Filling the Gap or Digging a Void? The Role of NGO-initiated CBOs in Service Delivery in Dhaka, Bangladesh


This essay is part of a series that examines the roles that community-based organizations (CBOs) have played as active participants in the process of "governing" megacitieswhether in service delivery, risk mitigation, or the creation of livelihood and other opportunities. More ...



In Dhaka, a densely populated megacity, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) fill a service gap for over five million slum (bustee) dwellersan estimated 35 percent of the city’s 16 million population who remain chronically neglected in government policy, planning, and practice.[1] This neglect has numerous underpinnings, including rural bias and ideology (as poverty reduction is still centered on targeting rural deprivation to reduce urbanization), apathy toward “unhygienic” or “criminal” groups residing in illegal settlements, lack of finances, corruption, and powerful land-owning elites.[2]

NGOs deliver water, sanitation, housing, healthcare, education, savings, and microcredit programs to the urban poor.

In this context, NGOs deliver water, sanitation, housing, healthcare, education, savings, and microcredit programs to the urban poor. With some notable exceptions, such as Proshika, BRAC, and DSK, many NGOs started work in Dhaka in the 1990s[3] in a more “NGO-friendly” political climate, and in reaction to the dire living conditions of slum and street dwellers.[4] Each NGO has a history, legacy, and agenda entangled in the everyday struggles of the city’s poorest residents, yet they must also compete with one another for funds and partnerships with external donors, such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation (SIDA) and the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), among others.

Crucially, many NGOs have created (and continue to create) Community-Based Organizations (CBOs)[5] to access funds, enable project delivery, mobilize residents, and promote ownership over, and sustainability of, infrastructure and services through capacity building (e.g., training and skill development). While there is extensive research on CBOs in rural Bangladesh,[6] less is known about the role of NGO-initiated CBOs in accessing basic services, including water and sanitation, in Dhaka’s slum settlements. Even less emphasis is placed on the interactions between these groups and the motivations of individual members. 

This essay offers preliminary observations from nine months of fieldwork in Dhaka.  It focuses in particular on one organization, a collection of NGO-initiated CBOs across Dhaka—Nogor Bostibashi Unnyan Sangstha (NBUS), or Urban Slum Development Agency—to highlight the complexities of NGO-initiated CBO service provision and encourage debate about how to move forward. The essay briefly outlines the history of NBUS and its association with two NGOs—Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK) and WaterAid Bangladesh[7]—before exploring its role in service delivery (specifically water and sanitation) programs. Drawing on quotes and observations from NBUS members and interviews with NGO staff and slum dwellers, a narrative emerges about how the organization operates, the strategic agenda (of some members), organizational constraints, and implications of formal registration. Critical questions arise about whether service provision is just a “scratch on the surface” in contexts where the recognition and realization of basic citizen rights to secure shelter is chronically neglected.  

NBUS History, Membership and Role

NBUS was formed through the initiative of DSK and WaterAid Bangladesh in 2008, and registered with the Government of Bangladesh Social Works Department in 2010. NBUS evolved from a number of CBOs or “primary groups” initiated in different slum settlements to deliver water and sanitation projects. These 370 CBOs form the base of the multi-tiered organization (Figure 1). The executive committee has 15 members (ten men and five women) who meet monthly, and 30 general members who attend the Annual General Meetings (AGMs). Membership is voluntary and elections are held every two years. There is also a general advisory council containing civil society representatives.

Figure 1: NBUS Organizational Structure









Source: Author’s elaboration based on fieldwork (2015).

While exact membership numbers are unclear, NBUS CBOs represent over one million people located in public and private slums[8] across the city. According to one leader, the figure is much higher: “forty lakh [4 million] people of [the] bustees depend on us!” Compared to other slum dweller organizations such as BBOSC and NDBUS,[9] only slum residents can be members of NBUS, proven on production of a national ID card. NBUS offers a platform for its members to voice their concerns with the NGOs, donors, and government officials in different platforms. For example, in the 2015 AGM, members from several settlements spoke about eviction, fire, access to water, increasing rent, and waste collection with DSK staff and the Slum Development Officer for Dhaka North City Corporation.  

The main focus of NBUS is on securing land tenure, housing, and basic services. Although experiences vary significantly (according to status, income, identity), NBUS members possess local knowledge and understanding of the everyday struggles to access clean water, sanitation and housing, which is invaluable to NGOs, donors, planners and local politicians. According to NBUS leaders, the main achievements of the organization include: resisting eviction in Bagan Bari slum, signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with DWASA (Dhaka’s Water and Sewerage Authority), DSK, and NDBUS to provide legal water connections,[10] and creating unity between the CBOs. Some executive committee members have also bought land to build plots for rehabilitation. In the past, NBUS received funds from WaterAid Bangladesh, DSK, and the Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) to deliver projects. For example, with ACCA support, NBUS constructed sanitation chambers and water points in the slums of Agargaon and Agargaon Sweepers Colony, and three low-cost houses in Korail, Kollyanpur, and Duaripara.

