Urban reform coalitions in Kampala: A conversation with Shuaib Lwasa

Jun 12, 2023

ACRC defines inclusive urban reform coalitions as partnerships between government, experts and civil society organisations – often directly involving communities and groups most directly affected by the issues at hand – to drive sustainable urban transformation.

In this episode, Shuaib Lwasa, ACRC’s capacity strengthening lead and professor of urban resilience and global development at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, talks to Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael about building and sustaining reform coalitions, drawing on his experiences as founder of the Urban Action Lab (UAL) at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

He discusses how knowledge co-production became the most important aspect of the UAL’s research, along with challenges around bringing together disadvantaged and advantaged groups, and how academics and researchers in the contemporary urban space should play a bridging role between communities and other actors – to identify commonalities between different interest groups and empower communities to advocate for themselves.

Highlighting the importance of decency in urban development, he argues that there is a need to look beyond standardisation to achieve this, and to embrace alternative methodologies and tools – such as reform coalitions and other bottom-up approaches. 

Shuaib Lwasa is professor of urban resilience and global development at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. He leads the African Cities Research Consortium’s capacity strengthening work and is also co-lead for the climate change crosscutting theme.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Cities Research Consortium, supporting research across the crosscutting themes of finance, gender and climate change.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

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Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Welcome to the African Cities podcast. I’m Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael, a postdoctoral researcher at the African Cities Research Consortium. Today, I’m joined by Professor Shuaib Lwasa to discuss the experiences from Uganda and other African cities on coalition building for Inclusive urban reform. This podcast interview is part of a mini podcast series produced in preparation to the Urban Reform Coalition [conference], held in mid-June in Manchester, organised by ACRC in collaboration with Manchester Urban Institute. It’s my honour and pleasure to be joined today by Professor Shuaib Lwasa, who is the founding coordinator of the Urban Action Lab and a professor at the International Institute of Social Studies. Shuaib is also a senior management team member of African Cities Research Consortium, leading capacity-strengthening work, integration of academic and professional knowledge, and guiding ACRC’s decolonisation agenda. Welcome Shuaib.

Shuaib Lwasa Thank you very much Ezana.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael So to kickstart our conversation, please tell us briefly about yourself and your role in ACRC.

Shuaib Lwasa Thank you once again, Ezana. As you mentioned, Shuaib Lwasa is my name, and I work at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague as a professor of urban resilience and global development, which sort of sums up my work and what I’ve been doing in terms of research and teaching for the last 25 or so years. That is working mainly on urban systems, so urban places, working across different scales of urban, from households, neighbourhoods to city, regional scale, on issues of poverty, development, housing, but also emerging challenges around climate risk and vulnerabilities in cities in Africa. And I’ve worked with communities, I’ve worked with policymakers, I’ve worked with business organisations as well as academic institutions and international organisations and various undertakings to generate the knowledge needed to transform urban places in Africa. And that is the experience I bring in my role at ACRC, which is basically about enhancing capacities on African content among African researchers and institutions where possible, but also co-working with the cross-cutting theme of climate change and climate emergency in cities. And with that, I also support cities as one of the senior management team members to oversee the work going on in ACRC. And I hope that I will continue in another role, which I haven’t played yet, as support for knowledge integration during the implementation phase of ACRC in various cities that will be selected to undertake action research. So that is a role that I’ve not been involved in right now, but I hope that I will also play that role. Yeah.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you Shuaib. For this podcast interview, also, your wealth of expertise and experience is diverse. We’re much more interested in your contribution on Urban Action Lab, and in your African Cities podcast interview with Seth Schindler last year, you briefly highlighted the background to the establishment of the Urban Action Lab. In this podcast interview, may you please give us more detail about the justification for establishing the Urban Action Lab, particularly in changing the conventional way of identifying urban challenges and trying to solve them.

