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Reflections from the frontline: Does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice? (Part 3)

By Nick Anim, on 24 April 2023

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

3.1: Environmental ‘activisting while Black’: Questions and conundrums


Within and between the world of mainstream environmental movements and me, there are ever many unasked or unanswered questions about race, wrapped in conundrums of justice, inside notions of common interests and collective visions for a world transformed. On the frontlines of environmental activism, those questions, conundrums, and notions can be tracked and traced in demands for ‘system(s) change, not climate change’, vociferous calls for ‘climate justice now’, and ubiquitous proclamations insisting ‘another world is possible’. What, exactly, do they all mean? For example, which systems are included in my fellow activists’ ideas about ‘system change’? What forms of justice constitute ‘climate justice’? If another world is to be made possible, what is the roadmap for getting there and, perhaps more importantly, who are the cartographers? How, why, and where do matters of race intersect with all those questions?

In this final piece of my three-part series looking at the contested relationship between environmental sustainability and social justice through the bifocal lens of my research and activism with various environmental movements, I offer some reflections guided by those sample questions. I do so in recognition of long-simmering tensions and emergent fault-lines amongst different groups of activists about the locations, hierarchies, and particular forms of justice in the vital interplay of causes, demands, tactics and grand visions that inform what I call ‘the soul-craft of a social movement’ – how any movement understands and frames its organising concerns, demands and tactics to address not just the direct drivers of its discontent, but also the root causes and other interrelated issues beyond.

Having previously looked at how the defiantly-positive Transition movement is now trying to proactively engage with growing queries about social justice in its community-based and solutions-focused approaches to environmental actionism, I now turn to focus on the unapologetically-disruptive Extinction Rebellion (XR), which has become one of the most prominent and influential environmental movements in recent years by using a kaleidoscope of non-violent direct action (NVDA) or ‘dilemma action’ (Sørensen and Martin, 2014) repertoires to arouse public consciousness, engage ‘the power of the powerless’ (Havel, 2009), and invigorate the necessary political debates and actions on the climate and ecological emergency that present a ‘code red for humanity’.

Here in the UK, XR recently embarked on a(nother) journey of critical self-reflection, re-examining its relationships with, and representations of, various forms of justice within its soul-craft. That process arose from sustained scrutiny and criticisms, both internal and external, about the perceived lack of proper or sufficient attention given to persistent and multidimensional matters of (in)justice by the movement since its inception in October 2018.

From the outset, XR presented three core demands to governments. First: Tell The Truth about the scale of the ecological crisis by declaring a climate emergency, and work with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change. Second: Act Now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. Third: Go ‘beyond politics’ to create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle the climate crisis (Rebellion, 2019). Infused in those three demands are far-reaching calls for ‘system(s) change’. The inescapable quandary, though, is, “how far-reaching is ‘far-reaching’?” My emphasis on ‘system(s)’ is a provocation to recall my earlier query about “which systems are included in ideas about system change” on the frontlines of contemporary mainstream environmental activism.

3.1.2: System(s) change: Beyond environmental spheres?

Environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening” — Chico Mendes

Environmental movements like XR are, by definition and ambitions, overwhelmingly preoccupied with the conservation of nature in perpetuity. Environmental sustainability is therefore typically understood and presented as a precondition for anything and everything. On that basis, most environmental movements have traditionally exhibited what is seen as an acutely limited engagement with class struggles and various concerns about justice that are seemingly not immediately connected to the major environmental spheres – the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, pedosphere, and lithosphere.

Answers, then, to questions about what is to be sustained in perpetuity are habitually formulated in relation to the environmental spheres. Accordingly, on the frontlines of contemporary mainstream environmental activism, the predominant demands for ‘system(s) change’ are articulated in terms of disrupting or upending the prevailing fossil fuel-based energy systems and networks of industries, corporations, institutions, and lifestyles that drive, or are known to be complicit in, the degradation and/or destruction of the environmental spheres. The inescapable question though is, what happens after we, for instance, ‘Insulate Britain’ or ‘Just Stop Oil’? Would any such symbolic policy change signify ‘mission accomplished’ for environmental movements?

It is certainly undeniable, a truism, that environmental sustainability is a precondition for anything and everything – and that, sadly, includes, for instance, class struggles, global injustice, social injustice, racial injustice, and various other persistent configurations of distributive and procedural injustice. Arguably, absent of a recognition and meaningful engagement with such struggles and injustices, any talk of system(s) change indicates a misunderstanding of the underlying system and a misdiagnosis of the problem. All too often, this leads to a prognosis that promises to change specific systems whilst keeping everything else the same – in short, a placebo. It is not enough, I would argue, to focus exclusively on sustaining the major environmental spheres without much broader analyses of justice concerns, including class struggles. Doing so betrays a strategically naked and/or elitist approach – compositional or demographic elitism, ideological elitism, and impact elitism.

At first glance, XR’s three demands appear to exemplify the elitist or exclusionary perspectives and approaches of traditional environmental movements; the principal focus is on achieving environmental sustainability. However, a closer examination of the demands, when taken together with a longitudinal analysis of the movement’s ‘soul-craft’, suggests that XR has a much broader agenda infused into its overarching ambitions for systems change. To wit, the movement’s untamed cries of crises, of emergency and of urgency, coupled with its unsanitised warnings of impending civilisational collapse, all of which are amplified by the language of ‘extinction’ in clarion calls for rebellion, imply that XR is not solely concerned with the environment, but about everything – this changes everything.

The suggestion that ‘this changes everything’, invites questions about the degree and/or nature of social transformation that XR and its activists are committed to. Are they talking about a tinkering or tweaking of the existing order, the status quo, or are they looking for far-reaching social, economic, and political changes beyond the environmental spheres? In other words, are they, or I should perhaps here say ‘are we’, talking about revolution or reform?

3.2: Kairos: XR and the choice between reform and revolution in social transformations

“It’s time to change the course of human history. We appear to be heading into what the ancient Greeks called Kairos, a window of opportunity, when our capacity for change is put to the test.” — David Wengrow

Notions of ‘revolution’ often invoke negative emotive forces associated with violence in the overthrow of an existing government and/or the prevailing social, economic, and political regime. In contrast, most references to ‘reform’ come with positive connotations of an improvement to the status quo (Nielsen, 1971). Since joining XR in April 2019, I have spoken with hundreds – 311 and counting – of my fellow activists and ‘Rebels’ during and between the movement’s biannual ‘Rebellions’, about their perceptions of ‘system change’ – as both a process and an outcome. Most activists expressed a tacit understanding that systems are constantly in flux, but the processes of change have been pushed and pulled in the wrong direction by the vested interests of a few elites – elite capture (Táíwò, 2022). ‘Elites’ in this context can best be described as the oilgarchy and oligarchy whose pervasive and/or unchecked economic powers have been increasingly blended into the politics of statecraft, thereby distorting democratic mandates to advance their corporate and individual self-interests – resulting in what the political theorist Sheldon Wolin referred to in his book Democracy Incorporated as an ‘inverted totalitarianism’; in part a state-centred phenomenon that primarily represents “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry” (Wolin, 2017).

Given that understanding, my questions about perceptions of system(s) change elicited diverse and, in some cases, divergent responses relating to both processes and outcomes. On the possible processes, perspectives offered ranged from a spectrum of national democratic changes centred on notions of participatory democracy, to the rather more radical and internationally-focused anti-oppression and liberatory consciousness advocates who insist that the existing interrelated national and international routes for change are woefully inadequate to bring about the deep structural – local and global – transformations needed to address the root causes of the crises. As Audre Lorde (2003) said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

In terms of envisioned outcomes, opinions ranged from improvements to the insulation of all social housing – Insulate Britain – to no new fossil fuel licences in the UK – Just Stop Oil – as well as a growing volume of anti-state perspectives advocating for a borderless world – ‘No borders, No nations, Stop deportations!’

Within and beyond the reformist and radical viewpoints, and indeed the various shades of grey in between, there are numerous ‘Rebels’ who are “mad as hell”, and lean towards Andreas Malm’s (2021) “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” provocation, which suggests that strategic property sabotage is the only viable route to revolutionary change. For those so-inclined, the roll-call of disappointments – following decades-long appeals, campaigns, and mass street protests, as well as the countless international agreements, accords, protocols, and development goals that emerge as inconsequential from lobbyists-infested meetings such as the, to date, 27 Conference of the Parties (COP) gatherings – justifies sabotaging, even if only symbolically, the properties of corporations and institutions linked with the fossil fuel industry.

However, against the backdrop of increasing state repression, any acts of sabotage, and for that matter civil-disobedience, that seek to disrupt business-as-usual with the intention of disrupting the unsustainable trajectories of business-as-usual, are being met with tougher punishments including unlimited fines and/or imprisonment. In spite of those threats, the moral imperative to rebel continues to drive many activists.

For XR, the moral imperative to rebel remains because despite the clear and present danger, the ‘code-red for humanity’, that the climate and ecological emergency presents to current and future generations, particularly in countries of the Global South that have been least responsible for causing the crises, the dirigiste state’s environmental policies continue to be mediated and tamed by GDP growth-fetishism, and delimited by pliable politicians shaped by lobbyists and opinion polls in the vagaries of sado-populism (Snyder, 2018) and, additionally, the short-termism of Party-manifestos within the circus of electioneering cycles that position elections as the defining feature of any modern democracy – electoral fundamentalism (Van Reybrouck, 2018).

To that point, we may recall here that XR’s third demand is for governments to go ‘beyond politics’ to create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle the climate crisis. That demand, I believe, harbours considerable revolutionary potential. It is borne of a recognition that the highly-managed and money-saturated variants of representative democracy here in the UK and elsewhere around the world are, effectively, not fit for purpose in terms of representing the diverse interests and welfare of people and planet.

Yes, XR’s third demand, as with the first two, has been seen and criticised as being too narrowly focused on the climate and ecological crises as sine qua non for social transformations. In that respect, when I first joined the movement, I thought the founders – all ‘White by law’ (Lopez, 1997) – in formulating the demands, had chosen, as environmental movements usually do, to contest just the direct drivers of their discontent, but not the root causes and other interrelated issues beyond. If that was the case, then I suspected the demands could, on the one hand, be easily co-opted by the government and institutions paying lip-service – essentially green-washing – all the while maintaining fealty to business-as-usual – plus ça change. On the other hand, I feared the demands may even be hijacked to further eco-fascist agendas, given the current political currents of identity politics and sado-populism (Snyder, 2018) in politics feeding into and being fed by growing ethnonationalism and social polarisation.

