A Stratification Economics Response to the United Nations

By Franklin Obeng-Odoom

Photo: A scene from the outbreak of the Berbice Revolt, 1763.
Credits: The photo is taken from the cover page of the book ‘The Era of Enslavement c. 1638-1838’ written by David A. Granger with artwork by Barrington C. Braithwaite

A New Social Democracy

Global Development Processes could be understood in many ways; through growth, degrowth, and poverty, for example. The heft of the new United Nations inequality-based approach is that it opens the door for holistic change, not sessional nor sectional analyses.

This approach, developed and canvassed by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, UNRISD, can be found in the report, Crises of Inequality: Shifting Power for a New Eco-Social Contract. Highlights of this report are outlined in the UNRISD Flagship Research and Policy Brief published in 2023. More recently, Dr Katja Hujo, a Senior Research Coordinator at UNRISD and the Head of the Bonn Office of UNRISD, also presented the key message of the report at the University of Helsinki event, Towards Eco-Social Contract.

So, this approach warrants attention. Three questions require urgent answers. First does the approach aligns with or contributes to perspectives from the Global South? Second, how can the approach contribute even more to  development priorities in the Global South? And, finally, what is needed to make transitions fair?

In responding to these questions, reflecting on the methodological context of the UNRISD approach is critical for a fuller understanding.

Methodological Context

UNRISD’s eco-social approach is couched in, and based on, an original institutional-economic theory of development.

Instead of blindly following new trends in embracing the World Economic Forum’s concept of ‘polycrises’, elaborately discussed in the 2023 Global Risk Report, the UNRISD approach highlights cumulative crises, stressing how all these are not only interlinked and intersectional, but also reflect specific historical and spatial processes of development and change.

The method of ‘circular and cumulative causation’ was, of course, developed by Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish development economist who co-founded, with Jan Tinbergen, UNRISD, a critical and independent voice in the UN System.

Myrdal, a social democrat, proposed social democracy as an alternative to both capitalism and socialism and social democratic theory of development as an alternative to mainstream development economics approach in works like American Dilemma and Asian Drama. Sweden and Finland have been major contributors to UNRISD funding.

Designated the ‘Scandinavian School of … development’ (here is an additional piece by James H. Street on the same), this approach points to equality of opportunity, not outcome, as the vision of an equal society.

These works have been simultaneously commended and condemned. Subsequent theorising tries to bolster the strengths of the approach and to move away from its weaknesses. Thandika Mkandawire, the Black-Swedish advocate of this approach, and former Director of UNRISD, for example, advanced it to be more interventionist, more Keynesian, more developmentalist. The eco-social transformative approach is a further extension of this tradition.

Addressing the Questions of Alignment, Deepening the Eco-Social Contract

While the diagnosis of the problem appears convincing, UNRISD could develop a more compelling explanation around global social stratification. Indeed, the social form and spatial expression of the inequalities analysed by UNRISD itself suggests that the challenge is no simple case of income or wealth inequality, labour-centred just transition or ‘a crisis of care’ typically viewed from the standpoint largely of formal economies and households without analysing the land question that undergirds these tensions and contradictions.

A broader and institutionalised problem of social stratification shows that underpinning the present cumulative crises is ‘ecological imperialism’. Its roots go as far back as the days of ascendant chattel slavery, capitalism, and what Eric Williams called Capitalism and Slavery. As the 2022 HELSUS Global South Encounters demonstrated, it is limiting to call complexities ‘inequalities’. They reflect a more pervasive hierarchisation that cuts across economy, society, and environment.