Overcoming Challenges, Formulating Strategies

NBUS remains largely dependent on DSK and WaterAid Bangladesh for financial and logistical support (e.g., to fund the AGMs). While these NGOs also rely upon donor funding (e.g., from SIDA and DFID), this reliance presents particular challenges for NBUS. Interviews with NBUS members and NGO staff reveal four main challenges currently facing the organization, elaborated below: 

  • 1. Leadership crisis: female representation and voice in NBUS is relatively low. As one female member stated, “We want our women members [to be] more active. We have to be more advanced.” There are also concerns over the re-selection of leaders, as opposed to democratic election required by the Social Works Department and NGOs, reflecting a centralization of power in the organization. However, as one NGO staff member stated, “We don’t expect this in our own organization, so why expect it in theirs?”
    1. 2. Funding and capacity crisis: members are volunteers, using their own time and resources to attend meetings and visit settlements across Dhaka. This may explain lower levels of participation, especially considering high transport costs. NBUS has no office space, a further constraint to organizational capacity. “We could not establish our own office room because of the financial crisis,” explained one leader.
    3. 3. Lack of local legitimacy: many slum residents had not heard of NBUS, or confused it with other organizations. As one member stated, “Even our committee members could not say the name of the organization properly… Some called it NDBUS, some called it NBUS…I heartily request… that we clearly pronounce our organization so people will recognize [us] independently.”
    1. 4. Lack of coordination: whilst the president of NBUS is a member of the National Federation[11] along with BBOSC and NDBUS, these organizations rarely meet of their own accord, and each seeks funding for their own projects. However, according to the president, Eighty percent [of] people [living in] bustees will respond to the call from these three organizations of ours,” demonstrating that mobilization potential is huge.

The NBUS members and leaders are very much aware of these challenges. In fact, they have proposed various strategies to move forward. Weekly meetings with different CBOs, greater communication, ground-level surveys and encouraging female participation were all issues raised in a recent committee meeting. Interestingly, while some members expressed the need to work with and access funds via NGOs, donors, and Dhaka North and South City Corporation, others were more skeptical. For example, one member stated how “donor agencies, NGOs are waiting with funds for development, I do believe that. We need to communicate with them in the right way and at the right time.” However, another proclaimed, “Bustee people are the puppets of the NGOs and the headaches of the government … NGOs are collecting money from communities for sanitation. They are like seasonal birds, all trying to enter the same settlement and competitively make sanitation chambers and water points. When NGOs’ service-related infrastructures are complete, [the] bureaucrats’ evil eye zooms [in] … and they [encourage the] government to construct a college, industry, [or] hospital in that particular land…Evict the Bustee people and give [them] the land.”

Although there is a deep mistrust of some local MPs, politicians, and bureaucrats, the NBUS leaders were keen to work with local municipal officials and councillors to deliver services ...

Evidently, there were differing views within the organization about how to proceed. Although there is a deep mistrust of some local MPs, politicians, and bureaucrats, the NBUS leaders were keen to work with local municipal officials and councillors to deliver services, as evident with DWASA. It is important to note here that some of the NBUS members were involved in local politics, service provision, and local housing markets themselves, with a number owning multiple houses and renting these out in the settlements, and/or acting as “managers.”[12] This raises age-old questions over what we mean by “community,” whereby many residents are tenants, reliant upon a small elite and the agenda of an organization is set by those with status and relative financial stability.[13] As mentioned, some leaders have also bought land to build plots, raising further questions over whom rehabilitation is for, and whether organizations like NBUS will fight for housing and rehabilitation for all, including those who cannot afford it.  

Despite these concerns, the leaders seemingly want to take NBUS forward as a self-sustaining, grassroots organization of and for all slum dwellers. “Our organization is not a project!” one leader proclaimed. “It is our own initiative. NBUS is not formed like an NGO. An NGO has fixed project duration, once the duration is over they leave, the committee that they organize is also lost. NBUS is a product of our own hard work … Our target is to bring all slums under NBUS.” Arguably, NBUS is at a critical juncture, at which the organization faces two interrelated dilemmas—that they must rely on NGOs and donors for financial and logistical support to sustain their operations, or must become an NGO (registering with the NGO Affairs Bureau) to access external support. The question is, then, how to maintain an identity as a collection of grassroots CBOs, while formally registering as an NGO, as NDBUS has done—“they [NDBUS] sustain their organization, whereas we are depending on others,” exclaimed one member.

Digging a Void or Closing the Gap?

These dilemmas, or opportunities, as some would say, are not unique to NBUS. Rather, they link to the ongoing discussion about the role and future of NGO-initiated CBOs across the Global North and South. While NGOs play an important role in providing services to the urban poor, as mentioned, the scope for “community-led” initiatives seems unclear, and in many cases, non-existent. Is this NGO-CBO dialectic actually exacerbating competition for resources, members, and funds? As one NBUS member aptly said, “A small tree could not grow if it is underneath the shadow of another, larger tree.” Indeed, the leader of DSK also acknowledges a dilemma in that “Bangladeshi NGOs are famous for delivering services, not for strengthening community-based organizations.”[14] Whether it is possible to do both is unclear. 

