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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


The Port of Beirut: A Suicidal Flee

By Hanadi Samhan, on 11 September 2020

On 4 August 2020 at around 6:00 pm two large explosions rocked the Port of Beirut and ripped through most of the city leaving more than 180 people killed, 6,000 injured, and 300,000 homeless. My husband, my younger daughter Hind, and I were sitting in the living room of my apartment in Beirut on 4 August enjoying the light breeze from the air conditioner before the daily electricity cuts. My older daughter Leila was in the dining room deep in her Nintendo world. A sudden and terrifying thunder like sound broke the silence and shook the entire building. I looked at my husband’s face trembling in fear and not knowing what to do next—where should we go? The door of the dining room was locked shut from the force of the shock and Leila was screaming at the top of her lungs for us to come help her. Within seconds we heard another explosion and I saw cobbles on the floor. I ran to knock the door down to reach Leila. I held her in my arms, and we went down to the lobby of the building and hid under the staircase. I saw glass shattered on the floor and people looking out of their windows and balconies wondering if the series of explosions was over. I held my daughters close to my chest while seeing my life flash in front of my eyes for the first time since the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990); time had stopped and the future became obscure.

I went back to my apartment, grabbed my phone, and tried to look for answers. I followed the news and here it was: two large explosions at the Port of Beirut. At first, I felt relieved to know that it was a local incident, no sacred war, no Israeli attacks, and no massive car bombs. Videos then started circulating on social media depicting people drenched in blood, hospitals destroyed, trees uprooted, and residential buildings collapsed. It felt like the heart of Beirut stopped pumping blood into its veins, as if the city was declared dead. I thought to myself that the port of Beirut had committed suicide!

Figure 1: The suicidal flee of the port of Beirut.
Source: BBC news, Beirut port, Instagram, August 7th, 2020

The Port of Beirut was dear to my heart. It was the last urban planning project that I had worked on before I moved to London in 2018 to pursue my academic passion. In fact, the port project was one of the most challenging urban developments that I had encountered in my career given its long controversial history. Since its establishment in the 1880s, the strategic location of the Port made it vulnerable to misuse. My many encounters with the Port extended beyond developing masterplans and running technical workshops. They gave me insider knowledge on the political, social, and economic dynamics of the site.

From my frequent field visits to the Port, I remembered the uniqueness of the grain silos—the grandiose structures of Ottoman heritage and silent witnesses to the port activities. Pigeons hid in their shadows from the heat coming from the seaside, adding life to a quiet area. The passengers’ station located at the far eastern side of the Port was another hidden gem—a serene and innocent flowery area in a loud and shady industrial location.

Figure 2: Silos at the Port of Beirut. (Source: Hanadi Samhan, 2018)

Figure 3: Passengers station side of the port. (Source: Hanadi Samhan, 2018)

These nostalgic memories to me brought out the contradictions in every corner of the Port. Its container yard developed to become one of the most state-of-the-art port structures along the Mediterranean Sea. Its transhipment activities were prosperous, with unprecedented rates of high revenues channelled to the Port authority as opposed to the Lebanese customs department[1]. The free zone was expanding at a rapid pace and applications for potential tenants were on the rise. In contrast, the cargo area was in a derelict condition; warehouses were informally divided according to religious factions, handling equipment were outdated, and operations were primarily manual and old fashioned.

Figure 4: Container yard area (left). Cargo area, free zone, and silos and passenger station area (right).
Source: cartonumerique.blogspot.com/2020/08/explosions-beyrouth.html

One of the main characteristics of the Port was its temporary administrative body created exceptionally after the Civil War to oversee its daily operations and maintenance. Since 1993, three temporary committees were formed to manage the Port under the appointed presidents. In the process, the Port became a space of exception to the sovereign power of the government of Lebanon. After three decades of surviving as a ‘Homo sacer’, the port became devoid of life, stripped “of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing homicide; he could not save himself in perpetual flight or to find a foreign land.” (Agamben, 1995, p. 150). My imaginary old friend, the Port of Beirut, became old and attached to the city that it could not escape nor leave to a foreign land. The Port now exploded and committed suicide! Perhaps now the exception might end and a new way of life begins.

The Port of Beirut was always a hot spot for deep conflicts rooted in geo sectarian rivalry. It occupied a strategic location along the Mediterranean Sea, ranking among the top 10 most important ports in the region. Before the explosion, it operated as a sub-regional transhipment hub[2] and served all the largest liners such as CMA CGM, MSC, Hamburg Sud, and Maersk[3]. Before the start of the Civil War in 1975, Lebanon’s ports in general, and the Port of Beirut in particular, were important gateways for commerce in the Middle East. Since then, the capacity of the central government became limited and the country plunged into further chaos and uncertainty. Militias that are divided by religious sects seized control over portions of the country’s official ports and constructed internal makeshift ports. The war ended, the reconstruction process started in 1994, and the country began to heal from the fifteen years of massive destruction. After the war, the Port was no longer under the control of the Lebanese parties, particularly the Maronite Lebanese Forces, and was operated by temporary committees appointed by the newly formed government of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The latest temporary committee was formed in 2002 to include seven members and allies that manage the Port. The economic activities of the Port flourished, and the revenues reached US$ 1 billion in 2014[4]. Nevertheless, economic, and political benefits continued to reach the political parties whose interests and goals do not align with the need for a balanced economic and political solution for Lebanon[5].

Figure 7: The container yard
Source: BBC news, Beirut port before and after explosion, Instagram, August 7th, 2020

Figure 7: The container yard Source: BBC news, Beirut port before and after explosion, Instagram, August 7th, 2020

The temporality status of the committee is tasked with exceptional powers over the expenditures of the Port and its revenues, defining public works and approving bids away from government censorship[6]. Along with this committee, the customs department is tasked with the protection of the public interests in Port activities and is responsible for collecting tax revenues and monitoring any violations. Both actors functioned under the exceptional status of the Port and expanded their influence on the use of its revenues. In fact, the committee does not follow any censorship requirements whether from the Ministry of Finance, the bidding administration, the state audit institution, and the central inspection agency, although it operates as public property through public finances. The Port customs has an established reputation of being dangerously corrupt and is often described as the ‘Ali Baba grotto’ since it grants a golden ticket to rapid wealth to its members[7]. The exceptional temporariness of the committee limited the political right to the Port and its ability to participate in any juridical form of accountability. The predators are not yet identified, even after the death of the Port. To this moment, it is not yet known if the Port’s ‘suicidal flee’ was an innocent industrial accident[8] or an urbicide that targeted Hezbollah, the local political party[9]. International Investigators from the FBI and British and German forensic teams travelled overseas[10] to decipher the motives behind the explosion of the Port without any possibility for escape or potentiality for a change.

One should not solely attribute the suicidal act of the Port to corruption or negligence. I also find it too linear to say that the failed sectarian system in Lebanon is responsible for the Port incident. Rather, it is the Port’s exceptional system of administration, activities, and distribution of revenues that led to the recent suicide under the most radical and hurtful ways. It is the perpetual fights among the different Lebanese parties that hindered any development schemes for the Port. It is the frozen status of its administration that prevented a potential new life for the Port and an active engagement in the political life of its immediate and wider surroundings.

Despite its strategic location, expansion plans for the container yards and development schemes for the Port were obstructed and the reclamation of its Basin 4 was vilified[11]. The maritime customs strongly objected to the initial initiative that aimed to upgrade the container yards and called for the protection of the interests of Lebanese Christians in the region. They asked the patriarch to intervene and stop the implementation of the initiative. Another attempt to expand the container yards was proposed, calling for a comprehensive masterplan that aimed to upgrade the cargo area and replace the deteriorated warehouses, including warehouse 12 where the explosive materials were stored. By the end of 2018, the masterplan was approved by the committee members[12], however, its implementation was halted pending the green light from the minister of public works. During this period, a new government took office after the 2018 elections and the masterplan was again put on hold for the same reasons: Basin 4 caters to the interest of Christians and hence, reclaiming it means burying all present and future interests. Accordingly, the basin was never reclaimed, and the warehouses were never rehabilitated and continued to face an uncertain future. After the explosion, the life in the Port of Beirut stopped and its Basin 4 and destroyed its cancerous warehouses.

Figure 6: Port of Beirut transshipment hub
Source: Spatial development framework (www.malaf.org)

Several urban planning development schemes were proposed to change the way of life in the Port and end its exceptional state. They were, however, never approved by almost every public authority[13] and the Port remains an exceptional area in its management and operation. It decided to end its life, killing with it valuable workers and residents of Beirut, people who lost their lives as well to do the right thing.

Figure 7: Spatial development framework, 2018.
Source: www.malaf.org


[1] www.almodon.com/economy/2014/11/17/مالكو-الشاحنات-يرفضون-ردم-الحوض-الرابع


[2] www.lebanondebate.com/news/394394

[3] www.alafkar.net/كلفة-الفساد-في-لبنان-ومغارة-علي-بابا/

[4] https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/41604/Quick-Thoughts-Mona-Harb-on-the-Aftermath-of-the-Beirut-Explosion

[5] https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/ties-to-hezbollah-questions-swirl-around-the-cargo-that-destroyed-beirut-a-668b79f4-c4f1-49da-a764-172cc17f162b-amp?__twitter_impression=true

[6] https://www.france24.com/en/20200814-beirut-blast-french-forensic-teams-fbi-join-probe-into-cause-of-explosion

[7] Those who are familiar with the Port development plans and its expansion schemes are aware of the complications around the reclamation of Basin 4 that made media headlines in 2012, 2015 and 2018.