The tools for such an analysis cannot be found in original institutional economics. The new field of stratification economics tries to address this gap. William Darity Jr., the field’s pioneering and leading theorist, has extensively documented and demonstrated the history, theories, and empirics of this approach in outlets like the Journal of Economic Literature. One of his reviews offers the field’s state-of-the-art. Many books have also been published in in the Cambridge Studies in Stratification Economics. Other books on stratification economics have been published elsewhere, for example, by Oxford University Press, which recently published a stratification economics approach to Global Migration.  According to one review of this book, ‘stratification economics, … emphasizes the role of land and unequal access to property due to race, ethnicity, class, gender, or some combination thereof…within the context of monopolistic appropriation of rents derived from resources that should serve all citizens of Earth’

Within this way of seeing the development challenge: fiscal and monetary processes could helpfully be reworked. Shifting the incidence of taxation from work to property speculation could help to prevent the private appropriation of socially created rent. Pursuing monetary sovereignty and currency independence is another. A third is sharing the rents from using global currencies. Regardless, without global reparations, including ecological reparations, within the eco-social contract, no amount of eco-social contracts can address the problem that UNRISD so carefully identifies and analyses.

At the global level, power cannot be reduced to nations’ economic standing or status. But voice does not come from the goodwill, humanity, or solidarity of nations, either. It is the high and mighty, those with economic resources that dictate global terms. This ecological imperialism itself can be explained by stratification economics, which also provides a framework to demand and work towards political-economic liberation of the Global South beyond moral science and humanitarian appeals.


To emphasise, a new eco-social transformation is needed. UNRISD has not only correctly identified a need, it has also vigorously developed a thoughtful strategy to realise the vision.

Going from transition to just transition is clearly commendable. For the Global South, the challenge is bigger still: to shift from just transition to a just ecological political economy.

Book Review: Property, Institutions, and Social Stratification in Africa

Title under review:
Obeng-Odoom, F. (2020). Property, Institutions, and Social Stratification in Africa: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-49199-0

Reviewer: Dave Manneh, Independent Researcher (Intersection of Science, Technology and Society)

Editor: Dr Ayonghe Akonwi Nebasifu (Forest Science Department, University of Helsinki)

Paradigm Shift: Unveiling New Perspectives on African Economic Realities

“Property, Institutions and Social Stratification in Africa” presents a seminal examination that challenges conventional economic analyses of Africa’s economic and social condition. The book sheds light on the intricate dynamics of property rights, institutions, and social hierarchies. It offers a comprehensive exploration of the multifaceted issues surrounding economic development, inequality, and resource allocation in Africa.

Obeng-Odoom cited the entrenched examples of class, race, gender, and space which are all impediments to equality. These, he argued, are an enduring consequence of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism (p.26 – p.30). His insightful critique of prevailing economic paradigms provides a fresh perspective on how historical legacies, institutional frameworks, and social stratification intersect to shape Africa’s economic landscape

Obeng-Odoom develops and presents the work in meticulous coherence, organising it into several interconnected sections, each addressing distinct facets of Africa’s socio-economic landscape. The first section highlights the need to challenge mainstream economic analyses and reconsider the conceptual frameworks which are commonplace in development economics. The book critiques the impact of neoliberal economic reforms, explores the complexities of wealth transmission and women’s experiences, and questions the limitations of current development economic paradigms. He provided a case study of Ghana’s landownership and its gender inequality which hinders women’s access and control over land. Conventional land reforms are unlikely to address the underlying structural inequalities. An intersectional approach that considers gender, race, and class is crucial for achieving equitable land ownership in Ghana and beyond(p.101-106). The emphasis on understanding and addressing inequality and social stratification on the continent is a consistent and recurring theme.

Unveiling Africa’s Economic Quandaries: A Thorough Analysis from Land Reform to Resource Curse Phenomenon

The book then systematically dissects critical aspects of Africa’s economic development, spanning topics from land reform policies to the influence of transnational corporations. Land reform frameworks imposed on Africa and the Global South remain incredibly challenging and continue to be a critical issue in many African nations. This has a particular personal resonance; I am currently dealing with the effect of The Gambia’s selectivedesignation of some ancestral lands as ‘state lands’. Obeng-Odoom gave this continent-wide vexing issue a deserved examination –focusing on the slow progress and bureaucratic challenges countries face in implementing workable land management frameworks. He argues that land reform policies often fall short of achieving their intended goals, inadvertently perpetuating structural inequalities. This analysis sets the stage for a broader discussion on the role of transnational corporations, their control over resources, and the complexities of economic development in Africa.

