Urban poor community voices take to the stage at the World Urban Forum

Stories from urban poor communities inspired international audiences at the 10th World Urban Forum.

John Taylor's picture
Insight by 
John Taylor
John Taylor is chief technical adviser for FAO Bangladesh
19 February 2020
A vegetable seller with a food truck peels a cucumber

A vegetable seller peels a cucumber in Koral slum, Dhaka. Getting nutritious food every day is a challenge in large cities due to the high cost of living (Photo: Conor Ashleigh, AusAID, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Taking place every two years, the World Urban Forum (WUF) brings together a host of actors – development professionals from NGOs, representatives of international development agencies, city government officials – from around the globe.

The 13,000 delegates from over 160 countries who joined WUF10 last week were united by a common goal – to push forward implementation of the 'new urban agenda', the UN's 20-year roadmap for achieving sustainable urban development. Cities can bring unparalleled opportunity and prosperity to societies; this agenda seeks to ensure this opportunity is inclusive of all, and leaves no one behind.

The WUF is a space to discuss progress, share findings and exchange ideas on how to make our towns and cities more sustainable, resilient and inclusive. 

Bringing local stories to a global audience

Crucially, the WUF provides a platform for marginal voices to be heard, including women, people with disabilities, urban poor groups, and youth representatives. These voices can highlight challenges from the grassroots that global agendas often overlook.

IIED supported a group of community leaders from urban poor communities in Nepal and Bangladesh to attend. The groups presented their study on food insecurity and urban poverty in Asian cities.  

Joining this humble and committed delegation was Selina Begum, president of the Community Federation of Dhaka North City, in Bangladesh. For Selina, the event was a first; the first time she had left her country, the first time on an airplane. It was certainly the first time she would share her community stories with such a wide international audience. The colossal, ultra-modern Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center stood in stark contrast with the modest, self-built community where Selina works.

Selina leads community-based initiatives that fall into two broad categories: women’s saving groups, and a nutrition program that helps pregnant women eat better. The bright lights of the WUF10’s global stage were intimidating. But this was an opportunity to bring real stories and real experiences from Dhaka’s urban poor communities to more people than ever before.

Food struggles

At the session hosted by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, held in partnership with FAO, Nepali NGO Lumanti and IIED, the panel set out how skyrocketing food prices, poor quality produce in food markets and inadequate basic services are leaving urban poor communities’ struggling to access adequate, nutritious and affordable food.

The panelists described how putting enough nutritious food on the table every day is a particular challenge in large cities because the cost of living can be so high, and access to services such as clean drinking water is so low. Food that is affordable is often contaminated or rotting.  

People are forced to cope by eating less, and women sacrifice the little food they have for their husbands and children. Little information is available on how to make nutritious food choices, or how to prepare and serve healthy food.

Selina told the story of a woman in her community who did not understand the importance of eating a nutritious diet during pregnancy. She spurned calls from community-based social workers to eat healthy food. When her baby was born underweight and with learning difficulties, the doctors said the baby’s poor health was almost certainly linked to the mother’s diet while she was expecting. 

The audience was clearly moved – hearing how food insecurity is not only impacting people today, but the generations of tomorrow.

A panel of five people on chairs address an audience

Selina Begum, centre, president of the Community Federation of Dhaka North City, addresses the audience during an event at the World Urban Forum (Photo: copyright Kulsum Chowdhury)

Selina also explained how poorer citizens are unable to travel the long distances to public food markets where fresh vegetables, fruit and meats can be found. Instead they rely on nearby vendors whose products are often of lower quality, yet sold in smaller portions at higher cost. There is no refrigeration and access to clean water is inadequate. With cooking spaces that are cramped and limited – shared by several families – cooking nutritious food for their families is a major challenge. 


Post-presentation, Selina had the chance to connect with other leaders whose communities face similar struggles with food – but who have found ways to make a difference.

Selina was equally moved by the stories she heard from others. “Learning about what others are doing has inspired me,” she said to me after the session had finished. “I want to go back to my community and share this with my team”.  

She explained her keenness to explore the incredible range of ideas from other grassroots projects, including community gardening techniques, programmes that promote plastic recycling, and small business start-ups led by women’s groups that bring nutritious food into poor communities. 

With new knowledge, the women Selina works with can respond better to the persistent issues of malnutrition, poverty, lack of information.

It is crucial that stories from the urban grassroots are heard in these global policy spaces. With over half of the world’s population living in urban areas, the ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will only be achieved if towns and cities become healthy, accessible and inclusive places for all.

It is community leaders like Selina, whose work supports and empowers the urban poor, that will help make achieving the SDGs a reality.

About the author

John Taylor is chief technical adviser for FAO Bangladesh

John Taylor's picture