Shuaib Lwasa Yeah. Again, thank you very much Ezana. And the rationale for me, in the Urban Action Lab establishment lies in the two words of that institute – or initiative, I wouldn’t call it an institute. That is “action” and “lab”. Action because I come from a spatial planning perspective, in terms of training, and I have been involved in formulating spatial development plans or urban and regional strategic plans for cities. And often what has happened is that once we do the planning with lots of consultations and data crunching and identifying what can be done where, in terms of land use, I interpreted that as a state where we sort of wash our hands that we are done, because as planners we have done our work. And then the plans don’t get realised, and it occurred to me that often a lot of plans, even those that were formulated earlier, were perhaps even less than 5% implemented on the ground, and the question was why? There was a missing part in explaining why the plans were not implemented, and that is the rationale behind action. Is it possible to identify certain things, certain actionable projects from the plan that then could become action points where we test? And action is, again, not only for researchers and from research perspective, but action with people on the ground, communities, policymakers, businesses that are affected by the spatial plan. And then the other part of the rationale is in respect to the lab, because there was increasing evidence that over and over time, once you have the urban plans or development plans, there is a thinking that large-scale investments are needed, therefore resources are needed to implement such a plan. Those resources are limited and because they are limited, the plans are not realised. But it’s not just resources. So the Lab rationale was that is it possible to experiment what is doable? Because the non-conventional or if you think of it as contemporary urban development process, does not actually deliver for everyone and for all the places as planned. So the Lab notion was that is it possible to try and experiment what is doable from the institutional governance perspective, but also from the perspective of reducing the deficits in the cities that we see? So Urban Action Lab is explained by that rationale, and that means that it is unconventional. The way we plan cities and evolve cities has always been very much shaped by the plans themselves, but also the resources to implement the plan that are lacking. But then from the bottom-up approach, it was clear that there are lots of opportunities that are untapped, opportunities that are often looked at as not good or not the conventional way of planning and developing cities. But they are untapped. And what we wanted to do in the Urban Action Lab is to see how we can actually bring those opportunities into visibility and highlight them and test out the possibilities and how expandable these possibilities could be. So that is the reasoning behind the Urban Action Lab at Makerere University, and that changed the way in which we understand urban issues, the way we understand the differentiated urban spaces in terms of actors and in terms of possibilities and opportunities there.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Yeah, very interesting and very critical for African cities. Building on that, can you please give us some example of Urban Action Lab-facilitated interventions in partnership with organised disadvantaged groups? It might be informal economy operators, it might be informal settlement communities, along with other stakeholders like central or local governments, universities and donors.

Shuaib Lwasa Yeah. I must say that in response to that, that we’re sort of lucky to have grants available through calls by different funding agencies to really develop innovative ways of addressing the intractable challenge in urban spaces in Africa, one of which is IDRC, but also Ford Foundation. And we were able to successfully apply for grants in a number of institutions, one after the other. And through those grants, we identified a process that is around or framed by co-production of knowledge, from co-design, co-generation, co-dissemination and even co-implementation. And indeed, in respect to this question, the co-implementation, knowledge co-production became the most important part of our research, because the processes were engaging communities and community groups, either women-led or youth-led groups, around a number of different opportunities identified. And in one of the research projects, we actually tried to identify problems that could be turned into opportunities, and we evaluated about 11 different interventions – you can think of them as enterprises – and the project ended. But then we got other funding where we incorporated into that implementation of the research project an element of seed funding. And we rallied or mobilised different groups of women, women-led groups or youth-led groups, bringing also together local administrators and policymakers, together with the city managers, to try and demonstrate the co-production of knowledge and actions that actually deliver solutions to urban challenges. And, to our surprise, the policymakers and some of the research institutions, including government agencies and ministries, did actually participate in these particular projects. And we brought those 11 enterprises, we implemented about four of them within these different community groups. And the benefits have been immense, because the community groups we initially worked with, then turned out to become the experts in training other community groups, not even only within the settlements where we work, but even other settlements around these different enterprises that were involving urban and peri-urban agriculture and forestry, as well as using specific technologies, waste to energy, waste to feed, recycling, and small enterprises that were sort of transforming some of their materials, like metal products, into a valuable product that could then be sold to upstream industrial recycling systems. And that is still continuing. Of course, there are lots of challenges, in terms of bringing together all these different disadvantaged and advantaged groups. There is also a problem of the capture of the innovativeness of the different solutions by the well-to-do communities and the individuals, who could then industrialise some of these initiatives and innovations. But, all in all, the power, the empowerment of the local communities, has been so great that instead of us standing in between those who are capturing the innovations and the communities, it’s the communities themselves standing up against such activities to protect these developed innovations and the enterprise niches that they have come up with. Yeah.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Very, very interesting. Building on that co-production, starting from designing, developing and also jointly experimenting those kind of innovations and solutions in different sectors you mentioned, what do you think is the roles researchers, academics, such as those involved at Urban Action Lab, could contribute, in building inclusive reform coalition, actively involving disadvantaged groups, especially what you mentioned in collectively identifying problems, designing solutions and experimenting them jointly, as well as once those pilot experiments are proved successful in advocating for the government and other stakeholders, to institutionalise it or to upscale it? What’s the role of researchers and academicians?