The book further implores policymakers to explore alternative economic strategies, including “Africanisms” (p. 236) and the concept of “beyond growth,”(p. 243) which challenges mainstream ideas of economic growth and promotes well-being and sustainability. Obeng-Odoom adeptly navigates through these issues, providing a rigorous analysis of the resource curse phenomenon and its implications. He scrutinises the often-overlooked colonial influences that continue to shape economic trajectories – and persuasively argues that the resource curse narrative sometimes serves as a smokescreen, diverting attention from more profound structural issues rooted in historical injustices. He convincingly argued the weakening of Africa’s economy is the result of “the nature of the  neoliberal economic reforms imposed on African countries in the 1980s systematically led to the weakening of African states, the destruction of their  social policies, and the creation of a generous tax climate for transnational corporations that led to a transfer of rent from producers to rentiers.” (p. 21).

Transnational Corporations (TNCs), Environmental Considerations, and Critiques of International Financial Institutions

The book also delves into the role of transnational corporations (TNCs) in Africa, shedding light on their pervasive influence in shaping economic policies, resource management, and urban development. Obeng-Odoom’s critique of TNCs challenges conventional narratives that portray them as benevolent actors in African economies, instead exposing the power imbalances and unequal distribution of benefits as undesirable byproducts. It proposes different approaches, such as nationalisation and countervailing power, to counteract this imbalance.

Obeng-Odoom convincingly addresses the environmental consequences of economic activities, particularly in the oil and gas industry. The discussion on pollution, toxic emissions, and land contamination underscores the need for a more sustainable approach to resource extraction, taking into account the well-being of local communities and protecting natural resources.

African Perspectives: Challenging International Financial Institutions and Reimagining Economic Development.

Obeng-Odoom’s arguments echo scepticism towards the usefulness of policy directions from international financial institutions. These institutions often impose ill-suited policies on Africa. Because of its economic weakness, the Global South feels compelled to accept these recommendations. Some of these policies play a significant role in the immiseration of Africans, revealing a dynamic where these policies contribute to shaping the economic landscape with undesirable consequences. The yoke of intergenerational debt shackles the global south, perpetuating a cycle of destitution and inequality that casts a shadow over future generations. Breaking free requires debt relief, fairer trade, and increased investment in sustainable development. This will empower developing nations to chart their own course towards a brighter future. By lifting this burden, we can foster inclusive and sustainable economic growth, ensuring a more equitable and prosperous future for generations to come.

It is essential for African academics, such as Obeng-Odoom, to interrogate economic policies and offer solutions to the challenges faced by the continent. Letting experts from the international financial institutions tell a story about Africa leads to misrepresentation and misinformation. Hence, this work is not only important but necessary in shaping a narrative rooted in African perspectives. Without a doubt, the contributions in this seminal work are invaluable to the discourse on African economic development. It successfully dismantles mainstream economic analyses, offering an alternative lens through which to view and then understand the continent’s challenges. By centering the narrative on historical legacies, institutional frameworks, and social stratification, Obeng-Odoom provides a more nuanced and contextually grounded perspective.

Obeng-Odoom’s emphasis on the need for inclusive governance and democratic decision-making processes is noteworthy. By advocating for the empowerment of individuals, protection of the environment, and comprehensive land reform policies, he offers tangible solutions to address the pervasive inequalities that have plagued African nations. He proposed “treating natural resources as common property that benefits of all citizens and to guarantee that labor receives its full reward. His proposal contrasts with the solutions often proffered by others, like protection, “retreating from globalization” etc(p. 175).

However, the book could benefit from a more extensive exploration of policy recommendations and their feasibility in different African contexts. While the theoretical frameworks Obeng-Odoom presented are robust, he would have enhanced the book’s applicability for policymakers and development practitioners if he had taken a deeper dive into practical implementation strategies.

