Urban Health

A Growing area of interest for AMDD and Columbia University

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Health plays a vital role in urban development and in the broader fate of urban inhabitants.

Both Columbia University and its AMDD Program are interested in the health and well-being of urban communities. Columbia’s new Mailman School Urban Health Initiative, which will leverage the University’s eight Global Centers, is focused on cities across five continents. The Initiative is pursuing collaborations—both interdisciplinary and intercontinental—and will foster scholarship geared to advancing the science of urban health and reconfiguring urban environments to maximize health and wellbeing for all ages.  Read more about the University’s work in urbanization here.

AMDD is particularly interested in how urban dynamics affect women as they access maternal health services. In 2013, AMDD and the international non-governmental organization, BRAC, convened a two-day symposium in a broader effort to reframe urban health programs. The two organizations brought together actors and institutions engaged with aspects of rights, development and service delivery in urban “slums” in countries of Asia, Africa and the Americas. The symposium focused on what makes service delivery programs for slum-dwellers effective as well as how to link health programs with other community-based development efforts.

Evaluating a maternal, newborn and child health program in urban Bangladesh

AMDD also collaborated with BRAC to conduct an evaluation of BRACS’smaternal, newborn and child health “Manoshi” program in urban Bangladesh.

The evaluation revealed several core elements that accounted for the Manoshi program’s success. For example, BRAC recognized that for women in rural Bangladesh, childbirth was traditionally managed by pregnant women and their close networks of female family and friends, based in their village homes. But young women who had left the village for crowded slums were detached from these traditional networks, without the money (or sometimes the desire) to return to their villages to give birth.

Moreover, in the context of the urban slum, women faced a new set of challenges that they were ill-equipped to overcome. When pregnant women tried to access public health services, they were diverted by brokers trying to push them to use private facilities, and/or asked to pay for care that should be free. In response, BRAC created new resources for pregnant women in urban slums. BRAC’s program activities — including community health workers, birthing centers, and a robust, mobile phone-enabled referral network; created linking social capital for pregnant women. BRAC provided support to slum dwellers so they could access, with reduced exploitation, the resources of the city (including sophisticated health care) that otherwise lay beyond their reach.

Beyond the direct impact on maternal health, Manoshi helped the slum dwellers to realize their aspirations of creating “new lives” in the city, to benefit from the resources of urban Bangladesh, and to improve the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families. Implementation science sheds light on which project activities were essential, how BRAC created social capital that was responsive to the context, and how this capital spurred behavior change among health providers and pregnant women.


Given the growing impact of urbanization and its potential to change the nature of preventable maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity, AMDD conducted a global scoping of maternal and newborn health for the urban poor. The scoping entailed reviews of the published literature; 36 interviews of SC staff in headquarters and in county offices of the seven Saving Newborn Lives focus countries, urban experts, and representatives of donor agencies; as well as a scan of grey literature, donor websites, and policy documents. It was designed to review the state of policy, programs, and research in the field, and is available here