[8] www.aljoumhouria.com/ar/news/430182/ردم-الحوض-الرابع-الى-الواجهة-مجددا

[9] https://www.lecommercedulevant.com/article/22220-en-pleine-croissance-le-port-de-beyrouth-sagrandit

[10] https://www.wsj.com/articles/shipping-lines-shift-vessels-from-devastated-beirut-port-11596652584

[11] https://brite.blominvestbank.com/series/Customs-Revenues-Port-of-Beirut-14688/

[12] https://elfasad.polimeter.org/b/promise/13119

[13] One of the main concerns raised during the project was the overgrowing transshipment business taking over large areas in the container yard. The transshipment does not incur tax revenues to the customs department which is known for its endemic levels of corruption (https://www.albawaba.com/business/beirut-port-corruption-446903).

The first last time: Lessons for uncertain times

By Aisha F Aminu, on 26 August 2020

Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.

On June 8, 2020 I got off a call with my research group for the last time after successfully completing our fieldwork. We acknowledged that we had just experienced a remarkable moment in history. Yet our goodbyes were tearful, knowing that the uncertainty we had come to thrive in was about to end. Just two months earlier, still certain of the future, we were cementing plans for our field trip to Sierra Leone. Then our world paused its physical existence and turned virtual.

Rapidly changing plans were met with a sense of disbelief and helplessness. It would have been easy to give up. Instead, we drew closer together. However, for me this turned out to be a battle between maintaining my privacy and gaining a new level of intimacy with the group. As one who tires easily from prolonged social interaction, I thought a virtual field trip would be great. Yet, all of a sudden, even though physically distanced from my group, I was inviting them into the depths of my home for long hours every day and they were doing the same for me. This virtual invitation extended to my tutors, other classmates, acquaintances and strangers. We saw parts of each other’s homes visitors usually did not get to see. I was overwhelmed and wanted to shut everyone out.

Contrary to Lefebvre’s[1] argument that it is difficult to reconcile the analysis of experiences in an ideological space with everyday lived realities, discussing housing issues in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic meant analysing the very thing I was experiencing. I realised my sense of social discomfort was not peculiar to me when the group talked about the strangeness of seeing each other first thing in the morning, even before members of our households. We were all in different parts of the world with different living conditions, interacting through computer screens. This brought to fore a new awareness of our daily realities. Despite the reduced privacy, we had the privilege of choosing to be physically separated while remaining mentally and socially connected. In contrast, the primary focus of our research – renters in dense informal settlements whose neighbourhoods also serve as their home – mostly lack this privilege and are disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s response measures which exacerbate existing inequalities.

Acknowledging an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ intensified my dismay at the injustices informal settlement renters face daily. But it also sparked an inquisition into their resilience against socio-economic hardship and environmental risks. Nevertheless, just like Lefebvre argued, where a physical field trip would have fostered an immersive experience of diverse renter dynamics, virtual learning fell short. I wondered if we could truly examine intersecting complexities by merely hearing about them and whether we ran the risk of homogenising renters. However, interacting outside the physical confines of an informal settlement forced us to rely on one another’s past and present experiences to put forward our research questions. It also opened up opportunities to craft new experiences and ways of learning based on heightened awareness and mutual understanding.

‘Us’ versus ‘them’ morphed into a bigger ‘us’ as we broadened the scope of our research to multiple contexts. Though unable to conduct participatory activities like focus group discussions, interviewing our social contacts across the globe gave us access to forums that amplified the voices and opinions of multiple actors and renter groups, we would otherwise not have connected with. These forums facilitated communication between renters and landlords, informal settlements and local governments, and local governments and external development actors. We witnessed hierarchic positions being renegotiated on multiple scales ranging from community to national scales.

My fear of homogenising renters was tackled by the similarities and differences I observed between them within the same context and across different contexts. In some contexts they were playing a part in holding local government accountable for injustices, while in others formal legal renting agreements were adopting informal principles of solidarity. Having a bird’s eye view of simultaneous transformative renegotiations across different contexts, would have made it easy to make suggestions that promote cross-learning between multiple actors. However, remembering Lefebvre, we revisited our verbal information chains and observations to critically analyse their implicit biases and propose practical solutions grounded in context-specific everyday realities.

I realise now that my research group had subconsciously adopted the solidarity practices we were examining. We subtly renegotiated our in-group roles to address our strengths and weaknesses. The group’s collective self-efficacy, sense of hope and motivation infected me. I became less afraid of taking risks and less doubtful of my abilities. Collectively, we learned how to create animations rather than rely on out-of-context video footage in order to ethically present our research findings. Learning a new skill remotely meant watching multiple tutorials and knowing when to ask for help. Answering each other’s questions was difficult, especially when we had different software versions or could not simply reach out and click a command on someone else’s computer. I learned to exercise patience and show empathy until we had mastered this skill to a satisfactory level. We ate together, laughed together and celebrated achievements outside of this as well.

My new-found pro-social behaviour replaced my privacy concerns and my eagerness to interact with the group quickly became a habit. However, this carried certain risks. Being around each other for prolonged hours every day, albeit virtually, meant we needed to adjust to our different personalities. I noticed myself recognising non-verbal nuances of communication even when filtered by a screen and adjusting my responses accordingly. Kindness and collective emotional intelligence dominated our interactions. We started having one-word check-ins to measure how we felt and discussed ways we could support one another. Again, contrary to Lefebvre’s arguments about not recognising what you are experiencing while experiencing it, on our last call, the group joked about becoming addicted to our virtual support circle and made plans to interact outside of it.

It has been a week since that last call. I find myself asking if the lessons I learned from this period of uncertainty will stand the test of time, not just for me but for them. Will the intimacy of a wider ‘us’ group prevail during more certain times? Have I been able to analyse all of my lived experiences or are the obvious lessons limited to the moment, only to be re-activated during the next wave of uncertainty? I hope I can look back at this first ‘last time’ when that happens and be able to say, “last time…”


Bandura, A. (1971) Social learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-813251-7.00057-2.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Edited by D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell. doi: 10.2307/378107.

McLeod, S. (2016) Bandura – Social Learning Theory, Simply Psychology. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html.

Pierce, J. and Martin, D. G. (2015) ‘Placing Lefebvre’, Antipode, 47(5), pp. 1279–1299. doi: 10.1111/anti.12155.

[1] Henri Lefebvre was a Marxist theorist, philosopher and sociologist famous for his books The Production of Space and The Critique of Everyday Life.


The other side of Chungking Express

By Natalie Kwong, on 28 July 2020

Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.

Still from Chungking Express (1994)

Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, a 1994 film telling two stories of romantic longing is amongst one of my favourite films for its poetic storytelling and arthouse cinematography. A large portion of the film is set in the background of Chungking Mansions, from which its title derives from, depicted in the film as a hyperactive and eclectic mix of cultures (majority South Asian), but also as a crime hotspot for drug trade, scammers and immigrants. Having rewatched the film recently and coupled with the resurgence of the black lives matter movement has led me to reflect personally on my own experiences with racial inequality in Hong Kong, particularly the South Asian community, and ultimately how this leads to epistemic injustices.

The term ‘epistemic injustices’ was first introduced by Fricker (2007), in reference to injustices in someone’s capacity as a knower. Fricker makes a distinction between two different types of epistemic injustices:

  1. Hermeneutic Injustice—when someone lacks the resources, usually of conceptual nature required to formulate their problems;
  2. Testimonial Injustice—when someone is treated as lacking credibility due to a systemic identity prejudice which influences the listener.

The basis of this blog will focus on testimonial injustice, where the racial stereotypes attributed to the South Asian community in Hong Kong (a majority Chinese ethnic society) has led to the production and reproduction of epistemic injustices.

So how does this relate to the film Chungking Express? In the film, the stereotype of South Asians as criminals becomes reinforced as Chungking Mansions, a large hub for ethnic minorities, is depicted as a site of gang activity and violence. This homogenous depiction of South Asians in the building obfuscates an authentic representation of its community—the other side of Chungking Mansions is an agglomeration of traders, businesses, restaurants operated by South Asians and Africans. Having been inside the building myself on numerous occasions as part of volunteer work to cook for refugees and asylum seekers, I know it to be a site of rich and diverse stories, far from what is depicted in the film.

Still from Chungking Express (1994)

This depiction of South Asians is not only limited to Chungking Express, where the representation of these minorities in local TV and film are largely negative as they are used to serve comedic relief and villainous intent, perpetuating stereotypes and their exclusion from mainstream society. These depictions manifest as epistemic injustices on an institutional and structural level. For instance, children of South Asian minorities who attend local schools in Hong Kong aren’t offered language assistance when learning Chinese, putting them at a disadvantage to their peers who are able to practise Chinese at home. As a result of this language barrier, they become victims of epistemic injustices where their knowledge becomes unheard and face significant disadvantages in accessing livelihood and economic opportunities.