Problematically, while NBUS’s main priorities are securing land tenure and housing, most NGOs in Dhaka do not engage with these highly contentious issues, even though this is the primary concern for slum dwellers both within and outside of the organization.[15] Rather, funding is channelled into water and sanitation projects, and while such projects are critically important, evictions can (and do) destroy this infrastructure.

... there are positive changes in Dhaka, whereby NBUS, BBOSC, and NDBUS increasingly negotiate with local politicians, Members of Parliament, and Dhaka City Corporation to close the service provision gap, and gain recognition as equal, entitled citizens. 

Although this analysis implies clear boundaries between NGOs and CBOs, this is certainly not the case on the ground. Rather, there are a variety of experiences and voices both within and between these organizations, and various options for groups like NBUS to move forward, whether as an NGO, a cooperative society, or an informal savings collective. While there is certainly a gap, and possibly even a growing “void” (brought about by this “becoming NGO” paradox in a context of government neglect), there are positive changes in Dhaka, whereby NBUS, BBOSC, and NDBUS increasingly negotiate with local politicians, Members of Parliament, and Dhaka City Corporation to close the service provision gap, and gain recognition as equal, entitled citizens. As one NBUS member explained, “We no longer wish to be bustee people…When someone found we are from the bustee according our ID card, we are not valued [and do not] get the respect as a human being.” There is also some level of regional and global integration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) and Community Architects Network (CAN)—examples of creative partnerships between slum dwellers, planners, policy makers, NGOs, and architects to access services, design low-cost housing, and obtain land tenure. Whether such initiatives will, can, or should gain momentum in Dhaka and other towns and cities across Bangladesh, requires further investigation.   

[1] See Centre for Urban Studies [CUS] 2006 Slums of Urban Bangladesh: Mapping and Census CUS and National Institute of Population Research and Training [NIPORT] Dhaka; G. Angeles, P. Lance, J. Barden-O’Fallon, N. Islam, A.Q.M. Mahbub, and N.I. Nazem, “The 2005 census and mapping of slums in Bangladesh: design, select results and application,” International Journal of Health and Geography, 8:1 (2009), pp. 1–32; and N. Banks, M. Roy, and D. Hulme, “Neglecting the urban poor in Bangladesh: research, policy and action in the context of climate change,” Environment and Urbanisation, (23:2 (2011), pp. 487–502.

[2] Banks et al (2011) cited in note 1 above.

[3] Established in 1989, the Coalition for the Urban Poor (CUP) is a network of NGOs working in Dhaka. There are an estimated 52 member NGOs in CUP. However, only around 15 attend monthly committee meetings, with many returning to run projects in rural areas (Interview with NGO leader and CUP member 2015).

[4] Interview with NGO leaders (2015).

[5] CBOs can be defined as “arrangements and associations formed and located within the local space, or immediate residential surroundings of the actors [or residents],” T. Akin, “Introduction,” Environment and Urbanization (1990) cited in G. Shatkin, Collective Action and Urban Poverty Alleviation: Community Organizations and the Struggle for Shelter in Manila (Ashgate, UK: Aldershot, 2007), p. 4.

[6] See P. Davis, “Everyday forms of collective action in Bangladesh: learning from 15 cases,” CAPRi Working Paper No. 94 (2009),

[7] DSK is a large Bangladesh NGO registered with the Social Welfare Ministry and NGO Affairs Bureau. WaterAid Bangladesh is the country program of the International Non-Governmental Organization (INGO) WaterAid.

[8] Over 70 percent of slums in Dhaka are located on privately owned land, while the remaining 30 percent are on government or public land (CUS 2006 and Angeles et al 2009, cited above).

[9] Bangladesh Bostibashir Odhikar Shuroka Committee (BBOSC) is an informal network of CBOs under the umbrella of the CUP (see footnote 3). Nagar Daridra Bostibashir Unnayan Sangstha (NDBUS) is registered with the NGO Bureau, but emerged initially from BBOSC. Slum residents and low-income people can be members of these organizations. Collectively, BBOSC, NBUS and NBUS have members in over 80 percent of slums in Dhaka.

[10] According to NBUS members, they have helped to legalize 42 water connections across Dhaka. See K.Z. Hossain and S.A. Ahmed, “Non-conventional public-private partnerships for water supply to urban slums,” Urban Water Journal (2014),

[11] The National Federation is an initiative of DSK and other NGOs in Dhaka. It brings together NGOs and CBOs working for the urban poor across Bangladesh. NBUS, NDBUS and BOSC all have representatives within the federation.

[12] Field interviews and observations (2015).

[13] See N. Banks, “Urban poverty in Bangladesh: causes, consequences and coping strategies,” BWPI Working Paper Series No. 17812 (2012),

[14]ACCA Report 2012 ACHR Team Visits ACCA Projects in Bangladesh,

[15] Field Survey (2015).