Shuaib Lwasa I think traditional researchers and academics still see themselves as outsiders to communities and spaces where we work. And that is something that is really very challenging at individual level to straddle the outsider insider roles. So if you maintain the outsider role, then you’re most likely going to be the kind of researcher who crafts the research idea and the tools, and then you go to the community and they’re basically passively providing the data which you crunch and then publish. And then off you go, again, wash your hands, as a researcher and academic you have published and then you get the promotion, but with little societal relevance. And the other aspect to it is that we often tend to leave the dissemination towards the end, after we have all done the knowledge production or knowledge generation, and then we assume that seamlessly the recommendations will be uptaken by the policymakers and then investments done and, yes, boom! The societal relevance is achieved and change is also achieved or transformation is achieved. That is not the case. I think what the role of the researchers and academics in the contemporary urban space should be is to straddle between insider outsider. And when you become partly insider and remain largely an outsider to the communities, then you play a convenor’s role, you play mediation roles, you play bridging roles with these different communities and different actors in the urban space and empower them to advocate. So you may want to become an academic advocate, but that is okay. But you may actually not necessarily have to do that, but as long as you work with communities and empower them, then they become advocates for themselves. And advocacy is not again about “these are the solutions that have been identified in research, please do something”. No. Advocacy, in this case, what we have learned is that “these are the solutions, we’ve validated them, tested them. Can you expand on them together with us?” And what we have seen is that municipalities and policymakers actually latch onto such successes because they want to own success as well. And then they quickly look for some resources, not a lot. And then they continue to pilot these experiments, sometimes even scale them up to a level which benefits more than just the pilot community where you are. So I think that, to summarise my response to that, the straddling between being an insider and an outsider in community-based type of research or actor spaces within which you conduct any kind of research is really very important. And you can play those roles of being the person who bridges, the person who, maybe it’s a person also who convenes, whether individually or collectively, within the research institutions.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much. Building on the mediation or the bridge role of the academics, the academicians or platforms like Urban Action Lab, how does this Urban Action Lab kind of platforms ensure the demands of disadvantaged groups are seriously considered and are not undermined by more powerful actors? Because usually community groups are less powerful compared to municipalities or donors or planners. What would be the role of this kind of academic-led platforms, to ensure that their communities are taken seriously?