From my background of racial, social, and global justice activism, and my critical analyses approaches steeped in the traditions of UCL’s Development Planning Unit, the climate and ecological emergency is understood as symptomatic not of a broken system, but, rather, of a system working exactly as designed; religiously pushing to its limits, and resiliently fulfilling, the ideological intents and purposes of a certain demographic – elite capture (Táíwò, 2022). Applying that perspective, I thought the demands could have been formulated as follows:

  • Tell the Truth, the whole truth – the science, the histories, and the geographies – about the scale of the ecological and inequality crises by declaring a climate and inequality emergency, and work across institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
  • Act Now to halt biodiversity loss, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to real zero by 2025, and announce policies to address the growing income and wealth inequality.
  • Go ‘beyond politics’ to create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle the climate and ecological emergency, as well as the growth in inequality.

Despite my initial reservations about the absence of explicit references to inequality or justice concerns in XR’s demands, I found the movement, across the various camps during the April 2019 ‘Rebellion’, quite compelling. From the audaciously-sited pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus, to the transformation of Waterloo Bridge into a garden bridge complete with 47 trees and countless potted plants, and from the various presentations, workshops, talks, music and dance around the Marble Arch encampment, to the localised Citizens’ Assemblies held in Parliament Square, the movement seemed to present and represent, even but for a fleeting moment of untamed utopian imaginaries, something of a revolution in motion. The sublime madness of some 10,000 or so fellow activists convivially reclaiming public spaces, making their voices heard, and engaging in various radical and experimental practices of deliberative democracy and mutual aid, whilst contributing absolutely nothing whatsoever to the production of any profit, embodied Henri Lefebvre’s (1968) call to imagine “the reversal of the current situation, by pushing to its limits the converted image of the world upside down” – ‘The Right to the City’ manifested.

However, within and between the conviviality of the different sites there was, notably, an issue I often refer to as a ‘diversity deficiency syndrome’, which seems, in part at least, to define mainstream environmental movements and organisations. That is to say there is a persistent scarcity of people like me – ‘openly Black’ (see, CB4, 1993) – in environmental spaces. This has long been recognised and criticised, mostly through the prism of ‘privilege’, as being symptomatic of wider pathologies of systemic racism that are systematised via unequal power relations. Beyond the usual proliferation of what sometimes appears perfunctory or perhaps ‘à la mode’ but nevertheless noteworthy criticisms, my longitudinal research into the perennial challenges of diversity and inclusion in environmental movements, reveals that the issue is highly complicated, with dynamic social, economic, and political dimensions in causal relationships, which constantly interact with one another in some unpredictable ways that make it resistant to optimal resolutions. In short, it is what is called a ‘wicked problem’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

In lieu of the publication of my research findings and analyses, it suffices for me to say, in this final ‘reflections from the frontline’, that contemporary environmental movements such as XR have, in general, acknowledged the significance and implications of the issue, and are trying, even if somewhat clumsily at times, to better understand and address the multidimensional nature of demands related to it. That is evidenced in XR’s ‘soul-craft’.

3.3: The ’Soul-Craft’ of XR

Recall here, my earlier conceptualisation of a movement’s ‘soul-craft’ as being ‘how any movement understands and frames its organising concerns, demands and tactics to address not just the direct drivers of its discontent, but also the root causes and other interrelated issues beyond’. That conceptualisation draws from and builds on what the renowned philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West articulates as “the formation of attention that gets us to attend to the things that matter, not [just] the things on the surface” (Cunningham, 2018).

Yes, XR’s organising concerns, demands and tactics centre on addressing the climate and ecological crises. However, we must note here, in considering the movement’s soul-craft, that, from the outset, the founders were aware of and understood the multidimensional nature of their concerns. That is to say they recognised that the climate and ecological emergency, the direct drivers of their discontent and ire, are but the surfaced symptoms of an exploitative and ultimately unsustainable socio-economic system deeply rooted in and evolving from the histories, geographies, and politics of imperialism’s many crimes. More recently, those crimes have been camouflaged and channelled through a seemingly unfettered rise of corporate power and predatory capital(ism) propelled by transnational market forces to reach into the Earth’s most remote corners. To paraphrase the noted geographer and anthropologist Neil Smith (2010), from his book ‘Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space’, capital stalks the Earth in search of material resources; and to that end, no part of the Earth – the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, pedosphere, and lithosphere – is immune from transformation by capital and its vast spectrum of attendant isms including, but not limited to, colonialism, extractivism, market fundamentalism, materialism, consumerism, nationalism and protectionism.

Crucially, in relation to my introductory remarks, the founders of XR acknowledged how and why, in their formation of attention to attend to the things that matter regarding the climate and ecological emergency, issues of uneven development and disproportionate impacts highlight questions about race that are inextricably wrapped in conundrums of justice inside notions of common interests and collective visions for a world transformed. Although being quite well-versed and attuned to the multifaceted correlations between matters of race and environmentalism, the founders sought, like all movements ought, to build solidarity across differences with some seasoned activists and groups that bring the necessary but oft-marginalised voices of Global South concerns and resistance to inform a justice focus on, and greater understanding of, the histories, geographies, and politics of imperialism old and new – we cannot heal what we do not understand. By fostering solidarity through shared critical analyses of the dominant social, economic, and political systems, they engaged in meaningful dialogues around radically different perspectives and practices from all over the world that offer an environmentally sustainable and socially just vision of the world transformed. ‘Unity without uniformity’ thus drives the pluriverse approach championed via the vital work of the Extinction Rebellion Internationalist Solidarity Network (XRISN) and affiliated groups.

Taken together with the demand for a Citizens’ Assembly that seeks to go ‘beyond politics’ in order to transcend the pathological partisanship that has come to define contemporary politics, ideas about building solidarity across differences, unity without uniformity, and pluriversality in XR’s soul-craft, all suggest that if another world, a better world, is to be made possible, the cartographers of the roadmap for getting there must be ‘the people’. Therein lies the revolutionary kernel in XR. All power to the people to ‘fight the power’ (Enemy, 1989).

The revolutionary potential or fervour imbued in any movement’s soul-craft does not begin with questions about what is practical. Rather, it is nurtured by asking what is right. Intrinsic to the formation and evolution of XR’s soul-craft, are constant deliberations about what is right in terms of particular tactics and targets pursued by the movement. This drives the concerted exposé of, and unrelenting attacks on, the various wrongs of corporate power and the egregious abuses of government power that bring to light issues of democratic deficits hidden in plain sight. Since the movement’s most notable and, perhaps arguably, most impactful ‘Rebellion’ in April 2019, XR’s actions have increasingly targeted fossil fuel companies and numerous public and private institutions that enable them, as well as mainstream media establishments that fail to convey the truth, urgency and gravity of the climate and ecological crises, clandestine anti-climate lobby groups, and organisations with historic and ongoing ties to the endurance of extractivism and other forms of exploitation that not only represent but intentionally perpetuate the proclivities of overproduction and overconsumption, growth-fetishism, and imperialism.

From a systems analysis point of view, the specific targets chosen by XR for direct action interventions, represent what the environmental scientist Donella Meadows (1999) and other systems thinkers conceptualise as ‘leverage points’ – places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can activate or produce big changes in everything. Leverage points are key points of power. Notwithstanding the disproportionate and undue influence of elites and corporations in the policy-making decisions and agendas of government(s) pursuant to addressing the urgency of the climate and ecological emergency, the most important leverage point in any properly functioning democracy should, logically, be ‘the people’. In that context, XR has sought to raise awareness to shift the mindsets and paradigms out of which the socio-political and economic systems’ goals, power structures, rules, and culture arise and are legitimised.

As well as targeting the leverage points represented by certain government institutions, companies, and organisations, XR is well-known for its repertoires of public disruptions. These include, for example, the blocking of roads and bridges, and, quite often, activists locking-on or gluing themselves to various structures, thereby inviting police arrest and subsequent engagement with the criminal justice system. Although such ‘dilemma action’ (Sørensen and Martin, 2014) tactics have been effective in gaining widespread publicity and stimulating important dialogues about the cause across different sections of society, research suggests that they – the disruptive protest tactics – often undermine popular support for any movement due to reduced feelings of emotional connection and social identification with the movement.

That said, and despite varying types of cost to some individual activists and indeed public perceptions of the movement as a whole, XR has, until very recently, been unyielding about sounding the ‘code red for humanity’ alarm not through the ‘practical’ – tried, tested, and failed – routes of marches, petitions, and letters to MPs, but by deploying the ‘right’ repertoires of public disruptions and dilemma actions deemed commensurate with the existential threats that the climate and ecological emergency presents for current and future generations. Whilst that has caused much consternation amongst some sections of the public, evidence from a variety of polls suggests that the message is getting through (Corner et al., 2020). That is to say, in recent years there has been a remarkable shift in the British public’s perceptions towards greater awareness and apprehension about the different risks and impacts associated with the climate and ecological emergency. That shift, it would appear, closely correlates with the emergence and ‘impossible to ignore’ activities of XR – and, of course, other contemporary movements such as the youth-led Fridays For Future (FFF), and their vociferous demands for climate justice.

Illustration Amelia Halls (@amelia_halls)

Quite clearly, there is something of a symbiotic, albeit somewhat fraught and often fragile, relationship between XR’s disruptive protest actions and attracting broad public support. Cultivating a critical mass of awareness, and by logical extension support, has always been a strategic goal in the movement’s quest for ‘tipping points’ towards multi-level and deep societal transformations. However, amid unsettled debates about the percentage of the population needed to achieve that tipping point goal, there are underlying questions about how to convert awareness into concern through a greater understanding of interconnected issues, and then converting concern into a significant support base who are willing to coalesce in civic actions – not necessarily civil disobedience or direct actions associated with XR – that could help to disrupt the unsustainable trajectories of business-as-usual.

