The year ends on a decidedly positive note: Urban Studies recently published my paper on post-2001 Kabul as a laboratory and launch pad for the liberal pipe dream of mutually reinforcing synergies between security, economic growth and democracy. In reality, post-invasion liberal “peace-building” and “state-building” orchestrated by international agencies have fundamentally altered the city’s political economy and widened the gap between politically connected economic elites and the urban masses, resulting in greater urban inequality of access, security, and other critical indicators of human development. Another paper, co-authored with my former student Ben Williams (now a Presidential Management Fellow at the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs), is part of the Journal of Social Policy‘s first issue in 2014. In it, we leverage NVivo’s arithmetic and visual capabilities to compare frequencies of two alternative conceptualizations of poverty and inequality in three different document categories over time: the World Bank’s World Development Reports, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Reports and a set of white papers by bilateral donor agencies. In a second step, we visualize each document’s degree of contextual similarity in using the two conceptualizations of poverty and inequality with all documents in the same source category. Our findings suggest that the dividing line between ‘development’ and ‘clos[ing] the gap between the rich and the poor’ drawn by technocrats such as Jeffrey Sachs has been losing influence among policy-makers and that, as a result, there is reason for hope that debates on inequalities’ negative effects on human development globally are finally regaining traction among policy elites. Courtesy of Cambridge Journals, the complete article can be downloaded from my faculty website.
After wrapping up a busy semester, I have finally been able to start digging into the survey data that I collected in Ciudad Juarez late last year. I presented a first cut at LASA last week; now at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, I am beginning to get a sense of the depth, dimensions and drivers of urban resilience amid violence in Juarez. I will report in greater detail once I’ve completed the statistics; a first glance is online on American University’s blog on Latin America (AULA). Thanks again to the Social Science Research Council’s Program on Drugs, Security and Democracy for supporting this project!
Local PBS station KRWG just aired a 15-minute interview on my research on “Collective Action Against the Violence in Ciudad Juárez, 2008-2012,” a project supported by the Social Science Research Council, the Open Society Foundations and IDRC Canada. KRWG also posted a recording on YouTube. Thanks to Anthony Moreno for making my work available to the wider public!
One of my papers just got published in the current issue of the Journal of Modern African Studies (Cambridge; 8/66 in Area Studies). In “‘When we launched the government’s agenda…’: aid agencies and local politics in urban Africa” I challenge the argument that the main cause of political impasse in African cities governed by opposition parties is incomplete decentralization, whereby a devolution of responsibilities is not matched by a downward reallocation of resources. Instead, I posit that we need to look beyond the national scale to uncover drivers of institutional change. I show how this dynamic has played out in Freetown where urban politics were shaped by global aid discourses translated into local policy frameworks through interest convergence between international and national actors. At the same time, the case of Freetown case also demonstrates how local politics successfully challenged the technocratic, apolitical reinvention of urban governance perpetuated by the international aid industry.
I recently attended UPenn Prof. Michael Katz’s book talk at the New America Foundation. In Why Don’t American Cities Burn, Katz offers a historical analysis of the systemic and social constraints to violent collective action by minorities in U.S. cities which, Katz argues, result from a set of profound economic and political transformations. Although I found Katz’s three-tiered argument refreshing and generally convincing, I took issue with his focus on inner-city poverty among African-Americans specifically and why, unlike in the 1960s and 1990s, this situation was unlikely to incite major violence missed major aspects of contemporary urban dynamics. As much as racially motivated spatial phenomena have mattered in post-war U.S. urban history–and one clearly find parallels in the urban riots in France–, recent uprisings in London, Seattle, Oakland or Vancouver demonstrate that racial tensions are only one possible trigger. To be fair, Katz published the book prior to the Occupy movement; still, it seems to me that characterizing the U.K. riots primarily as an outbreak of racial tensions misses the point. Unfortunately Katz’s answer to my question [at 1:03:10 of the recording] wasn’t really clear; he stated dissatisfaction with attempts made thus far to explain these riots and that he intended to conduct his own investigation. Let’s hope that race won’t be the sole interpretive lens applied in this effort. Cities are arenas for the staging of social and economic protests writ large, which may or may not reflect racial dimensions.
In June, I attended a new event format launched by the World Bank Institute (WBI). The Innovative Cities: Global Dialogue brings together mayors, corporate interests, some fig-leaf activists and a large number of Bank staffers (and presumably academic researchers as well, though I saw very few) to discuss urban development challenges and opportunities. UN-Habitat and the Bank’s own Cities Alliance have been organizing similar gigs for years, so WBI is a little late… but better late than never.
I just finished watching the short clip on the event produced by WBI and circulated among participants earlier today. I am aghast… the Dialogue that I went to in June produced few new substantive insights. It did not, for instance, shed much light on concrete success factors to truly sustainable (triple bottom line?) partnerships. Nor did it raise the critical question to what extent, if at all, these can be generalized across regions. And what about urban democracies versus corporate machine politics?
Instead, almost all of the hand-picked panelists proclaimed ubiquitous urban win-win scenarios. Except for some of the mayors (thankfully!) and, if I recall correctly, two comments from the floor, speakers eclipsed the trade-offs inherent in urban economic growth–especially in the poorest countries that the Bank is allegedly so concerned about–by assiduously ignoring a wealth of empirical studies documenting challenges faced by urban micro initiatives that campaign for more equitable access to social services, some of which result directly from the elitist quest for “economic growth” (or is this now being used as a politically more digestible proxy for employment generation?).
During lunch break, I heard several critical voices whose concerns are echoed in my critique above. I was also approached by a fellow with a video camera who asked me for a 30-second statement on the morning session. I told him that my comments would not be too charming and that he might want to seek out more benevolent interviewees. No, he replied, critical perspectives were “exactly what [we] want to hear” in order to “produce a more balanced documentation.” Needless to say, I guess, that for some strange reason they aren’t featured in the clip.
All in all, an opportunity missed. Or maybe not: lunch was great. And economic growth, WBI-type, rules.
AU staff writer Sally Acharya recently interviewed me for the American Magazine. The article provides a neat summary of my current research. Kudos and thanks to Sally!