Shuaib Lwasa Yeah. First of all, urban spaces are very active political spheres, where power plays out on the basis of how valuable certain things or entities might be or are, and therefore who would be in a position to competitively or to outcompete others to appropriate and control whatever is valuable. Therefore, it continues to be a challenge. So you can hardly solve the demands of the disadvantaged groups not being undermined by powerful actors if what is valuable to the powerful actors is potentially undermined by the innovations coming out of the different communities that are disadvantaged. So that continues to be a challenge. But, having said that, I think platforms like the Urban Action Lab are really important in urban spaces in Africa and the global South in general, because I don’t think that urban development is going to continue or even has developed in a way that urban has developed elsewhere. And that means we have to change. We have to transform not only theory, we have to transform planning frameworks, we have to transform approaches to development. We have to transform the understanding and the notion that cities are networked and highly centralised systems of infrastructure to embrace the innovation emerging out of hybridising infrastructure, demonstrating heterogeneity, and also demonstrating that within the hybridisation and heterogeneity of infrastructure, there are economic opportunities that could be beneficial to the disadvantaged groups. And once those are validated and demonstrable, to the fact that they increase the coverage, reduce the deficit and also improve affordability, but also provide employment opportunities for the disadvantaged groups, that is the power of sustaining platforms to fight off the powerful actors, if you will.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Perfect. In showing the powerful actors that solving the disadvantaged groups’ problem could benefit also their work or support a system in discharging their responsibilities.

Shuaib Lwasa Absolutely. Absolutely. So the link between the economic potential of innovations with the established networked systems is also very clear. So it’s not a cancelling effect, but rather a reinforcing effect. So the hybridisation doesn’t work in isolation with centralised systems. And centralised systems are the ones which tend to rally a lot of interest from the powerful actors. And when you have them first of all, appropriating and then controlling such systems, then it undermines the innovations emerging out of the bottom. But that link is very clear and it is positive. It’s not a cancelling link or relation, but rather a reinforcing and supportive role.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much. But this power asymmetry is not only between disadvantaged groups and other powerful actors, like municipalities or planners. It’s also among … the communities are not also homogeneous. And from experience, how do you deal with the power asymmetry within communities?

Shuaib Lwasa Again, that is a really challenging problem, or challenging issue, for which there is no solution or answer. But as long as one is aware about these asymmetries in power within the communities and you manage to navigate them in a respectful way with minimal harm – I can’t say without harm, but with minimal harm – because you never know what the different actors within the communities are planning or have interests in, you can apply different methods to it, one of which is simply create a platform of free entry and free exit. The moment you start off with that, whoever might have interests eventually to appropriate and control or dominate the other groups would actually be disarmed, in the sense that there’s no way you can actually control or dominate other groups if it is free entry and exit, because other groups will simply tell you “if it doesn’t work for you, then you can as well leave. For us, We will stay in”. So that has to some extent worked to minimise these asymmetries of power.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Perfect. And, other than this power asymmetry, what other key challenges have you experienced in bringing these diverse groups to identify a problem and experiment a solution and then upscaling that solution from your experience, and what lessons have you drawn?

Shuaib Lwasa I would say that, I don’t know whether it’s human nature, but in society systems, it’s very clear that people are competitive. I’m not sure whether it is a natural process, but people are competitive. And people compete where there is value and when there is identified value, then interests emerge and the competition then leads to clashes of interest because the desire underneath the interest is usually to appropriate and control. So the key challenge is really identifying commonality around an innovation or issue within urban spaces that addresses some of the problems of the different potential interest groups around urban development. And again, this is a continuous process because the background that I’ve just laid out is very clear. You can hardly free competition from society, because I would arguably say that the systems we are operating under globally have just been shaped in such a way that competition is part of the game. Whether you think of it as markets or whether you think of as nation states and the geopolitics or whether you think of it as systems within cities, it is very clear that competition is there. So it’s a really big challenge. And it’s a challenge because when you have a common problem that affects negatively all, irrespective of their positionalities and interests, then you can hardly identify and implement a workable solution if competition stands in front of the innovation. And that has been the key challenge in urban spaces in the places where I have worked. So it’s a big lesson. But again, the sort of solution out of that or to defray the negative impact of this competition, is free entry, free exit, non-patented innovations. So if you come up with an innovation, for example, waste to feed, if it’s truly an innovation, then try as much as possible to make it through a transparent process, to make it a solution owned by everyone and not just an individual who might end up saying, “okay, this is mine, I’m patenting it and therefore protecting it from anybody else who might use it”, because that’s what we see in the established systems I’ve just described. So if you do that, some of these little things, then you can reduce or defray the downside of one of the key challenges of competition and desire to control through appropriation. Yeah.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael This is very interesting, identifying the commonalities, common interest among that competition and this free entry and free exit. Can you help us in demonstrating, with example, if something that comes to your mind from experience?