A clear instance of the epistemic injustices borne on these communities was in the shooting of a Nepalese man in 2009 by the police, which disturbingly mirrors the police aggression that reignited the recent black lives matter movement. The police had emphasised the man as a “dark-skinned foreigner with criminal convictions”, and ultimately authorities deemed the shooting as lawful and as an act of self-defence (SCMP, 2011). The family of the Nepalese man were denied judicial review of his death, despite citing a lack of police transparency in the case. The injustice on whose knowledge comes to matter in these cases becomes manifested on an institutional level as there is a clear privileging on whose knowledge becomes heard. Clearly, depictions of South Asians as barbaric and criminals in media reinforce these stereotypes that lead to epistemic injustices on a structural and institutional level.

This depiction of Chungking Mansions, and by extension South Asians, carries on to epistemic injustices that are reflected on an interpersonal level as well. Within my immediate and extended family and amongst friends, there is a prejudice held against this site—a place to be avoided due to its preconceived association with crime. On a personal level, looking back on my visits to the building for volunteer work, I was afraid to venture into the place alone and had tried to avoid eye contact when navigating the halls. Despite conflicting with my firmly held beliefs on racial equality, as Cunliffe (2019) has examined, these stereotypes as portrayed in the media operates on an unconscious level, existing in the social imagination and feed into judgements without express authorisation.

So how can this process of production and reproduction of epistemic injustices be challenged? In the same way that mainstream media perpetuates stereotypes, media can also be used to co-produce actionable knowledge through inclusive representation that challenges these injustices. Cunliffe (2019) identified four ways in which narrative fiction can help counter testimonial injustices: Firstly, through familiarisation, where inclusion of marginalised groups help acquaint an audience; Secondly, by stimulating a higher self awareness in the audience; Thirdly, in emphasising ambiguity in making decisive judgements about people; and finally, through representation of marginalised groups. As such, these processes require a co-production of knowledge, wherein those who have been marginalised become creators of such media. Jordan Peele’s Get Out serves as a prime example in challenging homogenous depictions of African Americans in mainstream media. The film depicts the microaggressions of racism in American society, in instances such as forced mentions of Barack Obama and Tiger Woods by white partygoers to the protagonist. This presentation of an African-American man’s experience in America by an African-American writer allows the audience to imagine oneself in the protagonist’s place, enabling a self awareness to recognise and question their own judgements in relation to epistemic injustices.

Still from Get Out (2017)

To return to a more personal level in my experience of epistemic injustices of South Asians in Hong Kong, the inclusion of South Asians in the production of mainstream media can allow for authentic representations of lived experiences, challenging the systemic racial stereotypes of these groups and the testimonial injustices associated. In essence, though media is not the singular approach in addressing these issues, the co-production of inclusive representation will be instrumental in confronting the “other side” of Chungking Express.


Cottle, S. (2000). Ethnic Minorities and the Media: Changing Cultural Boundaries. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Cunliffe, Z. (2019). Narrative Fiction and Epistemic Injustice. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 77(2). pp.169-182.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

South China Morning Post. (2011). ‘Review of Nepali’s shooting denied,’ South China Morning

Post, Hong Kong, 12 June. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/article/736380/review-nepalis-shooting-denied. [Accessed 11 June 2020].

What specific processes produce and reproduce epistemic injustices? What strategies to co-produce actionable knowledge are most fruitful to challenge them?

By Edoardo Repetto, on 24 July 2020

Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.

“From this moment despair ends and tactics begin” – probably Banksy
Picture by Andrew Davidson at English Wikipedia licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

That moment in which you realize you are a racist, a patriarchist, maybe a classist, a homophobe, probably an ableist or simply a privileged detached person, at that moment you clash with epistemic injustices. Before defining what epistemic injustices are, it is important to reflect on the role of knowledge. Consider what we do with knowledge and rethink the original ethic ascribed to it thus reaching its practical consequences. First, knowledge as information is power[1], and power means opportunity. Closing the syllogism, knowledge is an opportunity.

Secondly, what you do with knowledge depends on what it is. Is knowledge a monolithic block or an open box? In the case of rigorous sciences, there is an important need to rely on the pillars raised before. However, this need has shaped patterns of vertical education that even among the social sciences reproduce a passive understanding of knowledge as “imperial gallons of facts poured into them (the little vessels of Thomas Gradgrind) until they were full to the brim”[2].

The content of the block is likely to be unquestionable and the reproduction of the system is assured. On the opposite open box side, knowledge production involves a complex process formed by multiple actors, variables and contexts influenced by bias, interests and scopes.

Third, applying ethic to the previously mentioned opportunity, one moves towards a new variation of power frequently understood as responsibility. Here is the shift from theory to practice. When a study regards the life of another, the theoretical approaches must be redefined under a situational, positioned and relational[3] awareness of the multiple expectations and needs in play.


Production humanum est, reproduction autem diabolicum

From an ethic perspective, the previous static knowledge possession switches to knowledge- making. Fricker’s epistemic injustice is built upon the concepts of testimonial injustice, hermeneutical injustice and hermeneutical marginalization[4]. In a nutshell, substantial social difficulties emerge from the deficit of intelligibility. In other words, the ability to communicate and understand forms of marginalization affecting someone else’s life. When marginalized social groups that “under-contribute to the common pool of concepts and social meanings”[5], feel direct or indirect frustration related to the personal or external communication of social experiences, hermeneutical injustices occur.

The problem is not the production of injustices per se, but its reproduction. The myth of modernity, against which the planet and humanity as a whole are clashing, has to be sustained by dominant social groups to support the socio-environmental unsustainable premises underpinning it. Consequently, the dominant model visions periodically change according to the requirements of different historical periods. Once the trajectory is determined in linear often hierarchical rigid systems, the identification of different and diverse needs has to face the communicative and physical violence of marginalization.


Normalization of the absurd

Normalizing is the first process of epistemic injustices reproduction such as diversified social treatments, economic conditions and different access to basic services and infrastructures. From local to global, reasons of force majeure postpone the rights’ vindication, impose different priorities to people’s agenda, press the common narrative to the acceptance of the status quo. For instance, in these days, the Black Lives Matter movement is shedding light on the systemic inequalities shaping modern society. And such movements are only the tip of the iceberg[6].

With different grades of visibility and levels of exposure, current society has normalized the marginalization and the consequential direct/indirect deprivations harming social groups from all geographical, cultural, sexual, economic, and physical perspectives. In this scenario, detachment from “the other” directly reproduces systemic injustices often based on private interests lacking long-lasting socio-environmental visions. The COVID-19 crisis shows how multinationals offering distancing services – Amazon, Microsoft, Zoom etc – are growing[7] at the socioeconomic expenses of vulnerable groups, local economies, taxpayers, and physical social services such as healthcare and education.


 Hyper connected, nano collective

After normalization comes detachment, the vision of the other as a far-from-us problem thus less manageable or irrelevant. The hyper-connectivity of our time has not been followed by hyper- collectivity and the constant passive acceptance of unjust practices deflect attention from the understanding that, in the highly uncertain present, normal is over[8].

Coming back to knowledge-making and the shift to action, co-production is strategically unavoidable in the making of cities. While in the so-called Global North cities are more likely to appear as given entities, in the Global South dwellers daily reclaim their spaces through concrete do-it-yourself building practices. Many are the cases of informal organization and bottom-up action showing the success of such practice both in terms of housing and socio-political recognition. The built environment daily produces and reproduces epistemic injustices and vice-versa is capable of interrupting such reproduction.


Collective city making is future shaping

Fruitful processes altering perceptions and behaviors are part and parcel of the direct democracy experiences of city-making. Do-it-yourself urbanism, although frequently ascribed to northern practices based on the wrong premises of state-failure and the citizens’ capacity to act, is everyday matter in global informal settlements. Through the collectivization and organization of such practices, in a local to global understanding involving both Global North and Global South realities, urban trajectories can move from external master plans towards locally designed spaces meeting the needs of the population.

The urban and environmental justice lenses are based on the principles of participation, recognition, and distribution[9]. To assure inclusivity and tackle epistemic injustices both civil society and local governments must enhance these processes towards horizontal and multifaceted participation. Forms of late vertical consultation must be avoided in favor of participatory planning and understanding. Recognition of diverse actors from both bottom-up and top-down processes empower marginalized groups and enhance civil action. Planning for the known, the average, for the visible, for the data majority, reproduces marginalization and unequal access to opportunities. Distribution is the new imperative to tackle present challenges towards cities made by and for the people.

To conclude, it is not necessary to be a racist, patriarchist, classist, homophobic, ableist or privileged detached person to reproduce epistemic injustices. Let’s challenge normalization and social detachment acting for a meaningful and inclusive participation of the ‘invisibilised’. A new future has to come.

[1] Written in the wall of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC) office.

[2] Dickens, C. (1854). Hard Times. 1969 ed. Penguin Books, p.48.

[3] Allen, A. (2020). Decolonising Urban Knowledge And Research Ethics. Lecture n.14 – 7th of February.