Whilst those debates and questions have been oscillating since the emergence of the movement, we should perhaps consider, as XR activist Nuala Gathercole Lam (2021) argues, “So what if Extinction Rebellion isn’t popular? We’re protesting to bring about change, and it’s working”. Similarly, as psychology professor Colin Davis (2022) of the University of Bristol has pointed out, “people may ‘shoot the messenger’, but they do – at least, sometimes – hear the message.” That succinctly captures the idea of “the activist’s dilemma”, wherein disruptive actions that raise awareness also tend to diminish popular support.

On that note, an inescapable quandary for us to keep in mind is how public opinions of XR’s disruptive actions might influence political agendas and the course of government decisions or policies. Two key questions arise. First, do such actions that raise awareness likewise increase public support for more urgent climate action from the government? Second, and relatedly, do disruptive protest actions increase public backing for greater police powers and the introduction of draconian measures to discourage such protests? A necessary reflection when grappling with those two questions is the role of the media in steering public narratives. If power is, as often thought, the ability to control what happens, then real power is controlling what and how people think about what happens.

The reciprocal nexus between disruptive protest actions, public perceptions, the media, government policies, and the police and criminal justice system, takes on a different hue and cry when viewed through the prism of race matters. In the overarching context of questioning environmental sustainability’s problematic relationship with social justice, and more specifically my inquiry in this section into how matters of race intersect with the formation and evolution of tactics in XR’s soul-craft, it is noteworthy that among the criticisms from certain sections of the public about the movement’s use of disruptive actions, XR has also been periodically rebuked, and in a few cases even ‘cancelled’, by some movements representing racially marginalised people’s interests, for being insufficiently attentive to the things that matter in what W. E. B. Dubois (2015) called ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. In our current era, the things that matter in the ‘souls of Black folk’ includes the near-constant drumbeat and reminders of institutional racism and durable inequalities within and beyond the police and criminal justice system. Hence, a backdrop of social injustices foregrounds the ‘hostile environment’ viewpoints of many Black, Brown, and ‘othered’ people in the UK.

In the unsettled multiculturalisms of Occidental countries such as the UK, ideas about ‘appropriate adaptations in a hostile environment’ mediate the everyday life experiences and conduct of many Black and Brown people. A major consideration in that regard are the disproportionately negative interactions and outcomes with the police and criminal justice system. Consequently, for a variety of groups representing different interests of racially marginalised people, any possibilities of coalescing with XR were stillborn in the widely-publicised moments of the movement’s activists declaring love for the police during the April 2019 Rebellion (Campfire, 2019). Additionally, the fact that XR’s brand, to date, has been in part shaped by and seen as inviting arrest, has tended to reinforce some perceptions of privileged ignorance (Wretched of The Earth, 2019). That, of course, calls into question, as outlined in my opening remarks and provocations, fundamental notions of common interests and collective visions for a world transformed.

The more people identify with the soul-craft of a movement, the more they are inclined to join that movement. Put differently, unless the organising concerns, demands, visions and tactics that determine a movement’s soul-craft collectively and positively resonate with people, they may support the cause but will not join the course. Accordingly, as Assata Shakur, a political activist in the USA with the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army in the 1970s once said:

“No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with the times. If it isn’t growing, if it’s stagnant, and without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is. That’s why the political work and organizing are so important.” 

3.3.1: This is the work

Being a radically decentralised leaderless movement as XR is, can sometimes frustrate the pace of decision-making processes needed to help advance any tactical reorientation and organising to help build solidarity across differences. Nevertheless, in the past year, after much internal deliberation ever since I joined, the movement has undergone what I think are two significant changes worth highlighting here as I begin to draw towards my conclusion.

First, after countless meetings, workshops, conversations, and agonising debates about understanding the justice conundrum and how best to explicitly situate and communicate it within a revision of the movement’s demands, a decision was finally reached. The preamble to the revised demands clearly illustrates that XR is not just a movement solely focused on environmental sustainability, but is also “rooted in love, care and a fundamental commitment to climate justice”. Further, the preamble emphasises that “In the UK, we bear a particular responsibility to the Global Majority, and acknowledge and support the incredible work of the many organisations specialising in the specific issues related to justice”. However, despite the justice-turn in the revised demands, the decision not to include a fourth demand specifically about justice proved to be a point of considerable distress, a deal-breaker, for some activists – of all colours, but most pertinently some racially marginalised activists – who subsequently decided to withdraw or reduce their participation, citing irreconcilable differences.

The second significant change by the movement, is a recent “controversial resolution to temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic”. Perhaps even more so than the revision of the demands briefly sketched above, that decision signifies a radical departure from XR’s brand, which I earlier described as ‘unapologetically-disruptive’. For various reasons, not least of which is an authoritarian-turn by the government marked by an increasingly repressive approach to many forms of protest, the movement will, for now at least, “prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks”. To that end, and as I write, XR has facilitated the coalescence of a ‘movement of movements’ – The Big One – which has involved building solidarity networks across over two hundred social, environmental, and justice campaign groups, movements, and unions – Unite To Survive. The aim is to become even more impossible to ignore by encouraging a hundred thousand supporters to peacefully occupy the public spaces in and around the epicentre of politics and government power. This strategic pivot from the movement’s established public disruption tactics, has been criticised by some seasoned activists who argue that the urgency of the climate and ecological emergency, coupled with the government’s record of inaction, demands more, not less, disruptive actions.

We should note here that as, over years, a certain level of familiarity and, inevitably, staleness have gradually crept into the multi-level impacts of XR due to the repetition of disruptive repertoires, questions about the movement’s own sustainability have arisen. In that context, many studies of radical environmental movements suggest that they rarely last more than a few years, even if the reasons for their discontent and emergence remain just as urgent. As I suggested in a presentation to the movement’s Strategy Assembly in February 2021, social movement theory indicates that XR was, at the time of my presentation, at a crucial stage wherefrom there were at least seven possible, but not mutually exclusive, outcomes: success, failure, fragmentation, co-optation, repression, stagnation, or going mainstream – which would require aborting the movement’s distinguishing repertoires of public disruptions in order to garner greater support from the general public, and build a broader coalition of interests. In many ways, I would argue, the movement has succeeded. All its demands have been met, albeit severely compromised adoptions, by the government. Most crucially, public awareness about the climate and ecological emergency has increased exponentially since XR’s emergence despite, or perhaps even because of, the repressive actions of the State. Therefore, the resolution to temporarily shift from public disruptions is, I suggest, not only timely, but altogether wise. It should address some of the glaring blind spots in the movement’s determination to reconcile its environmental sustainability aims with a broad range of social justice concerns.

3.4: Conclusion: We cannot heal what we do not understand

In this three-part series questioning the relationship between environmental sustainability and social justice, I have presented a snapshot of my longitudinal research on the perennial challenges of inclusion and diversity in environmental movements as a way of problematising and interrogating that relationship. Drawing on my research experiences at UCL’s Development Planning Unit, the underlying consideration that has driven my journey is the fundamental question about development: What is development? At the heart of that deceptively simple question, are some of the most basic but deep philosophical reflections about ‘the human condition’: What is the meaning of life? What does it mean to be human? Who are we to each other? How best can we organise ourselves to collectively thrive on this finite planet, knowing that our journey is limited and, in many cases, riddled with durable inequalities and uncertainties?

Given the persistent absence or failure of adequate multi-level governance responses to some of the most pressing problems in contemporary development thinking, planning, and practice, a brief study of recent human history across space and time tells us that collective action has always played a vital role in resolving a myriad of intractable societal issues. In that respect, social movements have been absolutely instrumental in driving some of the most important and positive social transformations in modern times, including independence from colonial rule, universal suffrage, civil rights, and much more.

In many ways, then, we can think of social movements as somewhat prophetic. That is to say they `speak before’ to announce what is taking shape even before its direction and detailed contents have become clear. They can be seen as thermostats shaping the climate of socio-political changes that are yet to be, and yet must be. Whilst many of our lobbied and pliant politicians tend to check the temperature of polling data before declaring what their deepest convictions are, movements like XR force issues out into the open, onto the streets, infiltrating the attention marketplace and opinion corridors with particular demands for transformative change. The success, failure, or indeed the degree of change achieved by any movement, often depends on interlinked dynamics between various factors such as the production of space and time, resource mobilisation, and the political opportunities that foreground their emergence and operations.

Moreover, with the current social and political currents increasingly being fuelled by identity politics, culture wars and, relatedly, the weaponisation of ‘belonging and othering’, ‘us versus them’, one of the foremost challenges and determinants of success or failure for environmental movements like XR, involves reaching beyond the low hanging fruit or echo chambers of ideologues in order to achieve the critical ‘mass factor’ necessary to trigger the tipping points for regime change in socio-political conventions. In that context, the inescapable conundrum that all movements must grapple with, is how to build and maintain solidarity within, with and between different interest groups, without fatally compromising the core cries and demands of each group. A successful coalescing of groups, then, should begin not by seeking to erase, circumvent or dilute differences, but, rather, by recognising, respecting, honouring, and appreciating differences. XR has come a long way in doing that.

The movement has been, encouragingly, attentive to the different justice demands of other non-aligned groups. To that point, we should note here that justice is a multifaceted ideal and, consequently, as I have frequently highlighted in various spaces and conversations within the movement, it can be quite cumbersome to specify and then amalgamate different types and hierarchies of justice into the specific demands of environmental movements. Thus, whilst numerous theories of justice – beyond the immediate scope of my enquiry in this piece – have been debated and advanced over many centuries by a number of notable philosophers, the relatively recent concept of climate justice has been profusely adopted by the current generation of mainstream environmental movements such as XR and the youth-led Fridays For Future.

“What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? NOW!!!”

What, though, is the justice demand in climate justice? An array of formations exist, perhaps best encapsulated by the demand that “polluters must pay”. Imbued in that phrase are three fundamental formulations of justice: justice as recognition, distributive justice, and procedural justice. Within and beyond those three forms of justice that frame ‘climate justice’ as a demand, the concept has become something of an empty signifier that is sufficiently capacious and user-friendly enough to suggest that the demands of environmental sustainability can be reconciled with the quest for all iterations of social justice. As the British MP David Lammy (2020) explained:

“The climate crisis is in a way colonialism’s natural conclusion. The solution is to build a new coalition made up of all the groups most affected by this emergency. Climate justice is linked to racial justice, social justice, [and] intergenerational justice”.

