How researchers are finding solutions to Pakistan’s urban challenges


By Hina Shaikh and Ijaz Nabi

We have discussed the scope of Pakistan’s urban challenges and the government’s response to them in this blog. But missing from this conversation is the search for new solutions to urban challenges. Here, we discuss how researchers are engaging the government to elevate urban policy.

To start off, it is important to note that key decision makers in urban policy have brought researchers to the table by giving them representation on committees, task forces, and boards of government agencies involved in urban planning. This allows researchers to engage directly in the policy process by pursuing projects designed in collaboration with think tanks and policy makers. As these projects make their way into practical application, the hope is that a culture of policy making based on evidence – rather than narrow agendas and hearsay – takes root.

Importantly, researchers are filling gaps in data that are crucial to understanding Pakistan’s urban transition and making appropriate interventions.

Here is a selection of research pushing our knowledge of urbanization in Pakistan.


Research on housing remains more focused on understanding the structure and regulation of sub-standard housing (mostly in slums) accompanied by analysis of living conditions and access to service delivery. Examples include work by the Karachi-based Urban Resource Center and Orangi Pilot Project to improve service delivery in slums. Research on housing conditions in other parts of urban Pakistan remains limited.[1]

The private sector – including banks, consulting firms, and international organizations – has stepped in to fill gaps in research. Acumen, Citi Bank, and Ansar Management Company are supporting research on housing markets and demand for housing finance especially among the poor. The World Bank is also sponsoring research to design financial products to ease access to housing credit.


With the realization that several transportation projects are being rolled out without much understanding of their economic benefits or local job markets, researchers are heavily invested in improving the design and effectiveness of future public investments in transport infrastructure.

An International Growth Centre project is measuring the impact of Lahore’s Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) on employment and human capital investment.

A study led by the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP) is testing whether the provision of women’s only transport and transport vouchers can create safe and reliable public transport options for women, who frequently report harassment while using standard public transport.

Economists are also developing smartphone applications in collaboration with the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) to gather more reliable data on perceptions of safety when moving around the city[2] and better understand design flaws in Pakistan’s urban transport system that inhibit women’s mobility.[3]

Water Supply and sanitation

Research on water has gained momentum since the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) established the Center for Water Informatics and Technology (WIT), the first center of its kind in Pakistan. It aims to bridge the gap between academia and practice on water issues.

With support from the HSBC Water Programme, the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute (OPP) provides technical expertise such as sanitation mapping to influence decisions on sanitation and underground sewage systems in Karachi and small-town Sindh.

Academics from Princeton and the Lahore School of Economics collaborated to analyze the data the Punjab government collects to inform public health and sanitation policy. They found that despite much data collection, little is usable for policy analysis. Punjab is now setting up a system to monitor water quality at all urban water sources in Punjab.

Researchers, based at Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD)  and the International Growth Centre (IGC), are also investigating effective pricing policies for efficient water use. In their study of Faisalabad, they found that water pricing in fact has limited scope for changing water consumption.


Researchers are developing innovative technology-based solutions to improve service delivery in the health sector (both urban and rural). Examples include the IGC-funded Monitoring the Monitors Project which uses smartphones to track doctor attendance, the Punjab government’s dengue monitoring system, which has been critical in curtailing the spread of dengue fever in urban Punjab. Both these programs have been designed in collaboration with PITB.

Another IGC-funded project finds that adopting smartphones for monitoring Lady Health Workers can increase polio vaccination coverage.

Despite these studies, solutions for improving tertiary healthcare remain under-researched.


Education planning is being strengthened and informed by rigorous research that provides both new data and analysis to guide reforms. The Annual Status of Education Report, the largest citizen-led, household-based data-gathering initiative for education outcomes, offers reliable estimates on schooling, teaching quality, and learning. It is regularly cited in government documents to benchmark progress.

The path-breaking Learning and Educational Achievement in Punjab Schools (LEAPS) study analyzes schooling environments in villages to understand the difference between private and public sector education outcomes. The Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) programme is building on these findings to study system-level failures in student learning within both public and private education. Researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the IGC are examining  how the role and accountability of teachers can be enhanced to improve learning outcomes.

Several other think-tanks such as the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, Alif Ailaan, Society for the Advancement of Education, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, and the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences are also working specifically on education, leading data collection and evidence-based research with a focus on retention, teaching, low cost private schooling, and private sector engagement.

Land management and urban planning

To facilitate urban planning and land management, experts are collating new data and reformatting existing data to inform policy. The focus is on spatial mapping and understanding urban economies – both of which are key for effective urban planning.

A recent example is the World Bank’s report on urban agglomeration and spatial mapping. For the first time in 2015, the Bank used night lights data to measure economic growth for South Asian cities over the last ten years.

Urban experts are estimating the extent of urbanization by gathering spatial data.[4] LUMS researchers have also developed a mapping technique to integrate spatial urban datasets used by different government departments, now adopted by the Punjab government’s Urban Unit. Their technique holds great promise for improving future urban policy making and implementation.

A collaboration between The Local Public Sector Initiative and the Urban Institute is evaluating urban service delivery against international benchmarks and has shown that Pakistan performs poorly on many measures.

The Consortium for Development Policy Research (CDPR) has recently started a collaboration with World Data Lab to build an online poverty clock for Pakistan to measure poverty levels across the urban-rural divide.

Researchers from George Mason University and the Urban Institute in Washington DC are piloting an inner city economic census in Peshawar in collaboration with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Urban Policy Unit to provide systematic insight into Peshawar’s urban labor market.

Informed by researchers at LUMS, CDPR, and the IGC, provincial governments are also focusing on strategizing under CPEC and investing in industrial policies.

Hina Shaikh is a country economist at the International Growth Centre’s Pakistan office.

Ijaz Nabi is the Pakistan Country Director at the International Growth Centre.

[1] There is one study funded by the International Growth Centre (IGC) that looks at the link between public goods provision and socio-economic hierarchies in Lahore-based slums.

[2] The project, funded by the World Bank, will record perceptions of safety by 200 men and women when moving around the city. The application will trace their movement – with their consent – and help identify security concerns and crime hotspots.

[3] It could be as simple as not having lights in a dark alley at night, a bus stop not being convenient for women, the lines at the bus stops not being gender segregated, etc.

[4] Reza Ali, an urban expert based in Karachi, uses satellite imagery and field visits to creating accurate maps of urban settlements and their population based in and around Karachi.