Our recent blog series delves into the concepts underpinning the African Cities Research Consortium’s research approach, covering the challenges and opportunities of urban development in Africa, an overview of our conceptual framework, and more detail on how our “city of systems” approach, political settlements analysis and urban development domains will feed into our wider research programme.

To bring all these pieces together, Diana Mitlin sat down to present an overview of our research programme and theory of change. She outlines the various components of our conceptual framework and how we hope to generate evidence and insights to improve the lives and life chances of urban residents in African cities.

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The full video transcript is available below.

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So my name is Diana Mitlin, I’m professor of global urbanism at The University of Manchester, working in the Global Development Institute, and I’m also the chief executive officer, the CEO, of the African Cities Research Consortium that is taking up an opportunity provided by FCDO to rethink urban reform, to put in place a new approach that will ensure that African urban citizens are not excluded from the kinds of development opportunities that so many others take for granted.

What we’re going to do in this research programme is drill down into the systems that exist in the African context, the African urban context, and understand reasons for their fragmentation and their lack of interconnection. We recognise the significance of politics and the political economy, so we’re going to integrate a political understanding into this analysis of system failure. The objective is to secure more effective, more inclusive urban development and find ways to tackle urban poverty, to reduce urban poverty through a new family, a new generation of policies and programmes. And we aspire that our research will be relevant to FCDO and other development agencies, other official development agencies, but also to civil society agencies, national and local governments, who are all working to provide opportunities to Africa’s urban citizens. We wish to change the path of urban reform in African cities by exemplifying how programming can be more effective.

We recognise of course the challenging context in which we’re working. African cities are complex, dynamic, there’s a lot of contestation, indeed growing contestation, and rapid growth in populations, if not rapid growth in economic development and opportunities related to that. In order to address the outcome, in order to achieve the objectives which we’ve committed to doing, we’ve drawn together a group of agencies which we think are particularly well placed. They involve a combination of research groups, policy thinktanks who work on the interface between research and action, and civil society organisations who have been implementing change processes on the ground, but in the context of the consortium have long engaged with thinking and reflection and knowledge development. So we’ve really tried to develop this unique configuration of agencies which are able to take on the challenge.

We’ve identified 13 cities in which we want to begin this work; six of them are in fragile and conflict-affected states. That was part of the challenge that FCDO gave to us, they wanted to ensure that our work was relevant, even in contexts which are very adverse, which have particular circumstances – conflict, war, internal contestation – which mean programming in urban development interventions has been particularly challenging. So when we thought about where we should do this work, we really sat back and looked at the contexts in which urban reform had been possible. We clearly have to develop an understanding about how to trigger change, even in contexts where circumstances are adverse, but in order to begin the story we wanted to work in places where we felt we had a chance of driving a new path for urban reform.

We all recognise that the kinds of change we want require a political commitment from elites – that, to be frank, is to state the obvious. What we’ve really thought about is what are the processes that drive that commitment and drive a commitment that is long-term and robust – ie it’s not a trivial “let’s win the next election in the next three months”. So one of the first preconditions is to have citizens who are mobilised, citizens who are challenging the distribution of resources and looking for a more equitable path, looking for a way in which the 50% of residents, for example, 50% or more of residents who are living in informal settlements, also are able to get the kinds of basic services the citizens in wealthier countries take for granted. We recognise the importance of having agencies that can build short- and long-term state capacity. What do I mean by that? I mean, for example, a planning department in a university that can really ensure that graduates understand how, for example, to do participation, how to nurture co-production, how to think about the immediate neighbourhood scale and also think city-wide. In short, agencies that can ensure that officials are able to respond positively when political commitment is in place. And in addition to those agencies, we recognise the significance of formal and informal reform coalitions, aggregations of agencies and individuals that come together to agree a platform and push for change. What African Cities is going to do is to develop a knowledge platform, develop evidence that is recognised as being useful by all parties, that can provide new insights into challenging problems, existing problems and show how new and effective approaches can be developed. We recognise, of course, going back to what I said earlier, that cities are dynamic – they’re always in motion, things are always changing – and we recognise that there’s an interaction between the coalitions, the citizens, the agencies who are developing relevant capabilities and the political elites who have of course their own interests, but also in many cases are seeking to nurture developmental opportunities.