The links between historic and ongoing forms of colonialism and the climate and ecological emergency have now been recognised (IPCC, 2022), and are broadly accepted. In that context, capitalism alone cannot explain the racial inequities produced by the twinned crises. Colonial and racial capitalism can help us develop a better understanding of the origins, dimensions, and impacts of the crises. Put differently, and as I have often discussed with fellow activists, if we do not understand the idea of racial capitalism – how it started, what it is and how it works in our current era (Kelley, 2017) – then everything we think we know about the climate and ecological emergency will only confuse us, and the possible solutions that we propose in our activism, will most likely be futile.

The Green New Deal, as currently proposed and widely understood, supported, and promoted by many contemporary environmental movements and progressive politicians, offers, as has been pointed out by Jasper Bernes (2019), a promise to change everything while keeping everything the same – a placebo.

Any truly just and sustainable solution to the ‘code red for humanity’ requires us to recognise and understand the stratification of global and local societies – world systems analysis (Wallerstein, 2004). More pointedly, any/all solutions, I would suggest, should take as their starting point, the perspectives of racialised and colonised communities. We cannot heal what we do not understand.

Thankfully, there is a rich corpus of literature from marginalised scholars to help us; for example, from the Black feminists Anna Julia Cooper, bell hooks, and Mariame Kaba, postcolonial thinkers like Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Arundhati Roy, Indigenous scholars such as Vine Deloria Jr., Winona LaDuke, and Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo, and the liberatory consciousness and critical social theories from the Black radical traditions of resistance evidenced in the works of Cedric Robinson, W. E. B. Dubois, and numerous others.

On that note, just as I began this final offering of my ‘reflections from the frontlines’, I now close by invoking, through paraphrasing, the sentiments of W. E. B. Dubois in his landmark book ‘The Souls of Black Folk’.

Between me and the world of mainstream environmental movements and activists, there are ever many unasked questions: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way during or between protests and meetings, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then cautiously enquire, “how can we attract more Black and Brown people into our movement?”, or they say something like “I wish there were more people like you in our movement”. Sometimes, after a little discussion, some reveal in exasperation, “we have tried and tried to get them to join us, but they won’t”. Others imply, after several conversations, that ‘race as a focal point for considering matters of environmental sustainability, means that we fixate on differences instead of similarities, which does not lead to what Martin Luther King Jr called The Beloved Community’. At these I smile, and remain focused. To the real question, “What if justice, particularly social justice and racial justice, are distractions that are getting in the way?” I answer seldom a word, for I know that we cannot heal what we do not understand. Justice is key.

I also know that no movement in history has ever been perfect, and the mélange of activists that make up any movement are not perfect either. As Cornel West so often reminds us, “we are all cracked vessels, trying to love our crooked neighbours with our crooked hearts”.

We cannot talk about climate change without acknowledging the sciences of climate change. We cannot acknowledge the sciences of climate change without looking into the histories of climate change. And we cannot look at the histories of climate change without seeing the geographies of catastrophes mapped out on what the United Nations General Secretary António Guterres has referred to as “an atlas of human suffering”. That atlas makes apparent the enduring prominence of race matters and matters of injustice in what I call ‘the necropolitics of climate change’.

Meaning what?

Meaning that is the title and subject of my next blog. See you soon.


Recommended reading, listening, viewing, and visiting

Bernes, J., 2019. Between the Devil and the Green New Deal. Commune. Issue 2, Spring 2019. Accessed via:


Campfire, C., 2019. Police, We Love You, We’re Doing It For Your Children Too. Accessed via: https://youtu.be/uAH3AkuNCO8

CB4., 1993. – I’m Black, Y’all! Scene. Accessed via: https://youtu.be/Y_21Agi0t8I

Corner, A., Demski, C., Steentjes, K. and Pidgeon, N., 2020. Engaging the public on climate risks and adaptation: A briefing for UK communicators. Accessed via:


Cunningham, P. 2018. In keynote address, Cornel West urges integrity, action, and ‘soulcraft’. Yale News online. First published 5 February 2018. Accessed via:


Davis, C. 2022. Just Stop Oil: do radical protests turn the public away from a cause? Here’s the evidence. The Conversation online, First published 21 October 2022. Accessed via:


Du Bois, W.E.B. and Marable, M., 2015 [1903]. Souls of black folk. Routledge. Accessed via:


Enemy, P., 1989. Fight the power. Def Jam Recordings—Let the People Speak. Accessed via: https://youtu.be/mmo3HFa2vjg

Graeber, D. and Wengrow, D., 2021. The dawn of everything: A new history of humanity. Penguin UK.

Havel, V., 2009. The power of the powerless (Routledge revivals): Citizens against the state in central-eastern Europe. Routledge.

IPCC., 2022. Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Working Group III Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Accessed via:


Kelley, R.D., 2017. What did Cedric Robinson mean by racial capitalism? Boston Review12, p.2017. Accessed via:


Lam, N. G., 2021. So what if Extinction Rebellion isn’t popular? We’re protesting to bring about change and it’s working. Independent Newspaper online. First published 01 September2021. Accessed via:


Lammy, D., 2020. Climate justice can’t happen without racial justice. TED Talks. First published 13 October 2020. Accessed via: https://youtu.be/EkIpeO1r0NI

Lefebvre, H. 1996 [1968]. ‘The right to the city’, in H. Lefebvre, Writings on Cities. Ed. and Trans. E. Kofman and E. Lebas, pp. 63–184. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Lopez, I.H., 1997. White by law: The legal construction of race (Vol. 21). NYU Press.

Lorde, A., 2003. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Feminist postcolonial theory: A reader25, p.27. Accessed via:


Malm, Andreas. How to blow up a pipeline. Verso Books, 2021.

Meadows, D., 1999. Leverage points. Places to Intervene in a System19. Accessed via:


Nielsen, K., 1971. On the choice between reform and revolution. Inquiry14(1-4), pp.271-295. Accessed via:


Rebellion, E., 2019. This is not a drill: An extinction rebellion handbook. Penguin UK.

Rittel, H.W. and Webber, M.M., 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences4(2), pp.155-169.

Sørensen, M.J. and Martin, B., 2014. The dilemma action: Analysis of an activist technique. Peace & Change39(1), pp.73-100.

Smith, N., 2010. Uneven development: Nature, capital, and the production of space. University of Georgia Press.

Snyder, T., 2018. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Crown.

Táíwò, O.O., 2022. Elite capture: How the powerful took over identity politics (and everything else). Haymarket Books.

Van Reybrouck, D., 2018. Against elections. Seven Stories Press.

Wallerstein, I., 2004. World-systems analysis, in world system history. Ed. Modelski, George. Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS). Oxford: Eolss.

Wolin, S.S., 2017. Democracy incorporated. In Democracy Incorporated. Princeton University Press.

Wretched of The Earth, 2019. An open letter to Extinction Rebellion. Red Pepper. Accessed via: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/an-open-letter-to-extinction-rebellion/


**VISIT: Kairos, The Bookroom, Essex Hall, 1-6 Essex Street, London WC2R 3HY


The invisible burden of care work: women as producers of sanitation infrastructures

By Namita Kyathsandra, on 22 March 2023


Focus Development Association – Madagascar


This blog was written as part of the Learning Alliance between the OVERDUE project and the DPU’s MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development. Namita is a recent graduate of this MSc programme (2021/22), and her reflections on gendered sanitation infrastructures were produced in a module that tackles issues of environment and sustainable development in practice.

“It should be socially acceptable for women to wear diapers since we don’t have the freedom to urinate wherever we wish, as the men do

A frustrated aunt exclaimed during an 8-hour road trip when all the women in the car had to pee but could not, for the lack of toilets on Indian highways. The men, who had stopped multiple times since, to relieve themselves laughed off my aunt’s loud rumination.

I wondered why it was more intuitive for her to think of diapers before wishing for more toilets, in her moment of frustration. A redundant question, as I already knew that accessible, safe, and hygienic toilets for women along Indian highways are a utopian expectation.

Photo: A. Allen


It was after several such experiences that I realised that cities are not designed by or for women. The lack of toilets, streetlights, and accessible transport renders the urban space easier for the men to occupy and challenging for the women to navigate.

The simple fact that I, despite my privilege, often resorted to “disciplining my body” (Kulkarni, O’Reilly and Bhat, 2017)during road trips as a coping mechanism for the lack of decent toilets reveals the extent of the predicament faced by those from marginalised classes and vulnerable communities – their embodied and lived experiences made more adverse by their female bodies. The sociocultural notions of shame and modesty, purity and pollution and the stigmatization attached to bodily processes of women such as menstruation and excretion invisibilises their material and infrastructural needs thereby perpetuating themselves.

Thus far, my lived experiences around sanitation as a woman were always from the perspective of a user. Learning from, and with our partners in Mwanza and St. Louis, I discovered the significant role women play as the providers and producers of essential sanitation infrastructures. It was one thing to read an article about bodies as urban infrastructures (Truelove and Ruszczyk, 2022) as part of my coursework, and a completely surreal experience to witness it In real-time, through fieldwork informed by real women.

“The women carry the entire burden of sanitation, especially during the winter months. The women here help the men here, no sanitation, no pipes, the women empty the water”

acknowledged a man from the Focus Group Discussion conducted in Saint-Louis, Senegal.

Flipping the coin to view women as providers of sanitation, was a revelation. I realised how easily we dismiss women’s role in shaping urban processes specifically in water and sanitation although they are present in every sphere. It is the women who fetch the water and clean the toilets, filling the infrastructural gaps left by the governments. But they are hidden actors, their roles overlooked and under-represented.

‘Gender is not just a lens but a valuable analytical tool’ is an essential insight that I have gained through this journey. I realised it is like stained glass – look at your immediate world through it and what you will see is a different version – a different hue, a deeper saturation, set against a different mosaic.

Photo: P. Hofmann

In Africa, women perform a large bulk of care work involving activities like cleaning, cooking, and childcare. However, in the absence of effective sewerage systems in Mwanza and St. Louis, by performing sanitation work bracketed as ‘care work,’ women become the wardens and custodians of the sanitation chain. They perform the roles of essential urban sanitation infrastructures and are responsible for the maintenance of shared household toilets. They clean the toilets and empty the pit latrines without any bodily protection, motivated by the well-being of their families and children, exposing themselves to health risks and vulnerabilities emerging from routinely handling faecal matter.

