They invited me to provide human rights advice. But I haven’t seen any substantive response to my criticism.

“What I witnessed was a summit that was called for before the pandemic and continued as if there was no pandemic. What we are going to see is a summit whose value is a snapshot of all the problems we had before the pandemic. But the problem has got worse.”

In 2020 the number of people without access to adequate food rose by 320 million to 2.4 billion – nearly a third of the world’s population, according to Fakhri’s interim report on the right to food. The increase is equivalent to the previous five years combined.

The boycott of the event by organisations representing millions of people highlighted how “regressive the summit is in terms of human rights”, he said. “This is the first regressive move in the summit’s 60-year history.”

UN rapporteur Michael Fakhri on video call
UN rapporteur Michael Fakhri says questions of inequality and governance were not being properly addressed by the summit. Photograph: Cristiano Minichiello/UN Photo

Fakhri said the summit’s multilateral approach, which he claims is driven by the private sector, has not provided a meaningful space for communities and civil society to participate, with the risk of “leaving behind the very population critical for the summit’s success”.

He wrote to Kalibata in January, saying the global food crisis was “chronic, urgent and set to intensify” but that the summit appeared focused on science and technology, money and markets. It failed to address “fundamental questions of inequality, accountability and governance”, he said.

Fakhri said that “everyone is in agreement” that, with famine and food insecurity on the rise, food systems are not sustainable, but the summit is not dealing with the “power balance” many believe is responsible.

“The summit doesn’t want to answer those questions or deal with corporate power,” he said.

The most inclusive space, that of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), has been “marginalised”, he said, along with human rights. The CFS was formed in 2009 to give farmers and communities an equal say with big businesses.

Farmers and others have been demanding a food system transformation rooted in food sovereignty and agroecology for a decade, Fakhri said, but it required a questioning of economic assumptions, protection of human rights and a rebalance of power.

“Food systems are being transformed in real time and people need solutions today, in reality, not this fantasy that has been going on.”

He believes nevertheless, that good things had emerged from the summit, including activating governments to devote their energy to national food policies.

“The second good thing is, despite its shortcomings and problems it has created new relationships. A lot of people committed to human rights were frustrated by the summit process but found new allies and opportunities for solidarity.”

He urged those who felt sidelined to take action and to “hold corporations accountable”. “People who are frustrated, don’t let the summit lead you to despair. Take your ideas, there will be a local food justice group or trade union, go join and participate there.”

Farm workers tending crops in Malawi.
Farm workers tending crops in Malawi. Photograph: Eddie Gerald/Alamy

In response to Fakhri’s comments, the spokesperson for the secretary general, Stéphane Dujarric, said: “Preparations for the UN food systems summit have been structured to ensure everyone around the world had the opportunity to participate through different platforms, in person and virtually. Several leaders from producers, farmers, women, Indigenous peoples, youth, and civil society engaged in the summit, representing millions of constituents from these groups. It is also important to note that the summit cannot achieve its objectives without engaging with the private sector.”

Dujarric said more than 100,000 people have engaged in summit dialogues and more than 2,000 ideas on transforming food systems emerged within six months of public engagement, of which 400 came from farmer and producer groups, Indigenous communities and civil society.

On Tuesday, a report by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development showed profits for large food companies escalating, while people producing, processing and distributing food were trapped in poverty and hunger. It calls for a “revolution” to place small rural farmers, who produce a third of the planet’s food, at the centre of the world’s food systems.

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EU to propose universal phone-charger law

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The EU plans to propose laws harmonising mobile-phone, tablet, and headphone chargers and ports on Thursday in a bid to make life easier for consumers, Reuters reports. But Apple, whose iPhones use a special ‘Lightning cable’ has said the move will lead to piles of waste and deter innovation. Rival Android-based devices use so-called ‘USB-C’ connectors, but ‘USB micro-B’ and Lightning connectors account for about a third each of market-share.

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Brexit: British Embassy launches survey on key issues affecting UK nationals in Spain | Brexit | International

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The British Embassy in Madrid has launched a survey aimed at finding out how UK nationals in Spain have been affected by key issues, in particular, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, a process commonly known as Brexit.

The poll is for Britons who are full-time residents in Spain (not those with second homes) and are covered by the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, i.e. they were officially registered in the country before December 31, 2020, when the so-called Transition Period came to an end.

Questions in the survey address issues such as access to healthcare and the uptake of the TIE residency cards, which were introduced as a replacement for green residency cards (either the credit-card size or the A4 sheet version, officially known as the Certificado de Registro de Ciudadano de la Unión).

As we approach a year since the end of the Transition Period, we really want to hear from you about the key issues…

Posted by Brits in Spain on Friday, September 17, 2021

The aim of the poll is to gather vital information on the experience of UK nationals living in Spain that will help the British Embassy provide feedback to Spanish authorities. The survey takes around 10 minutes to complete, and all answers are confidential.

Have you heard our Spanish news podcast ¿Qué? Each week we try to explain the curious, the under-reported and sometimes simply bizarre news stories that are often in the headlines in Spain.



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