In order to develop the evidence, in order to generate this evidence, we’re going to work across three approaches, three pillars in a way, that we see as important to drive that knowledge process forward. Politically informed systems analysis, the sub-city level, our domain analysis, I’ll come back to that, which really gives us an understanding of the detail that is required for policy and programme, and action research to test out our work. And we recognise as we go through this six-year programme that we’re going to be working across those three platforms, across those three pillars, and understanding the interaction between them.

So, to begin with the first pillar, we’re going to develop work that enables us to understand the systems and system failure and system fragmentation, with an awareness of the political sensitivities and political complexities of urban change – a politically informed systems analysis that will draw on work around political settlements, the agreements, formal and informal, that elites make. Political settlements theory has primarily focused on the national level and we are using that framework to analyse the sub-national, to analyse cities, politics internal to cities and the engagement of city politics with national politics. At the same time, we’re really going to be looking at systems, the systems and sectors that drive urban development, such as governance, such as water and sanitation, such as finance. We’re going to understand how those two interact, in order to better understand the problems, to have a grounded problem analysis and to inform decisionmakers.

Moving onto the second pillar. We are very conscious that you can only understand so much by looking at the city level – we’re very conscious that a lot of urban interventions are at the sub-city level. We’ve identified eight domains that we think will really drive an understanding, a grounded understanding at the sub-city level, of what are the problems, what are the ways in which those problems are being created and reinforced, and what are the ways in which those active in domains think that change can be catalysed. So our eight domains are broadly grouped into three. We have domains focused on the built environment, such as housing and informal settlements and, in some sense the gold of urban development, land and the connectivity around land that means land has value. We have two economic domains – we’re seeking to understand structural transformation, the opportunities that potentially can catalyse economic development in cities, but also at a micro scale, what is going on at the neighbourhood and district level. And then we have three social domains – we have a domain around youth and capability development – Africa’s population of course is very young and is emerging and those young people want and need development opportunities, health, wellbeing and nutrition, and safety and security, again with a focus on understanding what is happening in the neighbourhoods that make up the urban conurbation. So our domain analysis will enable us to understand the political sensitivities engaged in multi-sectoral work. It will also enable us to compare domains across the city and really to understand the different politics, for example, around land and housing when compared to issues of health, wellbeing and nutrition. So we will do cross-domain analysis and we will do an analysis of the politics and system development at the city scale and at the sub-city scale. We also of course will be able to see how the same domain maps out in different cities, which will also drive a grounded understanding of the challenges which the urban context faces.

As we move through the programme, the African Cities research programme, we will take on action research programmes. We really want to test out the strength of our conceptual framework, so that action research will draw on an understanding of the preconditions, we’ll test our understanding of the preconditions. It will draw on insights from the city-level analysis, politically informed systems analysis, drawing on political settlements and our city of systems work. And it will draw on insights from relevant domains. As we feed knowledge and evidence into that process, we will advance an understanding of how urban reform can be catalysed and can be maintained.

So the African Cities Research Consortium draws together those three areas of work – politically informed systems analysis, domain analysis and action research. We are very conscious that our framework builds on the work that has been going on over recent decades, particularly driven by African experts in academia and beyond academia who are trying to catalyse a pattern of urban reform. There is a huge range of that urban expertise, of course, different individuals have placed themselves differently in different domains and in different agencies that are active. But we provide a way of building a critical mass that will draw together those individuals.

In this way, we hope to draw together the insights and evidence to improve the living conditions, services and life chances for all urban residents, particularly for the most disadvantaged communities, and we hope to develop an understanding that is relevant beyond our 13 cities, relevant to smaller cities and relevant to cities that are not included in this programme. We see this as a real opportunity to rethink the way in which development trajectories in African cities have been put down and to prepare ourselves for the remaining decades of the 21st century, to really ensure that African urban residents are part of, and are not excluded from, global development opportunities. Thank you.

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