Fundamentally, they are filling a critical gap in sanitation service provision, in the absence of which their settlement and city systems would collapse, especially during the winter months of severe flooding. However, their role is relegated to the ‘work’ that they are expected to perform for being born with a female body. Their contributions as providers of sanitation services are invisibilised, and unrecognised and their work is labelled as ‘duty.’ Although the sanitation responsibilities added to the burden of care, the women, aware of their role as sanitation service providers seemed content with the notion that they were only fulfilling their biological roles.

“When and how does care work become duty and duty become oppressive?”

is a question that underpinned the group research. The dissonance as to whether women should be materially compensated to ease the burden of sanitation, fulfilling practical gender needs, but perpetuating internalised gender roles or should they challenge the unequal power relations in their households and societies, bewildered me. However, learning from the African cities, I appreciated how similar lived experiences of women are across time and space, as both users and producers.

A bigger insight I gained was that women are present everywhere across the sanitation chain as both users and producers and possess specialized knowledge which can inform policy and practice and hence carry the immense potential to catalyse long-term socio-political change.  Women play highly significant roles in the sanitation realm which benefits stakeholders across the scale of the household, the community, and the state.

Thus, just sanitation is not just about providing toilets and sewerage systems. It is about acknowledging and accommodating intersectional identities, embodied experiences, bodily dignity, safety, environmental concerns, and the health and wellbeing of everyone involved. Urban trajectories that do not consciously account for sanitation justice by acknowledging its gendered dynamics and fostering distributive, procedural and recognitional justice (Rusca, Alda-Vidal and Kooy, 2018) in sanitation, will most likely produce social injustices in urban spaces. Neglecting the significance of designing cities to provide just and equitable sanitation for women will generate inequitable outcomes, not just for the women but for the city.

For more information on the OVERDUE / MSc ESD Learning Alliance, please visit https://www.esdlearningalliance.net



Desai, R., McFarlane, C. and Graham, S. (2015) ‘The Politics of Open Defecation: Informality, Body, and Infrastructure in Mumbai’, Antipode, 47(1), pp. 98–120. doi:10.1111/anti.12117.

Kulkarni, S., O’Reilly, K. and Bhat, S. (2017) ‘No relief: lived experiences of inadequate sanitation access of poor urban women in India’, Gender & Development, 25(2), pp. 167–183. doi:10.1080/13552074.2017.1331531.

Rusca, M., Alda-Vidal, C. and Kooy, M. (2018) ‘Sanitation Justice?: The Multiple Dimensions of Urban Sanitation Inequalities’, in Boelens, R., Perreault, T., and Vos, J. (eds) Water Justice. 1st edn. Cambridge University Press, pp. 210–225. doi:10.1017/9781316831847.014.

Shukla, A.M. (2019) Mumbai: Unresolved civic issues irks residentsDNA India. Available at: https://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report-mumbai-unresolved-civic-issues-irks-residents-2736710 (Accessed: 26 May 2022).

Truelove, Y. and Ruszczyk, H.A. (2022) ‘Bodies as urban infrastructure: Gender, intimate infrastructures and slow infrastructural violence’, Political Geography, 92, p. 102492. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102492.

It’s time we unveil the hidden everyday experiences

By Amanda Hoang, on 14 March 2023

This blog was written as part of the Learning Alliance between the OVERDUE project and the DPU’s MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development. Amanda is a recent graduate of this MSc programme (2021/22), and her reflections on gendered sanitation infrastructures were produced in a module that tackles issues of environment and sustainable development in practice.

Unconscious biases

Before this module, I never fully understood what sanitation meant. To my assumption, sanitation only reached to the extent of water and hygiene with little focus on toilets, its infrastructure, and the stories behind its use. But perhaps this disinterest stemmed from my own privileges of living in a city where sanitation facilities meet my own needs: running water, piped sewerage, bins for sanitary pads, division of women/men toilets and decently maintained facilities.

In that very first lecture however, introducing the topic, Adriana Allen said that sanitation was both “visible yet invisible” at the same time. That statement was my personal entry point into sanitation – and as Emmanuel Osuteye said in the Learning Alliance retreat, it was my “hook” into why it is a critical entry point into unlocking just urban development.

Toilet facilities unlock the hidden everyday stories of injustice

It made me flashback to when I was based in peri-urban Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2019. Whilst I was working in a local school, I saw a young female student openly defecating behind the school’s toilet facilities. I wondered why there were practices of open defecation despite there being toilet facilities available just in front of her. After a conversation with female students, it was said that the school toilet facilities were just such poor quality, that students did not end up using them. The school toilets were created by an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) but since its creation, they played no further role. There was no running water, sanitary bins and toilets were not maintained, which resulted in further decline in the facility’s quality (Figure 1). For female students who were menstruating, they would skip an entire week of classes as the facilities were not catered for their menstrual needs. Similarly, outside of the school setting, women who menstruated were often subjected to banishment from the kitchen and places of worship due to passed down beliefs of impurity (Thapa and Aro, 2021).

Figure 1: Image of schoolgirls’ toilet in Kathmandu – similar conditions in example mentioned (Source: Shrestha, 2019)

With that conversation, I left Nepal with more questions than answers. Despite the provision of toilet facilities in schools, what was it about those toilets that discouraged female students from using them? There is a juxtaposition where toilets are visibly everywhere but everyday experiences and realities around these toilet practices, such as menstruation and taboos, continue to be invisible and under-researched. These invisible experiences allow us to understand the injustices in urban development and also provide an opportunity to advance just development. Sanitation is the artery of the city, playing a vital role in urban life, intersecting with the urban environment, health, water and more. Inequitable sanitation in the city therefore ultimately reflects the wider injustices in the city such as inequitable distribution of resources, and a lack of intersectional representation and recognition in governance (Rusca et al., 2018).

Sanitation also allows us to adopt a feminist political ecology (FPE) lens, paying particular attention to the ‘everyday’ and emotional narratives that are not usually recognised in policy and planning (Clement et al., 2019; Lancione and McFarlane, 2016). FPE enables us to understand how power relations are deeply gendered and how they marginalise groups not just related to gender but to caste, class, race, disabilities. As such, these invisible everyday realities are reflective of the inequalities in the city and therefore demonstrate how “spaces of exclusion” are created, thus leading to further injustice in the production of urban spaces (Bhakta et al., 2019).

Urban African parallels and unveiling wider institutional issues

Figure 2: Drawing parallels in Africa and Southeast Asia. A picture of toilet facility in Freetown (Source: participant photo in ESD/OVERDUE research, 2022)

Drawing parallels from the insightful work co-produced with OVERDUE partners as part of the Learning Alliance, from the toilet research in Beira, Bukavu and Freetown and across continents in the Nepali context, I see and hear stories of everyday injustices. These stories reiterate that intersectional sanitation realities – of women, the disabled, young, and elderly – remain invisible, perpetuating the social stigma and taboos around cleanliness, manifesting in lack of locks, doors, and sanitary bins for women (Figure 2), marginalising and creating greater urban inequalities. Yet as noted by Bhakta et al., (2019), these hidden sanitation realities are “characterised by unjust institutional practices” and thus expose unequal governance structures which dictate urban development such as in policy or staff development (pp.18).

Whilst these everyday stories have been powerful in revealing some of the sanitation injustices, I questioned how we could recognise these voices in a system that values quantitative data as facts. It was the use of Levy’s (1996) ‘Web of Institutionalisation’ whilst learning in the African city context that made me realise how these everyday stories of sanitation injustices can be turned into advancing just urban development. Ultimately, the Web shows how processes within institutions like local governments, can play an active role in advancing just urban development through the inclusion of women and intersectional voices in planning (Figure 3). During the Learning Alliance retreat in the UK in May 2022, Kavita Wankhade’s presentation on the Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme (TNUSSP) mentioned the role of civil servants being stuck in a system, where bureaucracy is dictated by wider processes but nonetheless still plays a role in representing the voices on the ground. As a civil servant working in procurement, I always assumed that I played only a minor role in local government. Kavita’s comment made me reflect on my own position in vocalising the hidden voices in sanitation. Whether that would be through advocating for gender-sensitive needs in procurement contracts (procedures), the role that we play in vocalising these hidden realities is an important step in a new governance structure which enables equal representation and just development (Levy, 1996).

Figure 3: The Web of Institutionalisation in action (Source: Author, 2022)

Sanitation’s role in advancing just urban development

To summarise, sanitation is an entry point to ensure greater equity in the city. These past months have made me reflect that sanitation is more than just water provision and cleanliness but encompasses a multitude of components like public toilets and the vital role of women as sanitation workers. Within these, it is these sanitation experiences that perpetuate injustices that continue to be hidden. By acknowledging the realities within the sanitation conversation, we also start tracing opportunities within the institutional web to change fundamental processes that impact urban development as well as awaken our own personal agency. By improving sanitation, we can therefore begin to advance genuine just urban development that is for women, men, children, elderly, disabled and for all.

For more information on the OVERDUE / MSc ESD Learning Alliance, please visit https://www.esdlearningalliance.net



Bhakta, A., Fisher, J., and Reed, B. (2019) Unveiling hidden knowledge: discovering the hygiene needs of perimenopausal women, International Development Planning Review, 41(2), pp.149-171.

Clement, F., Harcourt, W.J., Joshi, D., and Sato, C. (2019) Feminist political ecologies of the commons and communing, International Journal of the Commons, 13(1), pp.1-15

Lancione, M., and McFarlane, C. (2016) Life at the urban margins: Sanitation infra-making and the potential of experimental comparison, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 48(12), pp.2402-2421.

Levy, C. (1996) The process of institutionalising gender in policy and planning: the ‘web’ of institutionalisation, DPU Working Paper No.74, pp.1-25.