[4] Fricker (2007) in Fricker, M. and Jenkins, K. (2017). Epistemic Injustice, Ignorance, and Trans Experiences. Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, p.1.

[5] Fricker, M. and Jenkins, K., 2017. Epistemic Injustice, Ignorance, and Trans Experiences. Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, p.1.

[6] Mestre, A. and Couvelaire, L. (2020). «Ça nous dépasse et c’est ce qu’on veut »: comment le comité Adama a réussi une mobilisation surprise contre les violences policières. Le Monde.

[7] Collins, C. (2020). Let’s stop pretending billionaires are in the same boat as us during this pandemic. The Guardian.

[8] Normal is over 1.1. (2019). [film] Directed by R. Scheltema. Netherlands.

[9] Lambert, R. (2019). Resilience And Justice: Tensions And Synergies. Lecture n.3 – 15th of October

Coronavirus and the State of Non-recognition: The Case of Somaliland – PART 2

By Jama Musse Jama, on 20 July 2020

Part 1 of this article dealt with the background regarding Somaliland’s non-recognition and is available here (link)

Average expected reading time 7 minutes

Humanitarian assistance and COVID-19 in a non-recognised state

As is clear from the first part of this article, Somaliland non-recognition is not a product of on-going conflict and violence. The last period of conflict erupted in the early 1990s at a time when the Somali National Movement (SNM) had liberated the country from the military regime. Indeed, it was in 1991 that Somaliland proclaimed its independence from the rest of the former Somali Republic. After the first intra-SNM conflicts and clan-clashes in Berbera, Burao, Hargeysa and Erigavo in the years of 1991-1993, immediate internal reconciliation conferences were conducted in a very traditional way in Hargeysa, Burao, Erigavo, and Sheikh. These conferences culminated in the Grand Borama Conference (1993), which led to the establishment of much improved security and a stable government.

So rather than being a consequence of ongoing instability, non-recognition is instead a chronic case of de facto independence in the face of the status quo of non-recognition. To put it another way; perversely, Somaliland’s very stability has allowed the status quo of non-recognition to remain in place. However, because of the current crisis, in every country there is urgent humanitarian health aid to be delivered, which needs also to be delivered as effectively as possible. There are two types of aid or assistance: the first is aid to people – mainly humanitarian aid. The second is aid to states – mainly developmental and budgetary support. The situation in Somaliland is that aid to people depends on the humanitarian situation, and as long as conditions on the ground allow delivery, it keeps coming. Not in full, but some element keeps coming. Aid to the state is different, because officially the non-recognised state doesn’t exist as such, and any aid that is available through official channels goes to the recognised entity first, and only thence, if at all, to the non-recognised entity. In the case of Somaliland, the government has announced several times that they will never accept international assistance channelled through the FGS in Mogadishu. This is a red line as far as Somaliland is concerned.

Somalia’s Federal Government was successful in winning debt relief under Heavily Indebted Poor Countries status, releasing IMF support while the World Bank and UN Agencies, as well as the European Union, are fast-tracking cash-transfers to Mogadishu, as a recognised state, in the form of direct budgetary assistance. The FGS debt cancelation, the delay of interest and capital repayments, direct financial support as well as continental and regional assistance, are not, however, burning issues in the corridors of power in Hargeysa, as the non-recognised counterpart. On the contrary, the Somaliland government looks sceptically at any money that goes to Mogadishu. Particularly as the FGS use this international support quite openly to further its political ideology and political conflict. This inadvertently confronts the non-recognised counterpart, Somaliland, with an untenable choice between compromising the long-standing quest for recognition and taking the support on offer as part of the assumed ‘parent’ state or, on the other hand, of foregoing that critical support. Resolution of this impossible dilemma is hampered by lack of access to legitimate channels for negotiation and the right to request assistance as a self-governing state in challenging times.

Yet non-recognised status is not entirely negative. Paradoxically, Somaliland appears to have done rather well compared to some recognised countries. It is often overlooked in media and political discourse that the Government of Somaliland is the only democratically elected government in the region. It is surrounded by countries with unelected leaders and governments from Ethiopia to Djibouti and Somalia. This means that, even as a non-recognised state, the government of Somaliland is nevertheless directly accountable to its own people. As such it could be argued that the actions it took quickly (closed borders, stopped flights and quarantine) were in part driven by self-interest at the state level. This is because the Government of Somaliland is hugely reliant on internally generated resources and derives its legitimacy from an internal power base (the people). The government of Somaliland has, for example no external loans and receives only limited international financial assistance. Thus, the state domestically has a strong political and economic incentive to act decisively to protect the local socio-economic ecosystem including from medical health emergencies such as COVID-19. This was also evident at the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when Somaliland took proactive measures, such as screening passengers on international flights arriving into Hargeysa’s Egal International Airport. Conversely, the internationally recognised government in Mogadishu is reliant on, indeed arguably propped up by international support, but lacks democratic accountability and domestic legitimacy. This has implications for the Mogadishu government’s modus operandi; from its domestic and international policies and politics, as well as widely reported corruption and graft in government and public institutions, to its security arrangement with it being largely reliant on AMISOM troops for its continued viability.

Challenges and opportunities

COVID19 brings with it problems and opportunities for non-recognised states. It puts a lot of demand on meagre resources and exposes vulnerabilities in the case of non-recognised entities. On the other hand, it brings opportunities as the plight itself gives these ‘invisible states’ greater visibility. It provides a wake-up call for policy makers and scholars to reflect, for example, on food security and the protection of the people, and the policy measures most likely to have a tangible, positive impact. It also focuses minds and brings people together against a common problem, and political infighting takes a back seat. This inadvertently results in stronger institutions and clarity of political purpose not only from the incumbent Kulmiye party government, but also from the two official opposition parties, Waddani and UCID.

Also, on the opportunity side is the way it has given the government space to voice their concerns and to pursue bolder international strategies where the potential exists, as in the case of Taiwan with whom Somaliland has recently reached agreement on enhanced cooperation. For Somaliland, the crisis has helped to raise their political voice regionally and has highlighted the need for cooperation in addressing this huge global challenge that rises above existing political alignments. Hence it has been an advantage in that Somaliland as a state has been more visible and has been able to share their narrative at a global level. More specifically it provided an indirect visibility, both to international and regional institutions – such that renewed questions are being asked about de-politicising humanitarian assistance as a mutually beneficial endeavour. The other opportunity it has brought to non-recognised states is the self-reliance narration. It presents opportunities for practical steps by the private sector and friends of the nation, such that it strengthens ownership of local initiatives and domestically, the bond of national unity.

COVID-19 may well hinder democratic processes internationally and for both recognised and non-recognised countries, but the non-recognised is almost definitionally more fragile, often with little in the way of strong, rule-based legal and institutional systems.

Of course, all the shortcomings of the Somaliland Government in reaction to the pandemic cannot be justified by non-recognition. Many people criticized, for instance, the fact that incoming flights were not stopped earlier. The Somaliland Government has been confronted with the same choices as other countries when it comes to public health versus the economy and has shaped its policy response around its own definition of “national interest”. The Somaliland COVID-19 Preparedness Committee could, for example, have improved their public communication and not given room for rumours on the pandemic to spread; also the compulsory quarantine on arrivals could have been implemented more efficiently with clear and strict rules much better enforced.

Capitalising on Opportunities:

Reflecting on the aforementioned considerations, Somaliland is now receiving renewed international attention because of this crisis. This may lead it to secure more friends for its post COVID-19 international quest for recognition. The pandemic has brought Somaliland into the international arena, particularly as a research case study, having many similarities with Taiwan, with those two states being able to secure their populations and efficiently and effectively make decisions. The two states have been allies and with their recent establishment of formal ties, this definitely seems like an interesting opportunity to observe in the future. The current situation has also given space for Somaliland to state its differences with Somalia. Particularly to point out how long-delayed recognition remains a problem which manifests itself in many known and invisible socio-economic and political barriers, especially as little support of any kind has reached Somaliland during this pandemic. A good example is of the Chinese billionaire and founder of Ali-Baba, Jack Ma, whose donation to African nations through the African Union and the Ethiopian government, has been directed to the FGS, with Somaliland refusing to accept a share as long as the prerequisite condition is that it does so as a Federal Member State of Somalia. This broadly reflects the wider pattern by international actors, who have kept sending help to Somalia. Nevertheless, this has given the chance for Somaliland to showcase their quest for independence and allowed them to practice and hone policies of self sufficiency, whilst also strengthening links with the diaspora and private sector. Even as these current events raise questions of political desire, emergency compromises may still be needed to save lives.

