Q&A: WIEGO’s New Urban Policies Director Talks Migration, 21st-century Cities and What Inspires Her Research

Fri Oct 5, 2018
Occupational Groups: Street Vendors
Topics: Cities

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato

This week, we sit down with WIEGO’s new Urban Policies Programme Director, Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, to learn more about her background and research interests, as well as where she sees opportunities to better involve informal workers in the future of cities.

In addition to her role with WIEGO, she is also a visiting associate professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg, and a global scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. Her research and teaching interests focus on how poor urban workers access labour markets, and the ways planning and policy regimes support or frustrate these efforts. 

In 2011, she received a MacArthur grant on migration and development and has worked for Urban LandMark, the Development Bank of Southern Africa, and the Centre for Policy Studies. She was also previously a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is the author of Migrant Women of Johannesburg: Life in an in-between City and co-editor of Urban Diversity: Space, Culture and Inclusive Pluralism in Cities Worldwide.

1) Welcome to WIEGO! Could you tell us a little about your own research and how it connects to WIEGO?

Thank you! I am delighted to be part of the WIEGO team. It’s an organization I admire, and it is exciting to be part of its ongoing transformation.

I have always been fascinated by cities. I was born and raised in Nairobi and moved to Johannesburg as a young adult. Both are gritty, “in-your-face” cities. Growing up with parents who were first in their families to move to the city from the village, I realized just what cities meant to them — an unpredictable mix of possibility and precarity, apprehension and excitement.

It is the contradictions of the urban condition that drive my own research: the reality that cities are at once spaces of incredible wealth and crushing poverty; that they are harbingers of freedom, diversity, and tolerance, and, yet, at the same time, spaces of injustice, prejudice, and violence.

With the turn to the right in large and significant democracies in Europe, the United States, India, and Brazil, we are witnessing growing institutional indifference to human suffering and the chipping away of welfare and social protections that support communities in times of crisis.

What was true for my parents is now true for the majority of the world’s residents. Given the uneven nature of global development, cities are going to continue growing, most dramatically in the Global South. What were small towns a few years ago are now burgeoning cities, struggling to keep pace with the influx of migrants seeking a better future. 

Indeed larger cities lack the physical and institutional infrastructure or resources to offer all residents even a frail safety net. And there are simply not going to be stable jobs for most people anytime soon. 

With the turn to the right in large and significant democracies in Europe, the United States, India, and Brazil, we are witnessing growing institutional indifference to human suffering and the chipping away of welfare and social protections that support communities in times of crisis. 

Underlying my research is, therefore, a fundamental concern with the conditions under which cities, particularly in the Global South, can become just and sustainable. Doing this means building on the experiences, needs and desires of those most marginalized. 

In this way, my work connects with and complements WIEGO’s agenda, which, together with the working poor, seeks to promote decent work, stable incomes, and greater economic and physical security in cities.

2) Your work on women and migration is really interesting. You also have a published book, Migrant Women in Johannesburg: Life in an in-between city. Any interesting stories you can share from your research in Joburg about migrant women and informal work?

The book follows the lives of an incredible group of women from Rwanda, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Congo Brazzaville, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Burundi who came to Johannesburg in search of a better life.

As refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants, few could legally find work in the formal economy and had to eke out a living working informally. I sat with them on city streets, at market stalls, and in homes while they sold their wares, braided hair, or carried on with their domestic chores, and we talked.

Women co-produce the city in ways that invite us to challenge dominant discourses that deem them marginal and insignificant.

Through their stories of love, illness, fear, children, violence, family, money, and work, they transformed what I had learned about the city in my years at university. Rather than seeing the women in the book simply as victims of global capital, draconian planning laws, and exclusive nationalist politics, their stories shed light on how they shape urban politics, economies, and regulatory systems. Women co-produce the city in ways that invite us to challenge dominant discourses that deem them marginal and insignificant.

In the women’s stories, I hear echoes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warning to avoid the single story that stereotypes people and places in ways that risk misunderstanding and peddling part-truths. The migrant women of Johannesburg not only allowed me to see a holistic, more nuanced reality of life and work in the city, they also expanded the conceptual tools to explain the contemporary urban condition in Johannesburg, in ways that have implications for other cities.

I will never forget being surprised by Florence, a Congolese market trader in Johannesburg, who said to me, “Here I am nobody. I hide from the police; I hide from the South African government; I hide from my government at home. Sometimes I even hide from my own country men… you see, this is how I survive.”