Shuaib Lwasa Yeah. Think about the standardisation of urban. And urban is big, but let’s zoom down to a neighbourhood, where you would expect that the standardisation is such that, based on the income levels of the community, you expect a certain type of distance in housing, with connectivity to sanitation, with utilities for infrastructure, waste management, with utilities to manage drainage surface runoff, with utilities for sanitation, whether it is onsite or offsite networked system for sanitation. The commonality around all these is that everybody needs these, because they are like a standard and basic need in urban spaces. And, therefore, if the issue is to protect public health and ensure decency for sanitation, then any type of innovation or types of innovation that bring that certain level of decency to the community is something that one would have to latch on here as a commonality and build it in such a way that the process is transparent, as I said, no individual ownership, empower the communities to manage the process, which means that it goes out of the responsibilities of a municipality to lay the ground and then dig the ground and then the pipes, and then the utilities. It’s now the communities doing it. It is individual groups, like youth groups, collecting sewage and then to a transfer tank. And this can be done in collaboration with the municipality. And this has been demonstrated, where small gulper vacuum pumps are used to empty pit latrines by youth companies, youth led and managed companies, who have a tricycle with the drums, and then the municipality places a transfer tank in the community. And when it is full, that transport tank goes to the central sewage treatment plant. So it’s not just about communities. It’s also in connection with the powerful actors, as you mentioned earlier. And it kickstarts a value chain that is beneficial across board, because there is a charge to the household for which the pit latrine is being emptied. There is a charge in emptying the transfer tank, and then the transfer tank is also charged to empty at the sewage treatment plant. And that value chain has even backward linkages, in terms of then the gulper have to be maintained or they have to be fabricated. It doesn’t have to be importation, if somebody else within the city can actually look at it, that simplified technology of vacuum pump, portable vacuum pump and then fabricates it for the benefit of so many. And given that even the few youth companies cannot actually address the sanitation problem for a city of even 50,000, then it makes sense that many other youth companies can be formed around that, to integrate the youth into the urban economy. So the commonality is bring decency to the neighbourhood, through sanitation, through utilities like waste, through housing, through that which is also of economic benefit.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Thank you very much. Decency is a key frame that brings everyone together. Do think that this Urban Action Lab platform can be adopted in different African cities? Or is it only relevant to the context of Uganda or Kampala?

Shuaib Lwasa Yeah, I’m not sure that it’s a standard. What I’m confident about, is that it provides the building blocks for an initiative, platform, coalition of some sort that brings different actors together within the particular context. Because there are externalities around such initiatives and platforms, that has to do with the policy environment, the governance systems, and the dominance, the hegemony of some actors in the urban governance systems. And I can think of a city, which I’ll not name, where the role of the central government is so strong that if you have such an empowering and transparent process, it will most likely be seen and interpreted as a threat to the state, because the state takes it that it is mandated to bring this decency to the urban space. But the fact remains that the state has failed to bring decency, and that is not going to happen in the next ten years or even 20 years, and convincing the state to loosen up a little bit and open the space for other actors to participate is something that would require the basic building blocks of an Urban Action Lab in such a place, but treading very carefully to not actually trample on the state’s power.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael I come from a similar context and it’s really close to my heart. So that brings me to the question that there is external factors, the political factors, like the role of decentralisation, devolution. That means it’s really key to promote this kind of bottom-up approach, more inclusive building, inclusive reform coalition, do you think?