Somaliland has also strengthened during this pandemic some friendships with allies. This is especially true for the UAE, which has supported Somaliland with materials, and for Ethiopia, who have provided smaller scale support to Somaliland as well as enhancing recently fraught relations. Ethiopian Airlines continues to fly into Hargeysa, even though the FGS has objected to this. Within Somaliland, this has been taken as a symbol of solidarity and strength from Ethiopia to parallel that of the UAE. A donation from Qatar raises a political question which reflects ongoing political wrangling amongst the Gulf countries which interacts with the politics of the Horn of Africa. Qatar’s unequivocal stance in support of the FGS has become an established feature of recent political events in the region. Other actors, such as the EU and UK remain positive, longstanding and well established partners for Somaliland. A key feature in this relationship, is the shared democratic credentials and Somaliland’s history as the former British Somaliland Protectorate, plus its large diaspora communities in Europe and the United States. The US and EU are particularly allies in the humanitarian assistance space, which was first formalised with the [now discontinued] US two track approach towards Somaliland and Somalia, whereby Western countries started to engage with both Somaliland and Somalia on a level but separate footing. The Somaliland Development Fund was another tool that facilitated direct support to Somaliland from the UK, Denmark and The Netherlands on projects fully aligned with the National Development Plan (NDP). The first phase of SDF [2013-2018] “provided funding for 12 projects with a total value of USD 59 million to projects implemented by the Government of Somaliland”, followed by British government signing “agreements worth £31 million to support development in Somaliland” in 2019. For SDF-2, additional support from the UK, Denmark and The Netherlands has just been announced (July, 2020, though the total sum involved is so far unreleased). This new phase has the declared objective of fostering “inclusive economic development for the people of Somaliland” (see https://www.somalilanddevelopmentfund.org/projects).

A particular consideration from the EU perspective – given the jointly determined nature of its foreign policy responses – is that support to Somaliland must preserve protocols that reflect and pay lip-service to Somalia’s ‘unity’, at least within the public arena and particularly in published statements. Major partnerships, including the EU, announced direct budget support to Somaliland in the first days of the crisis, but this has not yet been implemented, with the main reason for non-implementation being non-recognition, as the EU has no mandate to sign a bilateral agreement which would certainly upset Mogadishu. Nevertheless, the EU is the major supporter of humanitarian and development assistance to Somaliland via projects implemented by International and National NGOs.

Finally, apart from international financial and humanitarian impact, there are other areas where non-recognition has been a major obstacle during the pandemic, including education, trade and state revenue. Recognised states can rely on international assistance and debt relief to create space for the redirection of funds to address urgent health, education and poverty concerns while even allowing some bolstering of state capacity at this time of particular weakness. In Somaliland, though, these avenues are largely absent. The use of Berbera port, which generated significant private sector and state income has been halted, while livestock exports, despite the Eid market, remain well below normal expected volume and likewise, with many flights suspended, income usually gained from the airport has also ceased. The recent decision to ban most Haj pilgrims from entering Saudi Arabia also removes a key source of income for Somaliland livestock owners.

An opportunity might lie in the fact that the pandemic has helped the non-recognised state to see alternative strategies and partnerships for addressing the challenge, for instance, relying on the local community that is still playing a decisive role in providing basic social support. The private sector has also stepped up in many instances, with a donation to Somaliland’s COVID-19 committee from major businesses such as Dahabshiil, TELESOM, WORLDREMIT and other companies, providing further evidence of the resilience Somaliland is already recognised for. The case of Somaliland’s experience in dealing with the pandemic is therefore a mixed bag featuring a tangled narrative based on a positive domestic story of self-reliance and desire for local ownership and determination to stand firm on the well-justified quest for international recognition even in these challenging times, but without compromising on the value of human life. It is also a real-time example of the continued failure of the international community to find an alternative system that extends the needed support for security while valuing human life in the midst of a global emergency. The geopolitics that lie behind Somaliland’s lengthy status of non-recognition substantively impede efforts to address urgent and acknowledged needs on the ground in an effective and coordinated manner. This effectively represents the abandonment of collective responsibility, leaving critical humanitarian and developmental priorities to be handled through the fragmented international relationships resulting from an enduring refusal on the part of bilateral and multilateral partners to find creative ways around diplomatic concerns. This makes development assistance even more of a gamble than is already the case, undermining the principles of fairness and impeding sufficient input needed to address this acute human emergency. For Somaliland, while non-recognition has many consequences – some even positive – on balance, it significantly exacerbates already substantial challenges at a critical moment when we should all instead be focused on reducing barriers.


Dr Jama Musse Jama is an ethnomathematician with a PhD in African Studies specialising in Computational Linguistics of African Languages.  Currently Director of the Hargeysa Cultural Centre in Somaliland, Dr. Jama has also a Research Associate position at DPU, University College London, UK. He can be reached at twitter.com/JamaMusse

Coronavirus and the State of Non-recognition: The Case of Somaliland – PART 1

By Jama Musse Jama, on 20 July 2020

This is the first of a two-part article. Part 2 is available here (link)

Average expected reading time 6 minutes

Introduction: background to Somaliland non-recognition

The Republic of Somaliland (Somaliland) is a de facto independent state in the Horn of Africa, which despite not being recognised by any nation, represents peace, democracy, stability, prosperity, and cooperation in the region. It is often referred to as a beacon of hope, stability and democracy, in an otherwise volatile Horn of Africa Region.

Somaliland is not part of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and has managed its own domestic, international and security affairs since 1991, when it dissolved the union with The Republic of Somalia following a war that was waged on Somaliland in the name of the Somali state. Legacy of the war still remains and Somaliland is still rebuilding all infrastructures including health and public facilities that were destroyed, which complicates the current COVID-19 response.

Somaliland has a young population of over 4 million, a coastline that stretches over 800 km along the Red Sea and a land area covering 176,120 square km. The capital is Hargeysa – a large, bustling city – with a population of over one million.

COVID-19 and non-recognised countries

On 30th January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 (2019-nCoV) disease, as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). It consequently advised all countries to put in place measures, at an early stage in the pandemic, to ensure effective detection and protection.  In the declaration, the major concern was the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker healthcare systems in the Global South, and mainly in the African continent. The WHO and other international bodies, however, did not appear to pay particular attention to what happens when an already weak healthcare system is further hampered by non-recognition of its government. There is generally a need for strong bilateral agreements and collaborations with recognised counterparts, if effective delay, containment and mitigation is to be put in place by the country.

Somaliland and COVID-19

Somaliland has open borders and an open economy. It shares these borders with Djibouti in the west, Ethiopia in the south, Somalia in the east, and the Red Sea (facing Yemen) in the north. It has a merchant economy that depends heavily on global trade. COVID-19 caused havoc in the global trade on which Somaliland’s economy depends. The impact was felt even before the virus reached the country. Somaliland suddenly found itself fighting on two fronts: a health front and an economic front.

In response to the pandemic, the Somaliland Government formed the National COVID-19 Preparedness and Prevention Committee led by the Vice President. The Committee established a quarantine site for persons suspected or known to being infected with the virus and an incident management system to manage this quarantine process. The government also ordered a temporary suspension of land borders entry and exits – restricting this for any non-essential crossings. Other measures included closure of schools, temporary suspension of Qat imports, and advisory pronouncements against mass gathering. Activities such as attending mosques, weddings and events were curtailed to promote an awareness of the importance of social and physical measures in preventing the spread of the virus.

The effort was not as smooth as it would have been since there was no testing equipment or functioning case tracing system that could facilitate the process. The financial challenge was also something that was limiting the effort of the committee. Every country has struggled with COVID-19, and Somaliland is no different, so there have been lapses in the implementation of policies that were good when formulated on paper, but have been subject to shortcomings in practice.

This blog analyses the challenges and opportunities for a non-recognised country such as Somaliland in the current global public health emergency caused by this pandemic. It focuses on how, in general, the status of non-recognition is affecting the preparedness and protection of the populace during this COVID-19 crisis. It considers the challenges and opportunities, focusing in particular on the case of Somaliland, in the context of the wider Horn of Africa sub-region.

The need for strong expression of State power

The current crisis highlights the role of the state, the strength of national boundaries and of sovereignty, as crucial elements in dealing with COVID-19. From the perspective of non-recognised states, there are two aspects to consider: the first one is that non-recognised states themselves often exert the power of their de facto statehood by declaring border closure, just as recognised countries do. In the specific case of Somaliland, the government was the first in the region to declare the border closed when a case was identified; not even in Somaliland, but in Ethiopia. The government quickly deployed medical teams to all entry points such airports, seaports and land border crossings. It was a genuine concern from the government of Somaliland that the health emergency could quickly spiral out of control. But considered from a political and international relations perspective, these measures were also a way to display and demonstrate the power the state could exert as an independent strong state, underlining the point that Somaliland exercises effective sovereignty, even though that sovereignty is not recognised officially. This indicates the state of power in Somaliland as exercised by the democratically elected current government. This is part of a wider historical pattern of political decision-making by successive Somaliland governments, of various political hues, over the past 29 years. In the current time it portrays the clear intention to act independently and to uphold the sovereign decision-making power vested in the government by the population which democratically elected it; such that it is able to exercise and demonstrate that within its own territory.

The second aspect to consider is that governments in non-recognised states promote their central role in the nation through legitimising their decisions and requiring public and private partners and stakeholders to comply with government guidelines. In the Somaliland case, key basic social services including healthcare and education are in the hands of the private sector. Nevertheless, in this time of challenge the state declared and expanded its mandate. Particularly its capability to access private facilities and requisition and repurpose them for the common use of wider society if needs arise from a state of emergency declaration, as permitted under Somaliland law. Medical equipment and medicines, spaces for quarantine and related resources owned by the private sector were directed for use for the common good by bringing them under the control of the state. This directive would have been legally dubious and hard to enforce without the declaration of an emergency. Hence, again, a non-recognised state demonstrated the ability to act just like a recognised one. That is notwithstanding the fact that Somaliland sovereignty was never in question domestically, even in normal pre-pandemic days. This point about internal legitimacy is important as it reflects the fact that capacity to act is vested in the consent of the population and a general trust and confidence that the government and, indeed, the formal opposition will ultimately act in the interests of the country. The implications for public health interventions are important, but little studied.