Rusca, M., Alda-Vidal, C. and Kooy, M. (2018) Sanitation justice? The multiple dimensions of urban sanitation inequalities. In: Boelens, R., Perreault, T., and Vos, J. (eds) Water Justice, Cambridge University Press, pp.210-225

Shrestha, E. (2019) Without proper sanitation facilities, girls keep missing school during menstruation [Online] www.kathmandupost.com Available at: https://kathmandupost.com/national/2019/12/31/without-proper-sanitation-facilities-girls-keep-missing-school-during-menstruation [Accessed: 24.05.2022]

Thapa, S., and Aro, A.R. (2019) ‘Menstruation means impurity’: multi-level interventions are needed to break the menstrual taboo in Nepal, BMC Women’s Health, 21(84), pp.1-5

Cover image source: Hesperian Health Guides (2021) Sanitation for Cities and Towns [Online] Available at: https://en.hesperian.org/hhg/A_Community_Guide_to_Environmental_Health:Sanitation_for_Cities_and_Towns

In bitterness you can find sweetness: insights from the 2022 world toilet day “making the invisible visible” overdue campaign

By Nadine T Coetzee, on 28 February 2023

By: Nadine Coetzee and Nelly Leblond, with contributions from Adriana Allen, Claudy Vouhé and Julia Wesely

Originally published by OVERDUE

Figure 1: Saint Louis neighbourhood councillors and women led by the Observatoire Genre et Développement de Saint Louis (OGDS) marching for the recognition and redistribution of women’s sanitation work. Source: OGDS at OVERDUE.

What is the point of celebrating a daily need once a year?

International Days – for women, children, toilets – can seem paradoxical. Born out of the recognition of critical social struggles, they hope to raise awareness and catalyse structural change, while in practice prompting public attention to them for just 24 hours.

World Toilet Day, celebrated on November 19, was created by the World Toilet Organization in 2001, almost 22 years ago, and officially adopted by the United Nations in 2013. The multiple forms of deeply gendered everyday violence induced by inadequate sanitation across the world are at the core of the action research project OVERDUE: Tackling the sanitation taboo across urban Africa, led by Prof. Allen at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, in close collaboration with a large group of researchers, practitioners and activists.

Here, we analyse the World Toilet Day 2022 celebrations led by the OVERDUE city teams based in Antananarivo (Madagascar), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Beira (Mozambique), Bukavu (DRC), Mwanza (Tanzania), Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Saint Louis (Senegal). We look at the insights these provide to advance political commitments, resources, and action towards just sanitation for all.

As the OVERDUE city teams took to their streets and settlements on November 19, in a brave and loud effort to engage residents and officials with loudspeakers, banners, marches, dance, and music, two key directions critical for sanitation justice were spotlighted.

First, the official theme “Making the invisible visible”, which originally focussed on ground water resources, was instead spun towards the “above ground” invisible factors shaping sanitation. Armed with the confidence and knowledge garnered by three years of research into sanitation histories, investments, practices and needs, the teams increased the depth and breadth of conversations. They tackled unspoken norms and stigmatising practicesfemale unpaid work and mental load, and sludge management approached as waste. Often hidden, these topics are nonetheless critical to delivering inclusive and sustained sanitation (Bhakta, Reed, et Fisher 2018; Bhakta 2020).

Figure 2: OVERDUE’s take on the 2022 World Toilet Day “Making the invisible visible”. Source: Nadine Coetzee and Nelly Leblond at OVERDUE.

Second, OVERDUE city-teams celebrated sanitation to strengthen relations between communities and institutions to mobilize duty-bearers and resources taking forward their advocacy work in multiple directions.

“Igniting” communities and investments through awareness raising processes has improved sanitation in many rural areas, but has been less beneficial impact in urban settings (Myers 2016; Myers et al. 2018). Across urban Africa, strong networks of advocates and sustained relations are needed to reshape sanitation chains, creating the vital connections between ministries and local authorities to those interfacing with the reality of sanitation practices; the off-grid dwellers, their systems and coping mechanisms. OVERDUE 2022 World Toilet Day celebrations offer insights into such networks in action as they come together to mobilise support to advance just sanitation.

Figure 3: Preparatory meeting for the Freetown 2022 World Toilet Day campaign organized by the Sierra Leone Urban research Center (SLURC). Source: SLURC at OVERDUE.

Sanitation is a difficult topic. As societies we often go to great lengths to keep it discreet or to avoid public discussion altogether. Mina Rakotoarindrasata from Genre en Action and Jeannine Ramarokoto from SiMIRALENTA remind us that in Madagascar there is a local saying to provoke engagement with challenging topics: “Ao anaty mangidy no misy ny mamy” “In bitterness one can find sweetness!”. Even in a pile of poo something good can be found!

Below we dive into three of these sweet spots, reflecting on how the OVERDUE 2022 WTD Campaign moved beyond sanitation gaps and open-air faecal flows, connecting duty-bearers and rights holders – individually and collectively – across the seven cities to support sanitation interventions with the capacity to push the boundaries.

#makevisibletheinvisible 1: Grounding public debates to include subaltern voices and experiences

Sanitation, and the taboos that surround matters of poo, wee and menstrual blood are challenging in all contexts, including urban Africa. Sanitation campaigns can easily back fire: for instance, rubber glove handouts can normalize degrading work, whilst “shaming and blaming” approaches can reinforce stigma and exclusion (Brewis et Wutich 2019).

The narrativesexperiencesaspirations and needs of those interfacing and managing sanitation in urban Africa need to be central in the crafting of useful messages. To overcome the drift towards normalisation, stigmatisation and exclusion, OVERDUE team members co-designed their campaigns in and across cities with sanitation workers and users. Careful discussions ensured that those carrying the slogans and banners did so with pride.

Figure 4: Signs designed by CFCEM/GA in partnership with ISECOF students and professors and showcased across Bukavu for World Toilet Day 2022. Source: CFCEM/GA at OVERDUE.

In Bukavu, Astrid Mujinga and members of the CFCEM/GA and ISECOF led a campaign aiming to shift public discourse from “ending open air defecation” to increasing the accessibility and quality of public toilets. They drew on a series of interviews and knowledge exchanges with female students and workers covering the health, security and dignity issues generated by the absence of public facilities. Key messages such as “An unknown scourge: the absence of public toilets“, “public toilets = wellbeing for all”, “Let’s ask authorities to build public toilets for us” were disseminated by an energetic taxi caravan across the streets of Bukavu to call for urgent action and resources from local authorities.

Figure 5: Taxi caravan driving across Bukavu to request that local authorities invest in public toilets. Source: CFCEM/GA.

In Antananarivo, members of SiMIRALENTA and Genre en Action, joined the National Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Conference to get ministries, municipalities, and key players to consider and act on faecal sludge with a gender lens. They showcased co-designed slogans, such as “Excreta is not garbage” (“Ny tay tsy fako” in Malagasy), a punchline produced with waste pickers, mostly women, to raise the issue of waste sorting and of adequate training and equipment for workers.

Figure 6: SiMIRALENTA and Gender in Action on gendering faecal sludge at the National Water, Sanitation and Hygiene conference in Antananarivo. Source: SiMIRALENTA/Genre en Action at OVERDUE.

Inspired by the work of Penda Diouf at the Observatoire Genre et Développement de Saint Louis (OGDS) on women as invisible sanitation providers, the SLURC team in Freetown organized marches and events highlighting the burden of domestic sanitation work.

The team including Ibrahim Bakarr Bangura, Amadu Labor, Abdulai Turay, Braima Koroma and members of CODOHSAPA and FEDURP invited toilet caretakerscommunity-based organizations, NGOs and municipal workers to co-design the campaign’s message on women’s sanitation work and needs, which was shared on a tour across the city. A collective and creative approach enabled the team to get more people on-board, from the local police commander of the central business district to residents of informal neighbourhoods.

Figure 7: Members of the 2022 World Toilet Day celebration in Freetown in the central area where the SLURC team has been documenting sanitation expectations and practices since 2020. Source: SLURC at OVERDUE.

Across all these initiatives, local women and their collectives demonstrated their immense and unique power to foster and nurture sensitive discussions, from the crafting and planning of messages that are subtle yet bold, through to their delivery at the doors and desks of those in charge. This power is often overlooked but is straightforward evidence of the value of their inclusion in all steps.

Beyond reflections on the care needed to build impactful campaigns on topics that involve severe inequality and suffering, and on who should deliver them, these different World Toilet Day celebrations shed light on the process of “getting institutions back in the sanitation game” as duty-bearers holding the power to challenge the (un)sanitary status quo.

#makevisibletheinvisible 2: Getting local authorities to embody sanitation and advocate for change

In-depth interviews conducted throughout the OVERDUE project often reveal that sanitation remains a low priority in municipal and national agendas, one that might even be outsourced to a third party. NGOs funding sanitation projects, community-based associations or inhabitants are blamed for improper behaviours.

Through the 2022 OVERDUE World Toilet Day celebrations, we witnessed the creation of stimulating spaces in which local authorities could dialogue with citizens and community based organisations in comfort – without the fear of being antagonized – and re-engage critically with decisive action as power and resource holders.

In Saint LouisOGDS’s president Ndeye Penda Diouf, Soukeyna Mbaye from the Association of Resourceful and Supportive Women of Saint-Louis, and Babacar Faye from Saint Louis Theatre Forum/Copin’ARTS organized a march to deliver a manifesto to local authorities. They did so with the support of neighbourhood secretaries (administrative area councillors) – exclusively men – calling for the acknowledgement and redistribution of their sanitation work, as well as for improved sanitation services in off-grid neighbourhoods. Promoted through the OVERDUE project, what was a few months ago conceived as a domestic and private issue concealed within households, has become a neighbourhood and city-wide matter. The support and mobilization of neighbourhood secretaries, now equipped to host public and collective discussions, turned OGDS’s fiction film “The uprising of invisible women workers” into reality.

Figure 8: Marching with the manifesto, the invisible women sanitation workers in Saint Louis, Senegal. Source: OGDS at OVERDUE.

In Beira, Hélder Domingos, president of the FACE Water and Sanitation Association and colleagues Marcia Saica, Canivete Americo and Marques Sembanhe, organized a celebration to present a timeline of sanitation in Beira. This was constructed under the OVERDUE project and bridges the colonial divide between the sanitation grid serving part of the central “cement” city, and the off grid “cane” peripheral areas, relying on on-site sanitation, connecting the current diversity of sanitation infrastructure and services operating across the city.

This boosted the interest of the municipal council, with officials acknowledging the need to expand efforts to address the colonial bifurcation that continues relegating under-served off-grid neighbourhoods. The campaign further connected municipal authorities to innovative practices and options already piloted within the city, making it an empowering experience for multiple organisations and collectives working along the sanitation chain.

Figure 9: 2022 World Toilet Day Celebration organized by FACE in Beira, Mozambique. Source: FACE at OVERDUE.