Shuaib Lwasa Yeah. I mean, the one thing that is clear in my mind – I’m not sure it’s clear in the minds of others  working in this urban space in Africa – is that beyond theorisation, urban in Africa is different from urban elsewhere. Urban in Africa remains an intractable challenge to everyone involved and concerned and interested. But most of the solutions and approaches that have been applied would not bring the decency that we are talking about here. And decency is not necessarily supposed to be derived from standardisation – by standardisation, I mean standardised housing, standardised sanitation, power flush, that’s what I mean. It’s not going to come from that. And therefore allowing bottom-up approaches in a way that they complement to build cities, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of housing, in terms of services, but most importantly, beneficial in economic sense, is something that in my mind, I am convinced can actually build urban reform coalitions. And ACRC is actually meant to provide this very nuanced challenge to the current urban development processes. But it’s not going to be… we are not going to see decency, in my mind, it’s clear, I don’t see it in my lifetime we’ll see the kind of standardised urban environment elsewhere that I see, happening in Africa, if we continue the same methodology and tools as they are and we don’t open up for alternatives and maybe bottom up is just one amongst several possible alternatives.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael That’s true. So in building such kinds of reform coalition, cognisant, being aware that it’s one of the ways to improve situations in African cities, what do you think should be the role of African Cities Research Consortium in strengthening and in helping this kind of reform coalitions flourish?

Shuaib Lwasa Yeah. Thank you for that question. For me personally, it’s a challenging question because I look at ACRC with a very critical eye. Where is ACRC coming from? How was it crafted? And who is at the helm of ACRC? All those are very important questions, because then it sets and shapes the trajectory of how ACRC is most likely going to work. Even if there are elements of, for example, decentralisation, even if there are elements of inclusive management, even if there are elements of decentralisation of decisionmaking, as long as the dominant theorisation, the dominant operators think that urban spaces need to be standardised, we need to move from informal to formal, we need to formalise employment from informal to formal, we need to manage waste in a way that the city government has control over the overhauling of waste from where they are generated to where they are managed – you see where I’m going there. I seem to have a serious problem with the notion. Even if by 20% measure of standardising, maybe that is the critique that Africa presents to the theorisation of what urban is and urban should be. If ACRC allows and enables and supports and deliberately invests in processes that are divergent, and offering alternatives, then it is possible that the reform coalitions that are loose in nature can be kickstarted. Reform coalition should not be looked at as a target, like in the project planning thinking, where you “oh, by the end of this number of years, we should have a registered reform coalition in City X”. No. There has to be some sort of, if not entirely organic nature of reform coalitions, free entry, free exit. “Is it of interest to you? Stay in. Is it not of interest to you? Don’t stay in. Is it of interest to you, but your desire is to control and dominate? Then you don’t fit.” That sort of loose navigation of the process of reform coalition, I think is going to be very important. That is where the challenge lies actually, because how do you navigate that when you have a very time-specific undertaking?

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael Yeah. That’s really key. Supporting organically these reform coalitions to emerge in their own divergent ways. Thank you very much, Shuaib, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to discuss your experience in building and sustaining urban reform coalitions. We’ll be looking forward for your presentation at the Urban Reform Coalition conference to be held in Manchester between the 13th and 15th of June, which is organised by ACRC in collaboration with Manchester Urban Institute. Thank you very much, Shuaib. It was really thought-provoking.

Shuaib Lwasa Pleasure being with you for the conversation, thank you Ezana. Looking forward to the conference.

Ezana Haddis Weldeghebrael You have been listening to the African Cities podcast. Remember to subscribe for more urban development insights and interviews from the African Cities Research Consortium.

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Header photo credit: Andi Edwards / iStock. Housing and roads on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda during the wet season.

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