In both aspects, however, the case of Somaliland might be seen as a special situation, because, for instance, in terms of the effectiveness of border closure, Somaliland already had an effective, pre-existing state apparatus. All four borders were already monitored and managed peacefully even though the one in the east (with Somalia) has proven challenging at times. Hence, the ability to act just like a recognised state could be based on the existence of such effective, albeit non-recognised, capacities which create the impression that doing so is merely a normal act of governance in action.

However, Somaliland is feeling the pressure of the status of being non-recognised more than ever, and the impact and legacy of this pandemic manifests itself in both political and economic forms. In the political form it feels like business as usual. For example, the closures of borders, flight restrictions and related decisions, including legitimising election postponement. These political acts have been implemented with the same speed and effectiveness as recognised countries. Yet even the flight restrictions generated a political conflict, as Somalia declared its own airspace restrictions to cover Somaliland, while Somaliland still had flights arriving. This re-iterates the significance of unresolved underlying political tensions insofar as international politics is concerned, between Somaliland and Somalia.

Secondly, the economic aspect has been challenging for a number of reasons arising from Somaliland’s status as not being recognised. The state of emergency and closing borders (except for essential import activities) has crippled both state capacity and private sector activities. Even the smallest aspect of day-to-day tax collection has been hampered by stay-home measures. Consequently, the revenues of Somaliland’s government have taken a significant hit over the past few months, as indicated by a briefing prepared by Somaliland’s Ministry of Finance, though this is likely to be a temporary consequence. This has wider implications for government expenditure and delivery of the government’s domestic policy agenda.

Many recognised states have taken the opportunity to access alternative support lines through both fiscal and monetary policy interventions to support the wider economy and public institutions. But non-recognised states do not generally have access to multilateral financial institutions, the international financial system or bilateral economic support. In the case of Somaliland, it further lacks well-developed economic regulatory institutions. Being a developing economy, the Somaliland government’s capacity to introduce economic stabilisation measures – such as welfare transfers to the poorest and most vulnerable in society or expansionary fiscal policies – is severely restricted. In summary, the capacities of non-recognised governments to ease the economic consequences of unexpected economic shocks such as the COVID19 pandemic, are more limited than those of recognised countries. This has implications for economic resilience and short- to medium-term economic growth prospects, which are expected to take a significant hit.

The second part of this article will focus on the practical effects of non-recognition for Somaliland’s ability to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.


Dr Jama Musse Jama is an ethnomathematician with a PhD in African Studies specialising in Computational Linguistics of African Languages.  Currently Director of the Hargeysa Cultural Centre in Somaliland, Dr. Jama has also a Research Associate position at DPU, University College London, UK. He can be reached at twitter.com/JamaMusse

Re-educating the educated

By Rachel S Fisch, on 17 July 2020

Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.

“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated” (James Baldwin, 1963)

 Part I: Epistemic Injustice and Education

James Baldwin, a black American writer and activist, argued that education is designed to teach people independent thought and decision-making, yet, the paradox within this is that once this occurs people will realise the wrongs in society and seek to change them. However, this will be society’s demise as ‘society’ wants docile subjects, not people actively seeking change.

Baldwin saw education as the force to enable society to change. He acknowledged the racial testimonial and hermeneutical injustice (Fricker, 2007) riddled within US society and its education system and called upon teachers to dispel the myths and dominant white narrative in American history that silenced other voices. The solution to societal change and racial equality was to educate and push children to understand the world constructed by those before them and give them the tools to remould it into something new.

Part II: Am I Educated?

History is a powerful force that has and continues to mould the world today. How history is told, or not told, embeds and reinforces worldviews in children from a young age. As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has swept across social media I have seen many petitions to change the UK’s school history syllabus. This made me reflect on the history I learnt at school, which was full of Normans, Tudors and WWII. This was a very white, male-dominated history that sought to paint the UK in a favourable light. The darker parts of history, such as the slave trade, were scarcely mentioned.

There is no doubt that knowledge is power. Yet knowledge is based on an outdated, white, Eurocentric and patriarchal ideology which subtly dictates society today. The UN views education as a basic human right, yet what we are taught ignores the rights of many and plurality of the world. Although knowledge is always in formation (Madge, Raghuram and Noxolo, 2015) its acquisition needs to become an inclusive, global and cyclical process. The UK school system assumes homogeneity; of students, subject matters and the world, impacting how people view and act in the world for generations. I now realise that I left school with a fragmented reality and minimal knowledge about how the world works, how it came to be and why it is how it is. The institutionalised ‘othering’ (Said, 1978) and marginalisation of information needs to be eradicated to prevent the on-going epistemic injustice prevalent in the UK education system.

Part III: The Online Field Trip

The rise of the BLM movement and the subsequent enlightenment on epistemic injustice made me reflect on how I conducted our fieldwork. From the onset, we were encouraged to place heavy emphasis on exploring our strategic pathway through a gendered perspective. Due to the virtual nature of our project we were unable to fully grasp the reality of a gendered experience in Freetown and relied on our assumptions and previous research that commonly contextualised women as marginalised and disproportionately burdened. As a group, we established that the gender of the interviewer should parallel that of the interviewee, as we believed that this may influence the openness of the interviewee and thus the obtained data.

I realise in hindsight that how we were conducting the research and asking interview questions were biased towards our positionality rather than the local context. We found that although our assumptions of women in Freetown are true, they failed to reflect the heterogeneity of the gender experience, the high levels of resilience displayed by women in their everyday lives and their oppression in wider knowledge production. The fact that the Mayor of Freetown is a woman seemed to escape me, highlighting that the strong ideas of gender in the academic sphere swayed my perspective and did not fully reflect the situation in Freetown. This made me think further about where this knowledge came from and the power relations that enabled this knowledge to shape my perceptions as a researcher and practitioner. The academic sphere has been shaped by white, privileged males, and made me overlook my knowledge of being a woman and intersectionality in this fieldwork. I also realised that such knowledge fails to truly reflect the situations on the ground as communities don’t tend to get the opportunity to share their knowledge, and if they do, it tends to be distorted through the academic lens of the researcher.

This process taught me to reject preconceived notions of knowledge, data collection methods and; that learning truly is a dynamic concept (Acharya, 2007). It was only through doing this project that I truly realised the importance and power of co-producing knowledge and action to tackle epistemic injustice. There are multiple understandings of the world and we need to escape our current embedded, Western restraints to truly understand lived experiences and create positive change. Although it was not the field trip we all imagined, it showed me that academic knowledge is not always the ‘right’ knowledge and that seeing, listening and incorporating what others have to say is vital in challenging what we think we know and our assumptions.

Part IIII: Re-educating the Education System

Society is crying out for change, and in doing so, is finally acknowledging the paradox of education and the injustices within it. Although the societal issues are not new, how we perceive and understand them are evolving. Following Baldwin, I think that to truly address and disrupt epistemic injustices we need to change how and what we teach our children – our future. The lessons that we learn in school stay with us, and we are currently not teaching children enough.

Whilst many will look back on 2020 as a dark period in history, I think that 2020 is the year of ‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter, 1976), whereby we will move beyond crisis to radical change (Biel, 2020). This year has been scary, painful and heart-breaking, yet it has forced many to wake up and seek opportunities for societal reflection and possibly become the force of change that this world needs. I hope to take the lessons learnt from my ‘field trip’ in Freetown and apply them to my academic and personal outlook to help identify and address the epistemic injustices I encounter in my life.


Acharya, S. (2007) Identity, Technological Communication and Education in the Age of Globalization. Gender, Technology and Development, 11(3), pg.339-356.

Baldwin, J. (2008) [1963]. A Talk to Teachers. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 107(2), pg.15-20.

Biel, R. (2020) From crisis to radical change. Post COVID-19 Urban Futures webinar series. [Online] Available from: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development/events/2020/apr/crisis-radical-change

Fricker, M. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. [Online] Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Madge, C., Raghuram, P. and Noxolo, P. (2015) Conceptualizing international education: From international student to international study. Progress in Human Geography, 39(6), pg.681-701.

Said, E. W. (1978) Orientalism. London: Penguin.

Schumpeter, J. A. (1976) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. [Online] London: Routledge.

The impact of COVID-19 on night-time economies, arts and culture

By Alessio Koliulis, on 30 June 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

As the pandemic continues to disrupt urban life, city governments have to think about how to support their night-time economies (NTEs).

Photograph: Alexander Macfarlane

Cities are forced to lock down venues but regulations over physical distancing result in closures of night-time venues and job losses. In order to protect local economies, there are urgent changes that need to take place, as NTEs remain without financial support and their re-opening is highly uncertain.

