One of the world’s leading research institutions, The University of Manchester is dedicated to advancing the sustainable development goals through its research, education, public engagement and responsible campus operations. The University is the lead partner in the African Cities Research Consortium, with operations based out of the Global Development Institute (GDI), part of the School of Environment, Education and Development (SEED).

Diana Mitlin is Professor of Global Urbanism at GDI, Principal Researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and CEO of the African Cities Research Consortium.

What do you think is the most important thing The University of Manchester brings to the consortium?

I think Manchester brings three things in particular to ACRC. Firstly, we bring a lot of experience of working across academic scholarship, community experiences and community knowledge. And thrown into the mix is our experience of working on the edge of policy – both with think tanks and on our own – as well as thinking through conceptual work and new forms of practice. This is really important for the successful realisation of this ambitious programme, which has to both bring together disparate views and experiences, and work both through research and action research to contribute to new and better ways to address longstanding challenges.

We have strong experience with co-producing knowledge, which influences the construction of the consortium and the way we’ve put it together, but it will also influence how we build answers to the research questions that we’ve set ourselves.

The second thing we bring, which is distinctive within the consortium, is the knowledge of political settlements. We have a broader understanding of politics than the political economy beyond political settlements, and other colleagues do add to that knowledge in particular areas as well. However, the eleven years of research within the Effective States and Inclusive Development research centre enable us to contribute new insights into the politics of city and state relations, and urban politics itself.

Thirdly, we have a diverse group of scholars within GDI and SEED more generally who have been working and writing on urban issues for many years through the Global Urban Futures research group, and the Manchester-based Urban Institute.

Can you tell us about your background and research interests and how you came to be involved in ACRC?

As soon as I read the FCDO terms of reference for African Cities, I was excited about the potential of this work.

From the very early 1990s, I’ve been working on issues of urban poverty and inequality; I’ve also been working with social movements. I had a particular focus on issues of disadvantage and marginalisation, alongside a focus on neighbourhood and spatial development. But even before that, I was a public sector economist, so the economic stuff is also something I can engage with quite easily, as I have prior understanding and an interest in it.

So in terms of the subject matter, my experience to date is a good fit with what seems to be required. In terms of the focus, it’s also a good fit. I’ve been working on both Africa and Asia over most of my career, with a very little bit in Latin America. And over the last few years, I’ve been doing more with Africa.

It’s also a good fit in the sense that the project needed a very diverse set of knowledges to address the key challenges outlined by FCDO, and I’ve always been interested in working in a highly multi-disciplinary way. My first degree (at The University of Manchester) was in sociology and economics, my master’s was in economics, and my PhD was in social policy and administration, so organisational development. I’ve done lots of different social science disciplines and I’ve worked, over the last 15 years, primarily with planners and architects on issues of urban development.

In terms of working across the academic and policy frontier, it’s also a good fit. Through my work with IIED, I have engaged with multiple policy issues in respect of urban development, issues such as housing and service affordability, the challenges of improving access to sanitation, inclusive approaches to housing finance, and most recently potential policy responses to the climate emergency in cities. 

My work in IIED has also given me experience of operational urban development. Working with both Shack/Slum Dwellers International and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, I managed about $30 million of donor funding for innovative community-led solutions to secure tenure, develop housing and improve access to basic services.

So in many respects, the fit between this programme of work and my own experience was perfect.

“You could say that Africa encapsulates the challenges that all cities face.”

Looking at the project more broadly, what do you think is most interesting or unique about ACRC’s approach to urban development?

I would say that the approach is still under development. We obviously have the terms of reference and our own understanding of how to do that, but we are absolutely developing our knowledge. None of this is unique, but the combination is quite unusual, with the strong focus on politics. Building on Effective States and Inclusive Development’s work to establish a strong national understanding of politics is important. But at the same time, thinking about city and sub-city level is also critical.

Recognising the integrated nature of urban interventions, through our ‘city of systems’ approach, is really important. As social scientists, we understand the constraints in some of the systems theory to date – with a strong focus on data, which is not always available, and modelling, which leaves out some of the more political, ethnographic knowledges. So we’re going beyond that mathematical approach to understanding systems, into something that is more nuanced and more qualitative.

