My research work focuses on how power relations affect the participation of different people and social groups in decision making processes that have an impact on their lives. My research involves micro-analysis of power relations and diversity issues, including how social identities (gender, class, ethnicity, age, etc.) play out in such decision making processes. My work analyses social and political conflicts and explores tensions between the individual and the collective. My research vision is to further theorise these processes in urban contexts through a sustained programme of research and publications.
I have been looking at self-organised, spontaneous collective action processes of ‘organic’ participation as well as ‘externally’ designed processes in which participation of certain people is sought and managed by external agents (e.g. non-governmental organisations, local government, etc.). I am particularly interested in how the participation of residents is managed within urban development projects, particularly in informal settlements, and what are the effects on in/equality and social exclusion. This interest emerged after two years working in informal settlements in Nairobi (Kenya) and being increasingly frustrated with the participatory practices implemented by development actors which excluded and displaced specific groups within the settlement. Therefore a lot of my work has focused on intra-community inequalities and ways to approach them, particularly in the informal low-income settlements of African cities.
I have also analysed processes of citizen participation at various scales from neighbourhood to global levels and have engaged in participatory action-research processes in several countries to contribute to local and global processes such as the definition of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
A related theme in my work is the tension between policy and practice, between ideologies of participation, inclusivity, horizontality, etc. and practices that contradict them. I explore these tensions through the ethnographic study of the practices of development organisations and social movements, with a focus on internal power relations and knowledge production. I have analysed these issues in the internal governance of social movements such as the World Social Forum, in the participation of citizens in several policymaking spaces, and in government-led participatory slum-upgrading projects.
My ongoing research includes a longitudinal study of participation and conflict in the implementation of slum-upgrading projects where I am particularly interested in the upgrading of informal settlements in the context of pre-existing conflict, particularly around land. A core part of my work has focused on negotiation of individual and collective land titling to achieve security of tenure for poor urban dwellers.
In the past three years, I have been implementing a project to establish an urban research centre in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in partnership with Njala University. Through the centre, I have been part of a number of research activities, including as a co-Principal Investigator in a project on Urban Livelihoods in Freetown’s Informal Settlements to develop a more detailed understanding of the existing livelihood strategies of women and men living in informal settlements, by focusing on a number of typical livelihood sectors in which informal settlement residents engage.
A recently-completed project is Refugee Self-reliance and Humanitarian Action in Urban Markets in partnership with the Humanitarian Advisory Team at NGO Save the Children UK. The project focused on the linkages between urban, humanitarian and forced migration scholarships. The core issue of the relation between host and refugee communities has been further explored in the British Academy GCRF-funded project, Public services and vulnerability in the Lebanese context of large-scale displacement in which I was a co-Investigator, leading a participatory spatial intervention to reduce vulnerability and conflict between host and refugee communities in the city of Bar Elias.
Ongoing Research Projects
Participation, diversity and conflict in the implementation of slum-upgrading projects: I am particularly interested in the upgrading of informal settlements in the context of pre-existing conflict, particularly around land.
Empowering communities through participatory design of social infrastructures in areas affected by mass displacement. Funder: Grand Challenge Research Fund. Lebanon.
Selected completed research
Bringing Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to Life. Funder: CAFOD. Liberia, Zambia, Kenya, Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre: A £930,000 project to establish an urban research centre in Freetown in partnership with Njala University.
Urban Livelihoods in Freetown’s Informal Settlements: With Braima Koroma, Austina Sudie Sellu, Julian Walker, this research developed a more detailed understanding of the existing livelihood strategies of women and men living in informal settlements, by focusing on a number of typical livelihood sectors in which informal settlement residents engage. This has been undertaken with the overall aim of informing policy interventions.
Refugee self-reliance and Humanitarian Action in Urban Markets: A research partnership between the DPU and the Humanitarian Advisory Team at Save the Children UK. The partnership focused on the linkages between urban, humanitarian and forced migration scholarships. More information and outputs available on project website.
Public services and vulnerability in the Lebanese context of large-scale displacement: Implemented in partnership with CatalyticAction, information about the participatory spatial intervention we implemented can be found here. Funded by British Academy, Grand Challenge Research Fund.