Firstly, NTEs need to be understood in their contribution to urban development. Night-time activities are a cultural trait of urban societies, and, as such, possess a strong economic dimension for cities. They also represent a key part of the creative industries supply chain.

As economic and cultural producers, night-time venues maintain a twofold relationship with urban space. Clubs, festivals and music venues are powerful spaces of aggregation in popular neighbourhoods. They attract people and provide space for imagination. And yet, they are particularly vulnerable to changes, highlighting the precarious nature of the creative sector.

In this regard, for NTEs the pandemic presents similar challenges to the 2008 financial crisis. Seeking new assets, financial companies invested in the real estate market and sought opportunities to capitalize on the associated value generated by creative and night-time scenes. This trend intensified pressures over land use, led to a wave of closures of independent venues and prompted campaigns to “save nightlives” in cities across the globe.

Between 2005 and 2015, 44% of nightclubs in the UK closed. UCL researchers Professor Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall found that LGBTQ+ spaces have been particularly vulnerable to closures, with a decrease of 58% in London (down to 53 from 125). Looking at the total number of closures, a greater proportion of LGBTQ+ spaces open to BAME ceased to exist, exposing their greater vulnerability to dynamics of urban development and speculation.

The fragility of NTEs brought by land use pressures and lack of institutional support suggests that a second change needs to take place. National and city governments need support the creative economy more holistically.

The Night Time Industry Association (NTIA), a membership organisation representing thousands of small and medium enterprises forming the UK’s NTE, urged the government to provide specific support in the form of grants and job retention schemes.

With night-time accounting for 8% of the UK’s employment and revenues of £66b per annum, NTIA fears that failures to protect the sector will result in venues and supply chain facing permanent closure. Oxford Economics estimates that across the UK, the creative industries will lose 406,000 jobs, equal to 19% drop in employment.

Photographs: Alexander Macfarlane

As Richard Florida writes on Bloomberg CityLab, “the creative economy of art galleries, museums, theatres, and music venues, along with the artists, musicians, and actors who fuel them, is at dire risk. Cities must partner with other levels of government, the private sector and philanthropies to marshal the funding and expertise that is needed to keep their cultural scenes alive.”

Fortunately, many local governments recognize the importance of the NTE for the creative sector. Night-time mayors and commissions from Amsterdam to Berlin and from London to Los Angeles are keen to support its creative production industries and protect jobs. More specifically, they acknowledged that night-time activities, clubs and music venues need to be considered in their socio-economic environment, looking at how they intersect within and beyond the supply chains of the creative sector.

Take for instance the actions of the German federal government. The German ministry of culture supported the creative sector with a €50 billion aid package covering rentals and overheads for artists, self-employed and cultural businesses. An additional €10 billion was released in the form of social security support for individuals employed in the sector. The state initiative recognises that arts and culture are “vital and indispensable”, especially in the context of COVID-19.

Photograph: Alexander Macfarlane

Paul Pacifico, CEO of the Association of Independent Music UK, argues that “enforced isolation has also thrown into sharp relief the value of arts and culture to our mental health, wellbeing and ability to connect with other human beings whether or not we occupy the same physical space in that moment.” In this respect, arts and culture should be regarded as public goods on which people rely in times of need, Sound Diplomacy’s report Music Cities Resilience Handbook highlights.

In April 2020, another initiative was launched by VibeLab. The “Global Night-time Recovery Plan” aims to design a strategy for the recovery efforts of cities, reopening night-time venues in a safe and feasible manner. This global initiative is a collaborative call that will publish a practical guide on how to mitigate the challenges cities are facing.

These studies seek to determine the needs of the creative businesses and the value of NTEs for cities and their recovery. Research on the socio-cultural value of night-time highlights the importance of venues for community life and wellbeing. Failing to provide support will exacerbate inequalities further.

As I argued at the first NITE conference in May 2020, closures of night-time venues increase inequalities and undermine urban democracy. Issues of inequalities related to night-time are driven by ideas of economic democracy. Looking at night-time in this way, as a problem of equality and inequality, can provide a better framework to offset the negative impacts of COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, further research is needed to understand the impact of COVID-19 on night-time economies and inequalities in cities of the Global South.

Night-time activities – a theme that runs underground throughout the work of urban theorist AbdouMaliq Simone – are an integral part of the “popular economies” fabricating the social infrastructures of African, Asian and Latin American cities. Overlooking night-time, including in the context of COVID-19, may prevent scholars and practitioners to fully understand contemporary challenges of urban change and development.

Working remotely: Implications on the fate of smaller cities, towns and villages in the New economy.

By Naji P Makarem, on 5 June 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

This article is about imagining the future of smaller cities, towns and villages through the lens of economic geography three months into a global lock-down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Economic geography is a field of economics that aims to understand the ‘sorting’ of firms and workers across space as well as the evolution in the industrial structure of cities and regions, which determine the economic activities and per capita income of different places. It is a rich and sophisticated approach to understanding economic development, one that has been informing economic models with deep insights from economic sociology, political science and organisational theory for the past 100 years.

In the 1980s some scholars believed that technological change would mean the more even distribution of economic activities across space. Over the subsequent 4 decades quite the opposite has happened: Urbanisation and the concentration of people and economic activity in large mega-cities has increased, with larger cities coming out on average as the winners when measured in terms of per capita income (albeit not when measured in terms of inequality it must be noted).

It became sacrilege to imagine the resurgence of smaller cities, let alone that of towns and villages, as we look back at those early scholars who ‘had gotten it all wrong’.

In fact, the field reached such a strong theoretical understanding of the link between urbanisation and economic development that economic geographers and policy-makers accepted that inequality was inevitable and even good for unleashing the potential of large successful cities. Rebalancing spatial inequalities was best left to social welfare initiatives rather than wasting our time kidding ourselves about the economic potential of backward cities and towns. The EU thus changed its mission from ‘social cohesion policy’, trying to equalize per capita incomes across its regions, to implicitly accepting spatial inequality as inevitable, while boosting its large agglomerations at the expense of increased inter-regional inequality (Barca, 2009).

The forces that make big cities ‘winners’ in terms of economic growth, per capita income, innovation and productivity are known as agglomeration economies. They emerge from the size of their urban labour and consumer markets, the high demand for public services in densely populated areas (that reduces the per-capita cost of access to public services, utilities and amenities), lower-cost access to the inputs of other firms (the proximity of lawyers and traders and other business and financial services) and the interaction between people from different worlds or fields (the social ‘soup’ for creativity and innovation – cite Powell). These are known as ‘matching’, ‘sharing’ and learning’, the three agglomeration economies that attract people and firms to cities.

The larger the city, the more industries can reach critical mass, often in clusters within the city, unleashing further external economies of scale and scope within an increasingly diverse ‘kaleidoscope’ of clusters, thus increasing the probability of creative and innovative expression (It has been shown that more diverse places with greater generalised trust are indeed more innovative (Kemeny, 2012).

In reality however, if you read between the dots above and below the regression lines economists point to as evidence that cities are engines of economic growth (which on average they are, but not really), it becomes evident that in developed countries “big cities are not always the most dynamic engines of growth (Dijkstra et al. 2013) [and] in developing countries urbanisation without growth is increasingly the norm (Jedwab and Vollrath, 2015) as cited by Rodriguez-Pose in his article titled The revenge of places that don’t matter.

The dreams of scholars in the 1980s predicting the spread of economic activities, people and firms, across geography proved to be un-founded due to the agglomeration effects of propinquity and the interaction effects of face to face contact.

The technology however since then has evolved substantially and today we are 3 months into a global lock-down where almost all service industry jobs have been taken online through remote working from home, with 45% of workers expecting to work more flexibly after the lock-down.

This sudden shift to remote work seemed to me like a seamless shift given our online skills (most of us have chatted over WhatsApp and Skype before) but it was only after a few weeks that it really dawned on me that despite being computer savvy and comfortable with the internet, social media and working in cafes, I had transcended to a qualitatively different culture of working remotely because now everyone was doing it.

This cultural shift has its advantages: C02 emissions are down, traffic diminished considerably in our cities and I spent less money on coffees and sandwiches and ate more healthier home-cooked food. I also found myself engaging in more meetings (that no longer required long journeys on the tube) and generally being more productive while paradoxically feeling like I was on a summer holiday (the sunshine, river-walks and my balcony helped for sure). My conversations with friends, admittedly a privileged middle-class segment of the population in the service sector who had not lost their jobs, substantiated my intuition that the lock-down was being secretly enjoyed by those whose lives were not shattered by the virus.

I did feel that remote working had finally kicked into full force for the first time since the technologies for it were widely available over the past 10-15 years. What was needed was cultural change, which either happens over a very long period of time (North, 1981) or very rapidly due to a sudden shock or crisis.

This new way of working and the slow-paced lifestyle I have enjoyed makes me wonder, and I say this at the risk of heresy and ridicule in the field of economic geography: Is there a role for smaller cities, towns and villages in the new economy?

