Rowan Fraser

Khulna, Bangladesh

If you are born in one of Asia’s secondary cities a choice is made at some point as to whether to go or stay.  In this post, Selina is interviewed on this dilemma, and why she left for the country’s capital city.  Focus is on what the secondary city of Khulna could do to keep her and other young graduates from heading for the capital, an issue of retention of young well-educated professionals. Why graduates tend to move on from secondary cities, and why this move is especially challenging for educated young women.

‘I grew up in a small town and went to Khulna University,’ says 23-year-old Selina. We’re moving slowly through the heavy evening rush hour in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, in one of its estimated half million rickshaws.

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Selina’s dilemma

I ask Selina why she came to Dhaka. ‘For the jobs’ she says, and there is not a moment’s hesitation.  Khulna is Bangladesh’s third largest city, with a approximately 1.5 million people – a mere fraction of Dhaka’s 14 million plus population.  ‘I studied in Khulna and it was good,’ she says. ‘But I had to leave, because of the lack of job opportunities.’

Khulna is a typical secondary city in Bangladesh.  It has some good tertiary education facilities and a couple of reasonable local industries.  But it lacks the diversity and opportunity of Dhaka, and many graduates find themselves leaving.  I ask Selina about her friends from Khulna, young graduates like herself.  ‘Many of them left too, but some stayed,’ she says.  ‘For a young women, its better to live with your family.’

Evening rush hour in Dhaka frequently causes gridlock, and our rickshaw slows and finally comes to a halt.  I look behind me, and see the cars and rickshaws fading into the twilight.  With nightfall a kind of wariness rises. ‘Security is a very important factor,’ says Selina.  ‘And Khulna is safer than here.’  In Dhaka, Selina lives with her brother and his wife, which increases her sense of security.  Still, she was reticent to move.  ‘Dhaka is very unsafe’ she says ‘so you have to be careful’.   On occasion in Dhaka, she has been forced to reach home by foot, in the dark, due to ossified traffic.  On these occasions she is on her utmost alert.  I ask if she carries anything with her for this purpose – mace, a whistle for example. She says she doesn’t.

While Selina doesn’t regret leaving Khulna, she is aware of what she has left behind. ‘In some ways I would prefer to be there,’ she says.  ‘But I want a career.’  Wrestling with this dilemma is something which many graduates face. She tries to return home about 2-3 times a year, but often this is not feasible due to work commitments.  I ask if she still feels that moving to Dhaka was the best decision for her, and she says, somewhat enigmatically, that it was the best decision for her career – implying that her career needs and her personal preferences are at odds.  ‘Do you think you’ll return home to live and work?’ I ask her and again my sense is that her decision to come here was fraught with misgivings, and she’s still not entirely convinced.   ‘Smaller towns are always safer and people always prefer to live in their home town,’ she says deftly shifting the question from herself to the more general ‘people’.

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Keeping young graduates: options for secondary cities

I ask Selina how Khulna could have kept her.  ‘You mean to make me stay?’  I nod.  ‘Better jobs and better living conditions,’ she answers.  In Khulna, fifty per cent of the population lacks access to a municipal sanitation systems and the infrastructure is hugely inadequate.  ‘Better communication systems and internet,’ she says, ‘and better entertainment.’  But above all, better jobs.  Infrastructure is inadequate in most cities in Bangladesh – there is a reason we are stuck in traffic after all – and Dhaka only fares slightly better than Khulna in terms of the percentage of its population with access to sanitation (approximately 55 per cent).  But Dhaka does have the jobs, and a range of urban services which the secondary cities can’t compete with.

With the traffic resolutely immobile, I dwell on Selina’s situation and that of Khulna. The Khulna City Corporation (council) and the Khulna Development Authority are painfully aware of the shortcoming of their city’s public works and are planning and implementing a range of extension and upgrading projects.  However, with limited resources and capacity, improvements come slowly.  But added to the infrastructural deficit is the constant draining of the city’s best-educated and most-talented to Dhaka.

