polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Deciphering Simone Part 3: Practice

by Hector Fernando Burga

In two previous posts we looked at Simone's original influences and method of writing. On the last part of this interview we turn to interrogations on development practice in his work. With this post, I conclude Simone's Interview for Polis.

How do you negotiate your role as a critic of international development while acting as a practitioner of this discipline?

Right now I am helping an organization in Jakarta that is trying to develop a mass membership organization for the poor. They have been working in this area for a long time, on very local projects, but they are now trying to move towards a larger political entity. So I have been with this organization for several years, in a very modest way, six weeks every year.

Theoretically I don’t agree with a lot of what they do –but I do believe the work and effort is crucial because it lends visibility to a wide range of conflictual assumptions that always require detailed, small, and temporary accommodations. It is important for me to be engaged because I don’t want to have engagements which are tailored made to my point of view. So it’s a kind of ongoing struggle to try to be useful. They think that I read certain dynamics in the city which might be useful to them, but this reading is only useful as it affects the imaginations and politics of deal that have to be consistently made. My interest is not in any kind of trajectory of development. In how you develop a particular locality over a period of time, cities are full of different kinds of temporalities and logics that are very contradictory. My interest is how you draw lines between things that on the surface don’t seem to fit together, or wouldn’t seem to have any type of interaction, but whose actions, if you are going to draw those lines, are a matter of deals.

It’s not about finding the right conceptual framework that allow you to see them, but to uncover the varied kinds of arduous, complicated, persistent ways, one makes deals and trade-offs. For me, development work is about that. It’s a kind of incessant pragmatism which tries to circumvent the constraints that exist to conceptually enforce the actions of certain kinds of relationships. I like to be involved in these kinds of urban pragmatic practices because it is there where you start to discover other potentialities.

What do you think about posing questions of practice in African cities to cities in the US?

I can answer by offering two different examples. Kinshasa is a city that in some sense is the biggest village in the world, probably with 9 to 10 million people living in conditions that are hardly discernable as urban. While it has areas that are very dense, you have the sense that it is not a city rather it is a huge dense rural area. People get up really early and often times walk a long way to find transportation.

This is a city without a functioning municipal government. It has a budget of 25 million dollars a year which is about 30% of the municipal budget of Antwerp. So you have a city with a budget of almost nothing. In a city where people really don’t have a clear idea of how they are going to put bread on the table everyday and where people feel they have no legitimate basis to intervene in each others life, how do you say that people should get together and organize to clean the streets? What does this mean? Is it a way to collecting money, a trick? It is very difficult to grasp any sense of organization, in the conventional sense of organization as we know it. But yet what is remarkable about Kinshasa is the ability of a people to come up with the right things to say, in the inevitable and frequent situations when things are about to get out of hand.

Since there are churches, it’s not as if institutions are absent. But to a certain extent there is a dearth of diverse institutional forms that provide people with a sense of mediation, anchorage and mapping things out. What is amazing to me about Kinshasa is the way in which complete strangers can come up to each other with the right thing to say during these moments of quotidian crises, on buses on streets, offices, neighborhoods. And somehow there is this kind of mobility, a circulation of ideas, gestures and sentiments that can be deployed and enable things to be held together.

I am not necessarily trying to celebrate this kind of capacity, or making it something more than it is. I am simply saying that there is reticence in cities of the North, a kind of fear in regards to different kinds of experimentations or ways of governing and managing both the built and social environment in different localities of the city. There is a fear that things will fall apart and I wonder to what extent a place like Kinshasa raises the question of whether we are blocking certain potentialities of the density of transactions in urban life, which in their circulation and impact draw people into collaborative possibilities that we simply don’t recognize. Therefore the continuous kinds of obsession regarding institution building, capacity development, transparency and accountability present in certain kinds of organization discourses become their own world. We remain not quite sure what we are trying to accomplish from them.

Given the complexity of associations you describe how can social change be conceived in cities of the global south? Is this another development myth?

I think there can be multiple tracks. It is interesting for me to see the way in which certain districts are changing in the context of Jakarta. Different kinds of actors and residents are becoming more mobile in their navigation of the city in order to maintain stability within a changing global economy. Because of the way that accumulation and productivity are concretely managed in major metropolitan areas like Jakarta, they can no longer count upon their positions within certain social and patron networks for accessibility and survival. They have to be much more particular, specific and specialized in regards to what they do economically.

This means that they have to be more flexible. This flexibility introduces larger measures of volatility within the districts. That volatility is then managed by extending their investments of time and energy to other parts of the city. Those efforts constitute a proposition for how their own district can be linked and articulated with other districts.

But at the same time this layering doesn’t obviate the work of more conventional political instruments. We find in the persistence of certain kinds of agglomeration economies; districts specializing in textile, furniture or automotive production really complicated production layers. Each layer passes on the cost and profitability on to the next layer. So as you get to the bottom of the layer there is no negotiating position. If you look at these sectors as a whole, they are caught up in limited ways of survival because they have no mechanisms, no tools to change or negotiate their articulation politically in the larger metropolis.

So how can one deploy different types of political instruments not simply from the vantage point of residents in a particular territorial location, status, or consolidation? How are these instruments linked to a larger set of issues which correspond to the metropolis to make themselves move viable, provide greater flexibility and benefit different tiers of residents within them? I think a great deal of effort remains in how one can concretely alter these kinds of relationships. It may not be under a kind of larger rubric, a greater fight for social justice, or by significantly changing the livelihood of the urban poor, but rather in concrete, focused efforts.

The role of taking seriously these kinds of political experimentations is important. I don’t disagree with larger discourses on progressive urban change, but if there could be more people involved in trying to work with these kinds of issues through the various tracks in which residents concretize their everyday lives; their collaboration, intersecting trajectories, organizations, the propositions they make by appropriating history, networks, one could be informed by their often times complicated practices to re-negotiate a sense of stability and opportunity. These practices will always take place. But given this factor what role is there for particular kinds of political instrumentalities to be at work? I think they are not to be exclusive.

Credits: Image of Abdoumaliq Simone from Goldsmith's college.