Local Economic Development (LED) strategies offer small cities, towns and villages the opportunity to achieve their potential. Locally-led bottom-up LED approaches to the challenges of urban economic development emerged in the 1990s as a response to fiscal austerity and demands for independence. Looking back, we have learnt a great deal about the perils of inter-jurisdictional competition with its dead-weight loss in the aggregate and the inability of many municipalities to engage in LED with stakeholders and catalyse economic development due to fiscal and capacity constraints. But we have also learnt that the places and communities that do organise across community boundaries, that develop a sense of shared identity and vision of the future and do so in a way that is realistic in light of their own circumstances and the changing world around them can achieve more inclusive and sustainable development (Rodriguez-Pose, 2002).

If we can replace a significant share of our regular face to face interaction with the occasional face to face interaction as a way to (socially) cement regular online interaction through webinars, meetings and other forums of interaction, with most service industry inputs and outputs being digital and if new technologies reduce the per capita costs of accessing amenities, public services and utilities, might the economic geographers of the early 1980s have actually been correct (albeit premature) in predicting the more even distribution of economic activities across space? And if so, what will villages and towns of the future look like? Can they unleash agglomeration economies and economic specialisation in a combination of spatial and digital interaction enabled by local economic development strategies and an emerging new culture of remote working?

I’ll leave you with these questions as I turn my attention back to the web page that inspired me to write this article in the first place.


Dr. Naji P. Makarem

Lecturer – Political Economy of Development

Program co-Leader – Msc. Urban Economic Development

Bartlett School’s Development Planning Unit (DPU) – UCL




Dijkstra, L, E Garcilazo, and P McCann (2013), “The economic performance of European cities and city regions: Myths and realities”, European Planning Studies 21(3): 334-354.


Frick, Susanne, and Rodriguez-Pose, A, (2018), “Big or small cities? On city size and economic growth”, Growth and Change, A journal or urban and regional policy, Volume 49, Issue 1 (March 2018). Access online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/grow.12232


Jedwab, R and D Vollrath (2015), “Urbanization without growth in historical perspective”, Explorations in Economic History 58: 1-21.


Kemeny, T, (2012), “Cultural Diversity, Institutions and Urban Economic Performance, Environment and Planning A; DOI: 10.1068/a44385 – access online: https://www.academia.edu/33968043/Cultural_Diversity_Institutions_and_Urban_Economic_Performance?auto=download


North D C, 1981, Structure and Change in Economic History (W. W. Norton, New York, NY)


Rodríguez-Pose, A (2018), “The revenge of the places that don’t matter (and what to do about it)”, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 11(1): forthcoming.


Rodríguez-Pose, A  (2002), “The role of the ILO in implementing local economic development strategies in a globalised world”, International Labour Organization, Geneva. Acess Online: https://www.ilo.org/empent/Publications/WCMS_111545/lang–en/index.htm


Has the pandemic reinforced what we know about disaster risk management?

By Cassidy A Johnson, on 29 May 2020

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

The possibility of emerging infectious diseases impacting on our societies is increasing, as our relationship with nature is changing due to climate change, land use change, and humans encroaching on the habitat of wild animals. Additionally, the global spread of emerging infectious diseases is more possible due to the increase in world travel, the global transport of food and intensive food production methods.

While this pandemic is still an ongoing emergency – it might be worthwhile to ask the question at this point – has the pandemic reinforced what we know about disaster risk management? The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction is the international blueprint for reducing risk and responding to disasters, and includes biological hazards in its considerations.

The difficulty in preparing properly for high impact/low frequency events. Pandemic usually tops the list of national risk registers as potential high-impact disaster event that we need to prepare for. Most countries have undertaken some kind of preparedness for pandemics, or other public health emergencies. The 2017 National Risk Register for the UK lists emerging infectious diseases as an unpredictable but potentially more frequent event (see figure 1 below).

We know that the more often an event happens, the more prepared we are for future events. However, preparing for an event that is high impact, low frequency is always more difficult, as the issue seems less pressing. It has been over 100 years since the last full-scale pandemic of the Spanish flu in 1918, and many countries have been left unprepared, with weak health systems and lack of political commitment to invest in prevention, or to place pandemics at the front and centre of preparedness.

As we have seen, the countries that have had more recent experiences in responding to epidemics have been better prepared. For example, Ebola in Sierra Leone and across West Africa, and SARS across East Asian countries has prepared the medical and governance systems for swift action. Medical professionals from Cuba helped to respond to Ebola in West Africa in 2014/15, and this experience has meant that Cuba has been quicker and better able to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic at home. Taiwan, a country that has was hard-hit by SARS, brought in checks on travellers from Wuhan in late December, a day after Hubei province public health reporting of a mystery, pneumonia-like illness. The integration of public health and disaster risk management fields is an important and emerging area of research.

The pandemic has shown how crucial national-level policy-making and strong leadership is to reduce disaster risks. The lock-down actions that have been taken – or not taken—by national governments across the world have changed the trajectory of the epidemics in their countries. Very unfortunately, those who have not taken swift action have seen more deaths.

Figure 1: An illustration of the hazards, diseases, accidents, and societal risks facing the United Kingdom, as of 2017. Source: National Risk Register, 2017.

Figure 1: An illustration of the hazards, diseases, accidents, and societal risks facing the United Kingdom, as of 2017. Source: National Risk Register, 2017.

The world’s population is only as strong as its weakest link. The pandemic has underscored that vulnerability is key variable in understanding risk to a pandemic, and that poverty is a key variable in vulnerability. Thus, addressing poverty, access to basic services and safe working conditions is the most important element in reducing the risks of pandemics, as well as host of other risks.

For example, The Office for National Statistics in the UK reported in early May 2020 that the most deprived areas of England and Wales have 55.1 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 25.3 in affluent areas. People working in lower-paid jobs are more likely to be exposed, due to needing to be at work, needing to travel to work, needing to use public transport to cover the distance from home to work. The death rate among Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups in the UK is 2.5 times that of white people, some of which may be related to higher levels of deprivation, or to exposure due to types of employment as frontline or key workers.

Outbreaks of Covid-19 among people who are unable to isolate themselves brings to fore poor living standards that people face on a daily basis.  Migrant workers in the gulf region exposes the harsh living conditions, and working conditions, that people face and how lack of rights exposes them unduly to a host of hazards, including Covid-19. In the cities were I usually do research, such as Kampala (Uganda), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Dhaka (Bangladesh), people living in informal settlements, who lack access to clean piped water, share toilets amongst many families, and share one room with several family members sharing are not able to self-isolate. The cash-based economy means money is needed to access basic supplies such as food, water, toilets, health care and electricity. As savings are quickly depleted, people are forced to go out to work, or wait for government or charity hand-outs, which have been very slow to come. Brutal lockdowns and police enforcement have made people more vulnerable to violence, as we have seen in India and Uganda.

The economic vulnerability of certain groups extends into the phased opening-up of society too, for example in Uganda, where they are starting to come out of a harsh lock-down. In Kampala, the capital city, driving a motorbike taxi (boda-boda) is a profession for many young men, however now this form of transport is not allowed due to social distancing measures (they can only carry packages).

The importance of risk information, and the role of science in assessing risk. Risk assessment and the role of science is a major aspect of the Sendai Framework. Many of the actions that have been taken to reduce the spread of the pandemic are related to modelling done by epidemiologists on how the virus will affect the population, and how different actions, such as social distancing, shielding the worst affected, use of masks, etc. will reduce the spread of the virus. This modelling contains many uncertainties that have to be communicated to decision-makers, and modelling requires the scientists to make a multitude of choices in developing the methodology, which may be influenced by their own cultural and personal perspectives. In order for politicians to make decisions, consensus is ideally required, based on many different epidemiological models, created by different scientists, and the sharing of methods and data.

The role of science in public policy making about Covid-19 is of crucial importance to tackling the pandemic, and the clarity upon which policy decisions are made has a massive influence on how the public perceives and acts on the policies. In the U.K. this has been a huge area of contention, with the public calling for a more transparent links between the science and policy decisions, including access to the minutes of the U.K. Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) meetings. This has led to the setting up of an independent SAGE group that publishes its advice publicly.

Local governments should be on the front-line. While the pandemic is a global event, the day-to-day management of protecting people’s health happens at the local level, and more local this is, the better it is adapted to people’s needs. For example, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, organised communities in the informal settlements have been working with public health officials to convey messages about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and communities have been feeding back about the challenges they face in doing so, it is with these dialogues that they have been able to tailor the messages and the needed actions

In the U.K. local level ‘resilience forums’, set up in 2004 include local councils and emergency services and respond to disasters on a regular basis. While in this crisis, they have the ability to play an important coordinating role, for example on supplying personal protective equipment to care home and other community settings, they have been beset by centralised control of information.  It is often the case in disasters that power and control reverts to the centre, and local governments are left out.


The pandemic has certainly reinforced some of the central tenants of our understanding of disasters. Those who are most vulnerable in our societies, due to depravations and lack of access to basic services are the most vulnerable to covid-19, as they are to other hazards; that serious planning by national governments are needed ahead of time to prepare for disasters; that science and local knowledge are all extremely important in assessing risks and taking-action. The role of science in informing public policy, and the transparency of decision-making is an ongoing area of research that will require greater scrutiny following this emergency.  While emerging infectious diseases will likely become more prevalent in the future, governments will become more attuned and more practiced at responding.