In Abidjan, Angèle Koué led the Gender Parity and Women’s Leadership association GEPALEF ), with Joëlle Yao Kre, Nadège N’Gou, Roland Adja, Grâce Coulibably, and Franck Hermann Tapé, as well as the deputy Mayor of Koumassi, and members of the Koumassi Women’s Group, and of the Treichville Women’s Group rented a truck equipped with a huge sound system.

Drawing on background work conducted through the OVERDUE project digging into gendered needs, norms and taboos they drove across the city and stopped for dances and discussions in a way that brought sanitation users, paid and unpaid workers, and decision makers together to exchange their experiences and expectations. As a result, the mayor of Koumassi (one of ten urban administrative units of Abidjan) endorsed the creation of an all-female sanitation brigade, drawing on the pre-existing masculine one, with equal support and rights.

Figure 10: Just sanitation caravan organized by GEPALEF in Abidjan, circulating across municipalities to provide a stage for sanitation issues facing the urban poor and to provoke conversations on what is usually kept invisible. Source: GEPALEF at OVERDUE.

Using dance, song, boardrooms and open-air gatherings as a means to acknowledge efforts, valorise work, and discuss possibilities resulted in “a treat and a trick” (Laurent 1998) – an enticing celebration to draw the crowds and get people on board to talk sanitation. As noted by Prof. Wilbard Kombe at ARDHI University during the 2020 Mwanza Sanitation Festival, this type of celebratory framing has the power to get local authorities to publicly stand up for the issue of sanitation.

This necessary step towards increased accountability is, however, not sufficient in itself, and further negotiations and follow-up measures are needed to ensure that local authorities take responsibility and action. This is not achieved in a day. So, next, let us expand on the time frame needed to bring these elements to the fore.

#makevisibletheinvisible 3: Building and maintaining commitments, actions and resources

When it comes to just sanitation, networks must be patiently and incrementally woven. Practices of relegation and accumulation must be challenged and reshaped, if not inverted. OVERDUE partners are pushing this message about inverting the approach to sanitation, stating its importance and centrality to the effective functioning of urban areas. The OVERDUE 2022 World Toilet Day celebrations are just a window into ongoing efforts to make sanitation a priority, which continue as you read.

In Bukavu, on November 19, CFFCEM/GA got authorities to stand up in front of their constituents to endorse the start of the gender sensitive rehabilitation of the Nyawera market public toilets. Just a few months ago, they had denied that sanitation was an issue across the city! For CFFCEM/GA, ensuring that both women and men are involved and that the facilities, their management and their maintenance, are women friendly is a daily negotiation. The rehabilitation project would not have been possible without the prior support of elected officials, and women-led-advocacy in the first place.

Figure 11: Bukavu officials and Astrid Mujinga inaugurating the rehabilitation of Nyawera market’s public toilets led by the CFCEM/GA, Bukavu, 1st December 2022. Source: CFCEM/GA at OVERDUE.

In Antananarivo and Abidjan, the SiMIRALENTA/Genre en Action and GEPALEF teams are now growing partnerships and expertise to implement faecal sludge valorisation projects. Allyship within Malagasy institutions was boosted by t-shirts adorned with “In bitterness one can find sweetness. Urine and Excreta are energy sources” (Ao anaty mangidy no misy ny mamy, mey ho angovo ny ay sy ny amany). A continued and renewed push by the team, through meetings, phone calls and appointments, enabled the necessary institutions to support the supply of a school canteen with energy produced by the neighbouring biogas facility.

Figure 12: Mina Rakotoarindrasata and Jeannine Ramarokoto presenting on gendering faecal sludge management. Source: SiMIRALENTA/Genre en Action.

In Beira and Saint Louis, FACE and OGDS transformed celebratory contacts into networks to access or co-produce information on the current sanitation infrastructure, and management of sludge, in markets and households. This is now establishing the rehabilitation of public toilets in Beira and the piloting of household biogas production in Saint Louis.

Again, getting needs and experiences acknowledgedexpertise deployed, and key institutions engaged is just part of the story. One of the most critical yet challenging aspects to advance just sanitation concerns financial sustainability. Political interest and appropriate backing is still scarce as sanitation facilities and services are often locked into conceptions of cost recovery, if not lucrative assets, that authorities can operate as needed. Inverting these expectations to locate sanitation as a field of investment for public health and wellbeing is a permanent battle, in African cities and beyond.

World Toilet Day celebrations proved valuable to prompt a wide range of key stakeholders to take sanitation seriously, and to move away from a ‘Band-Aid’ plumbing approach towards more strategic and ambitious actions. The campaigns prompted local authorities to acknowledge the different needs of women and men, and the gender power relations at play on the ground. They connected these with the institutions and organisations leading sanitation innovations and studies, and enabled the grounding of promises and interventions in the communities that are supposed to benefit from them, through their active and meaningful participation. This is a key move for us all at OVERDUE.

For our team, World Toilet Day 2022 was a chance to step back from the daily efforts to push for just sanitation, engage in a global conversation, and reflect on how far our OVERDUE team has come over the years.

It takes courage to get caravans and performances about faecal matter in motion to travel across one’s city. But it takes a certain fearlessness to lead these activities as a woman, as is the case in many of the examples above. Although the contexts of the seven cities are vastly different in many ways, on the whole women remain the silent and invisible majority of the unpaid workforce, are excluded from most of the paid sanitation work, and are unlikely to hold decision making positions on local authorities.

Supporting our colleagues across the seven cities, we would like to acknowledge their bravery, creativity and tireless efforts. Whereas two years ago the reach of the Voicing just sanitation campaign (OVERDUE World Toilet Day 2020 campaign) was relatively small, and public conversations about human waste were challenging, partners are now seeing their messages spreading as residents spontaneously join marches and calls for collaborations multiply.

The way in which each city developed its own set of modalities and messages, tapping into a broad range of advocacy strategies – drama skits in Freetown performed by local actors, taxi rides in Bukavu to spread the word across the city, a march in Saint Louis to attract visibility, and a big music-playing truck in Abidjan, exceeded what had been planned and anticipated. This international celebration has left us renewed with readiness to take on new challenges and to continue engaging with communities in a gender sensitive way to ensure that the experiences, practices and aspirations of women and men inhabiting African cities begin to shape sanitation priorities and interventions.

References and links

Bhakta, Amita. 2020. « Uncovering WASH Realities Through PhotoVoice ». The Sanitation Learning Hub, Brighton: IDS, SLH Learning Paper 9. https://sanitationlearninghub.org/resource/uncovering-wash-realities-through-photovoice/.

Bhakta, Amita, Brian Reed, et Julie Fisher. 2018. « Behind closed doors: The hidden needs of perimenopausal women in Ghana ». In Reproductive Geographies. Routledge.

Brewis, Alexandra, et Amber Wutich. 2019. Lazy, Crazy, and Disgusting: Stigma and the Undoing of Global Health. 1st edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kar, Kamal, et Robert Chambers. 2008. « Handbook on Community-Led Total Sanitation ». Plan UK and Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, 51.

Laurent, Pierre-Joseph. 1998. Une association de développement en pays mossi : Le don comme ruse. Paris: Karthala.

Myers, Jamie. 2016. « Urban community-led total sanitation: a potential way forward for co-producing sanitation services ». Waterlines 35 (4): 388‑96.

Myers, Jamie, Sue Cavill, Samuel Musyoki, Katherine Pasteur, et Lucy Stevens. 2018. Innovations for Urban Sanitation. PRACTICAL ACTION PUBLISHING. https://doi.org/10.3362/9781780447360.

CFCEM/GA website: https://www.facebook.com/cfcemga2016.org/

FACE website: https://www.facebook.com/faceassociacao/

Film from CFCEM/GA: Public Facilities: an urgent need in Bukavu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmRz7FXebhM

Film from GEPLAEF: Gendered bodily norms and taboos: https://youtu.be/SrbwWkYJBsE

Film from OGDS: Women invisible workers in Sanitation: https://youtu.be/SrbwWkYJBsE

Film from OGDS: The uprising of invisible women workers: The uprising of invisible women workers

GEPALEF website: https://www.facebook.com/gepalef/

IIHS/OVERDUE Conference: the invisible workforce: how to value women’s role in sanitation?: https://youtu.be/0vxRPO9wvss

OGDS website: https://www.ogds.net/

OVERDUE website: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/

OVERDUE Knowledge Exchange “Weaving Sanitation and Gender Justice”: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/?p=4209

OVERDUE Article on furthering sanitation justice: http://journals.hw.ac.uk/index.php/IPED/article/view/103

OVERDUE Blog: toilets are seats of gender equality: Gendered taboos surrounding sanitation deeply impact women and girls: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/?p=3994

OVERDUE Blog on decolonizing through celebration: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/dpublog/2021/09/14/decolonising-urban-sanitation-through-celebration/

OVERDUE Prof. Kombe on Celebrating sanitation in Mwanza, Tanzania: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaP6m3EKXNI

OVERDUE Blog Mwanza 2020 Sanitation Festival: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/?page_id=2558

OVERDUE Voicing Just sanitation campaign: https://overdue-justsanitation.net/?page_id=4624#World-toilet-day

SiMIRALENTA website: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100083273620107

UN World Toilet Day: https://www.un.org/en/observances/toilet-day

World Toilet Organization: https://worldtoilet.org/web-agency-gb-about-us/

Decolonising urban sanitation through celebration

By Nelly M Leblond, on 14 September 2021

The project “OVERDUE: Tackling the sanitation taboo across urban Africa” was launched in July 2021, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time no vaccine was yet in sight for the places and people central to the project: the women, men, girls and boys who build and run vital infrastructures of care across African cities. On the frontline, with scarce protective equipment, they were – and still are – subject to lockdowns and travel bans while dealing with viral residues, reduced livelihoods, limited access to water and sanitation, and increased caring responsibilities.

Inspired by the Disability Festivals organized by the AT2030 programme, the OVERDUE team saw the potential of using festivals to destigmatize the work of sanitation providers and to spark new conversations. The principal investigator, Adriana Allen, saw festivals as “context sensitive”, acknowledging sanitation as a lifeline for urban and domestic spaces in the pandemic.