We have our eyes on the prize; now the hard work of realizing just cities begins. Yet what does this mean for the workers and communities we work with?

Until then I had assumed what marginalized populations sought in cities was visibility and action in participatory forums, planning platforms, and policy processes. I had not considered that for Florence, and many like her, hiding was a resource, and being visible made her vulnerable in ways that only further excluded her from the city.

This may seem obvious, but many of those writing about “the right to the city” or promoting urban inclusion presume everyone wants to be seen; wants to become part of the polity; wants to “own the city”. Florence’s experience egged me to rethink what practical and conceptual implications of the right to the city might mean in contexts of incredible vulnerability.

3) You've been on board for a few months now. Have you had any new insights into working with informal workers in cities that has surprised you, even with all the experience you have?

Few organizations span global-local spheres with such insight and depth as WIEGO — from helping shape global debates on the informal economy to collecting city-level statistics on informal work, to supporting informal worker organizations to negotiate better terms with local authorities. I am excited to learn how to straddle these different areas of work — and it’s a steep learning curve!

4) There have been a number of high-level convening and reports in recent years — from Habitat III to the SDGs — calling for better and more inclusive cities. How can these talks and benchmarks be put into action — and actions that make informal workers a part of future cities?

It has taken decades to get urban issues on the global agenda. In October of 2016, world leaders met in Quito to agree on a vision of cities. With hints of Lefebvre’s rallying cry for a “right to the city” half a century ago, the Quito agreement made an important statement about creating “just, safe, healthy, accessible, resilient and sustainable” cities for all.

We have our eyes on the prize; now the hard work of realizing just cities begins. Yet what does this mean for the workers and communities we work with?

It means that we need to guard against calls for inclusion and formalization of the city that lead to the exclusion of the most vulnerable workers. Most visions of the city hold up Euclidean order and formality as the gold standard.

For a city to be accessible — for justice to be accessible — we need to understand how workers keep a foothold in the city and how the informal economy and habitat make it possible for them to realize their aspirations.

Embedded in the imagery that made Paris, London, and New York the inspiration for Lima, Delhi, and Dakar is a metric of urban development that focuses on specific ideas about what “quality of life” indices, levels of urban amenities, and governance institutions make a city successful.

Urbanist Neil Brenner puts it this way: “interventions for just cities that are restricted to formal, aesthetic elements or a narrowly consumerist vision of the public realm may offer an ideological cover for the urbanisms of injustice, displacement, and exclusion…”.

For a city to be accessible — for justice to be accessible — we need to understand how workers keep a foothold in the city and how the informal economy and habitat make it possible for them to realize their aspirations. Rather than seeking to eradicate slums or formalize the informal economy, our goal should be to make slums and the informal economy work better for the majority of urban workers so that it can support sustainable urban life.

This does not mean ignoring the significant obstacles and forms of exploitation that exist in the informal economies and living spaces. But it does mean shifting the metrics of urban development, the way we measure success, and our understanding of how people use urban spaces.

5) Where do you see WIEGO’s Urban Policies Programme (UPP) focusing its energy over the next couple of years? Anything exciting we can expect to see in the coming months?

WIEGO is well placed to be a thought leader in debates around the future of work in 21st-century cities. Our work spans multiple geographies and levels in ways that uniquely position us to define policy frameworks and advocacy strategies that make cities more just and sustainable for workers. And WIEGO has an incredible 20-year record of making the informal economy matter in economic and policy debates.

Yet, as cities across the Global North and South grapple with growing levels of informality and inequality, fewer social protections for workers, and increasing levels of social marginalization, more remains to be done.

Our work in UPP in the coming years will be to continue to build on our research experience in cities across Asia, Africa, and Latin America in ways that develop new theories and conceptual frameworks for understanding the urban condition in the 21st-century.

We have a great opportunity to develop a critical canon. Not only one that gives us ideas for creating better futures for the majority of urban dwellers, but also one that, as Harvard scholars John and Jean Comaroff argue, enables theorizing from the South, as our experiences of precarity, inequality, and informality increasingly resonate with other world regions.

This grounded theory is important. It pushes us to understand the lives of the working poor and develop frameworks that expand their capabilities and improve their socio-economic outcomes.

 

Feature photo: J. Rajgopaul