This is a long-term problem for secondary cities, which often fail to keep graduates in town, and while Dhaka has its own immense urban management problems, finding attractive ways to keep graduates in secondary cities could be useful.  A more spatially-balanced, polycentric form of urban growth in Bangladesh would certainly bring overall advantages.  Secondary cities could benefit from improved human resources and local industry and services might improve.  Dhaka would be a little less crowded and demand-supply balance for urban services in the capital could improve.  And the graduates, like Selina, may get to live a bit closer to home, or in cities which they might prefer to Dhaka without loosing out on precious career opportunities.

Finally, the traffic starts moving again, and the rickshaw punts forward.  A volley of excited horning erupts.  Retaining graduates is of course tricky, and many cities (and countries) have put in place policies to try to stem graduate brain-drain.  In Khulna, a few experimental measures could be tested.  For example, job placement programmes for a handful of graduates each year into priority local sectors, including municipal government.  Or free tuition for the brightest students in return for a commitment to stay 2-3 years following graduation to work for local priority firms.

This does not involve scheming a comprehensive economic growth programme for the city, but looking for strategic and viable options to foster long-term development.   Allocating a fraction of the city’s annual budget to long-term strategic measures like retention of graduates could help.

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Why graduates leave

Graduates leave for jobs, for love and marriage, and for adventure and while its difficult to say, based on my trips to the country I would propose that it happens roughly in that order.  Bangladesh has a rapidly expanding and predominantly young population – the average age is 23 – and within this demographic Dhaka attracts the vast majority of young, well-educated professionals.  Selina left Khulna for the job opportunities which Dhaka offers, and even if Khulna or other secondary cities in Bangladesh implemented startlingly effective graduate retention schemes, it would hard to compete with the ‘urban offering’ of Dhaka, especially on the job front.

While there is no data on the size of the labour market in Dhaka or Khulna specifically, a rummage into the national labour statistics is revealing.  For starters, the country’s labour force is predominantly rural, with the vast majority of its 56.7 millions workers (2010) engaged in agriculture, forestry and fisheries.  Only 23 per cent of its labour force works in cities.  Surprisingly, this figure has dropped a percentage point from 2002 (24 per cent) – which is to say that the rural labour force is growing more quickly than the urban.

Despite the fact that for over 20 years the country has been run by two women whose parties alternately govern, women, in the words of the International Labour Organization, ‘are not considered to be primary players in the economy, nor are they perceived as primary participants in the labour market, largely because of the traditional views still held by society on the role of women’ (pdf, p. iii)  Of the total labour market in 2010, only 6.3 per cent of it were women with urban jobs.

This picture, then, begins to explain the competition women face in finding work in Bangladeshi cities.  But Selina is not just a woman.  She is a young and educated woman seeking employment on the formal labour market and this narrows her statistical slice to a slender demographic segment.  Young women (15-29 years old) make up only 15 per cent of the total urban labour force.  Of this, the vast majority work in the informal sector (an astounding 88 per cent!), and of those who work in the formal sector, many are not engaged in work which requires a university degree.

Selina studied planning at university which fits her into a bracket of the labour force seeking professional, technical, administrative or managerial work.  I ran the math on this and Selina emerges as one of only 114,700 educated young women employed in an urban job (at 2010 numbers).  That’s 0.2 per cent of the employed labour force.  Which is why, when I ask Selina why she came to Dhaka, whether it’s still the best decision for her and whether she thinks of returning home to live and work, she replies simply that its best for her career to stay in Dhaka.

And so, as Selina and I reach our destination, I propose the need for a dual-track urban development for secondary cities like Khulna.  These would comprise fundamental programmes like sanitation and housing, as well as smaller strategic interventions for retaining graduates and stimulating local services, managerial and technical industries. ‘Its an interesting idea,’ she says.  But I get the impression there are more pressing matters at hand.  The rickshaw has stopped and we are getting down.  Beyond the traffic, the buildings are dark and unlit.  ‘The power’s gone again,’ she says, drawing a small flashlight from her bag.  As we walk up the street in the dark she tells me of her plans for the future, her career objectives and her dreams.  In the face of a blackout, here is a resilient, steadfast, forward-looking spirit.  If only secondary cities could retain more of it.

Photos by A.M. Ahad 

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Categories: Livelihoods, Migration, Youth