At the end of 2020, the OVERDUE team embarked on a set of celebratory activities in the cities of Beira (Mozambique), Freetown (Sierra Leone), and Mwanza (Tanzania), where OVERDUE’s research is rooted. These were complemented by an online campaign: Voicing Just Sanitation. Beyond sensitivity and fun, the sanitation celebrations embedded a theoretical and methodological claim that aligns with the call to decolonise the Water, Hygiene and Sanitation (WASH) sector.



Sanitation festivals

The city sanitation festivals immediately attracted enthusiasts. Claudy Vouhé from l’Etre Egale, for example, envisioned the potential to re-position women as key providers, challenging the narratives of women as mere sanitation beneficiaries.

However, there were also some doubts raised. Sending colleagues to organise festivals during a pandemic, and forcing celebrations on to a sector that people might locally want to treat otherwise, seemed problematic. So I asked Allen: “can’t we just have soap handouts instead of festivals?” Colleagues from the Sierra Leonean Urban Research Centre (SLURC) had been praised for offering soaps and buckets. Fortunately, Allen held on, convinced that festivals could go a long way. And they did.

Figure 1: Collectively organizing the Sanitation Festival in Freetown, and reaching out to different parts of the city to stimulate conversations. Source: Ibrahim Bangura, SLURC, November 2020.

In Freetown, SLURC organized a sanitation walk across the city on World Toilet Day, 19 November 2020. “It had much more success than I thought” acknowledged Sulaiman Kamara, researcher at SLURC, “communities did not want to let us go. They showed us their toilets, they had so much to say.” COVID-19 was a challenge. Attendances had to be reduced, and the planned football match could not go ahead. The participants ended up wearing the shirts designed for the players, advertising Freetown’s City Council sanitation hotline.

In Beira, the team led by COWI-Mozambique organized radio debates in partnership with Mega-FM Radio to reach communities and households under lockdown. This allowed the voices and preoccupations of individual residents to “bubble up”, and discussion of these in the light of colonial legacies, corruption, hopes and constrained capacities. Officials from the municipality and sanitation services, practitioners and local authorities were publicly broadcasted, moving sanitation out of the grey zone of unspoken frustrations to the spotlight of public accountability.

Figure 2: Student presenting her illustration of unsatisfactory sanitation during the Sanitation Festival in Mwanza, December 2020. Source: CCI.

In Mwanza, the Centre for Community Initiatives CCI Tanzania and Ardhi University organized presentations, dances and a drawing competition on the subject of safe sanitation in the Mabatini neighbourhood. This created a space to publicly challenge taboos and to discuss options such as simplified sewerage systems. The women who, mostly, maintain the sanitation facilities voiced their concerns and struggles to uphold privacy and safety.

The festivals turned out to be powerful tools for engaging with local sanitation authorities, providers and users; and for connecting these groups with each other.

Decolonizing sanitation

By celebrating existing initiatives and practices, and by taking stock of what local people and organisations knew rather than pathologizing them, the sanitation festivals departed from dominant approaches.

They challenged the white saviour complex, whereby foreigners construct issues to match their capacities so as to later claim ego-centric successes. This complex has plagued the WASH sector since the colonial era, as hygiene and sanitation were, and sometimes still are, conceived as western “gifts” to “unclean” and “uncivilized” populations.

In contrast, the festivals materialised what Māori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls “celebrating survivance”. They focused on the resistance, resilience, and journeys that have enabled indigenous people to survive and retain cultural and spiritual values, despite harmful processes and structures such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, and neoliberalism.

Valuing everyday sanitation practices as local acts of heroism produces enabling positions and identities. This contrasts with damage-based research, which looks for victims, stigmatizing and disempowering those it seeks to help.

Furthermore, the celebratory perspective helped de-normalize poor sanitary conditions and voiced aspirations in non-antagonistic ways. This is crucial for interventions to successfully move beyond the pilot stage, another pitfall for projects imbued with coloniality. It creates motion that can be endogenously sustained beyond the festival events and research projects themselves.

Figure 3: Pears’ Soap advertisement, McClure’s Magazine, Oct. 1899. The ad reads “The first step towards lightening The White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place — it is the ideal toilet soap.”


Reordering time and expertise

The sanitation festivals made space and time for anchoring the research on pre-existing and context-specific engagements and practices. They inverted the traditional timeline of research, which rolls out pre-defined questions and methods and then shares “results” later, recognising that societies are both substrate and empty-cups-to-be-filled. Celebrating catalysed productive knowledge relations, that act both as objectives and railings, drive us forward while keeping us on track.

Figure 4: The team assembled by SLURC, from turning their backs to facing sanitation, composed of faecal sludge workers, researchers and members of CSOs and NGOs. Source: SLURC

Subtly, this redistributes expertise. It removes planners, practitioners and researchers from fenced offices and puts them on an equal footing with the women, men, girls and boys who work in sanitation every day. It multiplies standpoints and perspectives, a key feminist movement to strengthen objectivity.

Further, it makes the reinterrogation of colonial and post-colonial bifurcations between off-grid and on-grid sanitation possible. As both users and providers of sewerage facilities and on-site sanitation are engaged, co-dependencies between on-grid and off-grid systems can be observed and discussed. This is a necessary step to advance sanitation justice.


So, should we all celebrate?

Preconditions must be recalled and enthusiasm moderated. These sanitation festivals were made possible by SLURC, CCI, Ardhi University and COWI’s networks in Beira, Mwanza, and Freetown. The activities built on previously weathered collaborations and understandings.

Celebration cannot be parachuted. But as Somsook Boonyabancha urges us to think, it can be stirred if we invest in people rather than projects. Building communities, institutions and trust first so that drains and sanitation can be realised second.

Flexi funds, a budget facility to transfer money to partners with no strings attached, were crucial to designing context-specific and relevant activities. They helped participants to yield power and support creativity. Despite major budget cuts imposed by the UK government, this approach will continue to drive our work We hope that this will stimulate further moves to push back coloniality in the WASH sector, and that we can pursue a second edition, hopefully in a post-pandemic and socially re-energized context.


The author wishes to acknowledge valuable input from Pascale Hofmann (UCL) and Adriana Allen (UCL). Celebration as a method will be further discussed in a dedicated session of the RISE Africa 2021 Action Festival.

Green space in Waltham Forest, and the fundamental wrongs of engaging ‘hard to reach’ populations

By Jess Beagley, on 3 March 2021

Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.

A Liveable City

Situated in the north-east of London, Waltham Forest is home to some 277,000 residents, of whom an unusually low proportion are over the age of 65. In fact, the median age of the local population is just 34, compared to a national average of 40. Many local residents are young families, drawn to Waltham Forest’s notable liveability, with green open spaces, a local food market, miles of cycle lanes, and comparatively spacious housing – all within manageable commuting distance of central London.

At first glance, the setting seems idyllic for many, but older people are decreasingly visible not only in terms of their number but arguably also in the extent to which their needs are reflected in local planning. One setting where this is evident is the popular Lloyd Park, which has long been appreciated by local residents, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.



Public Space and the Right to the City

While Lloyd Park offers an impressive variety of facilities and activities for a range of ages, with football pitches, a boules court, skate park, Tai Chi classes, tennis courts, and regularly spaced benches, some aspects nevertheless greatly limit the enjoyment of older visitors.

Signs at the park entrance indicate that “considerate cycling” is permitted, but many riders race down the main path which runs through the park, providing a convenient shortcut between two roads, with little care for pedestrians of any age. Other routes around the perimeter of the park have far less rapid traffic, but present a different hazard: poor or entirely absent surfacing of the paths leaves them perilously muddy, with severe risk of slipping after wet weather. A lack of lighting along even the main paths adds to the hostility of the environment once the afternoon light has faded.

For people over 65, falls represent a particular hazard to health, and the ability to get up and continue on is not one that can be taken for granted. Falls have an enduring impact, and are causes not only of injury and pain, but also of distress, loss of confidence and loss of independence. Over 65s are vulnerable in this context on account of their reduced capacity to resist and recover from the threat posed by the unsafe environment, to the extent that some older residents are unlikely to use the park. One visitor to the park commented “There are no ‘really old’ people – I mean, people in their 80s. They are conspicuous by their absence” and how “the park [should be] for everyone, but everyone needs to…respect the shared spaces.”

Subsidiarity and Truly Participatory Urban Governance

UN Habitat defines good urban governance as being underpinned by the interdependent and mutually reinforcing principles of “sustainability, subsidiarity, equity, efficiency, transparency and accountability, civic engagement and citizenship, and security”. The principle of subsidiarity refers to the allocation of responsibility for provision of services “at the closest appropriate level consistent with efficient and cost-effective delivery of services”. While the principle of subsidiarity is apparent in Waltham Forest, with the park being managed by the local council, this has not led to effective civic engagement in defining priorities for the maintenance and upgrading of the park. This has in turn contributed to inequities. In order to ensure that the park becomes a truly public space, active outreach and engagement with older people and the wider community is necessary. The question here is not so much of who uses the park, but of who does not. The duty of the service provider to understand the needs of those who the park visitor described as “conspicuous by their absence”, often referred to as “hard-to-reach” is one which is often overlooked. Workshops with regular park visitors to consult on plans for park developments are comparatively easy to organise, but these relatively passive efforts fall far short of what is needed to serve the local population.

The very term “hard-to-reach” encapsulates the reason for this collapse – many of those who do not use the park are distanced not by choice, but by exclusion. The abject failure to cater to the needs if the disenfranchised, whether for age or any other reason, is in stark juxtaposition to the very essence of “public” space. It must be questioned whether these communities are “seldom-heard” or rather seldom offered a platform to speak. In order to overcome these shortcomings, the local council must actively identify, reach out to, and seek to gain the trust of those who are least likely to use the park in order to understand their needs and views and how these can be catered for alongside those of other residents. Approaches to support these forms of active outreach have been proposed including by Cinderby and BEMIS and must be pursued for the sake of urban justice.

Images (author’s own) show one of Lloyd Park’s football fields, and the muddy perimeter path of the same area at dusk.



HUD Urban Profiles

As part of the module Urban Health: Reflections on Practice, students were given the opportunity to critically and creatively engage with their surroundings. Urban Profiles is a culmination of students’ reflective journals from the start of the course. Whether it was a walk around their town or a focus on specific communities within their home cities, students reflected on what ‘health in the city means’ to them as urban health practitioners, and strategised what could help tackle health concerns in consideration of the urban profiles of their cities.

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].

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.

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.