Combining theoretical and conceptual academic knowledge with things that are going to make a difference is both challenging and intellectually interesting, but also really important because we want our knowledge to be useful.

I also do think our partnership is unique. Our investment in economic capabilities through UNU-WIDER, for example, will both deepen our engagement with the urban economy but also ensure that economics is balanced alongside other disciplines. Then we’re bringing in health through the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which is such an important issue in development in general, and urban development in particular – because of the risks associated with very high density populations, the under-provision of basic services, the agglomeration of economic activities, and the subsequent effects of pollution, for instance. So before you even get to looking at the different policy institutes (IIED, ODI, PASGR) and then IRC, ICLEI Africa and SDI, I think that is all pretty unique.

What do you think is the most crucial challenge for development in African cities?

This is possibly the hardest question. Arguably, the core challenge is inequalities. Inequalities in political inclusion, for example, in addition to inequalities in wealth and incomes. Such inequalities emerge from the colonial legacy in Africa and have been exacerbated by more recent trends in urban development.

You could say that Africa encapsulates the challenges that all cities face. You have very unequal patterns of development; you have certain people able to take up opportunities and others unable; you have weak states because they have few resources, in addition to a lack of historical institutional development.

So, I certainly don’t think Africa’s challenges are unique. Some of the challenges faced by those living informal settlements in Africa, are very similar to those faced by people living in low-income neighbourhoods in Manchester. But some of these challenges are more acute in Africa, because of the barriers to development, the lack of opportunities, and the very poor set of options faced by many of the lowest-income urban citizens.

Everywhere including Africa now faces new threats from climate change, with changes in precipitation, drought, increased temperatures, flooding, and lack of access to basic resources including water. All these things are added to the existing challenges.

What are some of the challenges facing ACRC and how will you overcome them?

Two contradictory things are required. First, we need everyone to be contributing their particular skills and expertise; we have brought them into the consortium because of those skills, that’s how we’ve carefully constructed the consortium. At the same time, we need people to be very astute with recognising when they’ve reached the constraints of their knowledge, and to act with humility around new or emerging areas where they may know part but not all of the answer. I think that’s challenging for us. We have to recognise much more carefully the limits of our knowledge and where we need to draw in others to build new knowledge.

Another challenge is that we transition quite fast into doing operational work, and urban operational work is often tricky to set up as there’s a lot of politics involved. So we’re not only studying politics; we’re going to be doing politics. That’s always difficult when moving into spaces that are quite contested, but we’ll be working with people who are very good at managing those spaces.

Additionally, while we do have a big budget, it’s still quite small for doing urban development. In order to use it to best effect, we’re going to be navigating quite strong interests, and getting that right is bound to be difficult.

“There’s this sense in the consortium that we are well-positioned to understand where reform efforts have got to and work out how to add to them, which for me is really exciting.”

What is most exciting for you about this project?

The partnership is very exciting, especially the experience of working with local experts in African cities – be they academics, professionals or communities. There’s this sense in the consortium that we are well-positioned to understand where reform efforts have got to and work out how to add to them, which for me is really exciting.

Many efforts in African cities have been working in isolation and have been underappreciated, so there is a core body of experience there that we have to find a way to add value to. We’ll identify gaps and areas where we can contribute, so the challenge is to work out both what we can do and how we can do it in a way that contributes to a critical mass committed to urban reform in at least some of our cities.

Obviously, what is interesting and substantive and important is the goal of what we’re trying to achieve. But understanding how to achieve is also key. For me, it’s very much a building capabilities project as well. I want to make sure that people learn from it and are able to go on and develop the next level of projects and programmes.

The project also happens to be taking place at a time when the pandemic has brought a new attention to urban deprivation, entirely coincidentally. For some years now, there’s been momentum building with urban work in Africa– the World Bank has written about it, OECD has built up a programme, and the African Union is becoming more interested in urbanisation issues. I think Covid has highlighted to government and international agency staff that they need to consider urban, even if addressing urban poverty and inequality raises difficult issues of public management and public policy that need to be resolved.

So the timing is really good. It’s just up to us work with longstanding interests and new attention, and contribute to the momentum for change.

Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of the African Cities Research Consortium as a whole.

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