Obeng-Odoom’s work stands as a significant contribution to the growing body of literature that seeks to redefine the discourse on African economic development. His engagement with critical theories, such as Marxism and Georgism (p 38-39), provides a solid theoretical foundation for understanding the complex interplay of property rights, institutions, and social stratification. Moreover, the book’s engagement with contemporary debates on environmental sustainability, resource management, and the role of transnational corporations aligns with current academic discussions on global economic justice and ecological responsibility.

Intellectual Vanguard: Rethinking African Political Economy Through Obeng-Odoom’s Paradigm-Shifting Analysis

“Property, Institutions and Social Stratification in Africa” is intellectually stimulating. It stands as a significant contribution to the field of African political economy. Obeng-Odoom’s fastidious examination of diverse themes and critical engagement with prevailing economic theories provides readers with a thought-provoking perspective. It is a thought-provoking work that challenges prevailing economic paradigms, established and orthodox narratives. This book’s examination of the African economic landscape offers a valuable contribution to the academic discourse on economic development, inequality, and resource allocation. It offers alternative frameworks and solutions to address Africa’s socio-economic challenges. Overall, the depth and breadth of analysis make this book an essential read for scholars, policymakers, and anyone seeking a nuanced understanding of Africa’s economic and social dynamics.

Balikpapan and its challenges in becoming a post-oil city

By Meri Leppänen, Annika Vierinkari, Janika Sistonen, Aino Arkko, Eve Castle & Kezia Kautto
The authors are students of Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki

Balikpapan, a city of almost 700 000 residents located on the eastern coast of Borneo has experienced remarkable changes that influenced its overall character, identity, and objectives – from its humble beginnings as a colonial outpost to a successful transformation into a thriving oil city. However, due to a need to tackle the current climate crisis and the necessity to becoming a more sustainable city, this once oil-centric city is now focusing on expanding the possibilities of a future beyond fossil fuels. The multidimensional narrative of Balikpapan, from its colonial history to the city’s rise as an oil hub, as well as its more recent attempts as a post-oil city with a focus on sustainability make Balikpapan unique. This urges us to deep dive into the city’s urban transformation and its challenges and aspirations of disposing of the oil-city status.

Colonial history – how Balikpapan was ruled and became an oil city

In the early 17th century, Balikpapan was part of the Kutai Kertanegara kingdom, which belonged to the Sultanate of Banjarmasin. After the Dutch East India Company took control of most of Kalimantan in 1817, Balikpapan became a territory of the Dutch East Indies. Kalimantan was initially seen mostly as a burden and the colonial administration imposed a no-intervention policy in the region. It was not until the discovery of a significant oil reserve in East Kalimantan that the attitude of the Dutch changed. The Dutch East Indies purchased the small fishing villages that would eventually become Balikpapan and began to be more involved in the local administration, eventually putting East Kalimantan under its authority. The drilling of oil began in 1897 by a small Dutch refinery company called Mathilda, which later attracted the Dutch oil company, Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM), in 1907. This led to the construction of necessary infrastructure and the arrival of skilled laborers, engineers, and managers from overseas, mainly from China and India. Consequently, many multinational companies invested in the oil industry in Balikpapan, leading to the city’s rapid economic and social growth.

The Kutai Sultanate was under a certain type of protection from the colonial government and gained income from the exploitation of oil. This became the primary way for the local aristocracy to maintain its dominance in the region. This symbiotic relationship between the sultanate and the Dutch colonial government helped create an export-oriented economy policy and increased extraction as well as uneven and unequal development within the region. Prior to the Japanese occupation of 1942-1945, frustration towards the living conditions in Balikpapan led to a nationalist movement which embraced an anti-Dutch and anti-aristocracy orientation.

Despite Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945, BPM continued its activities in Balikpapan until 1965, when the state-owned oil company Pertamina eventually took control of BPM’s ownership in the city after major disputes. As the only oil refinery site in the region, Balikpapan became a revitalized center of oil production. Pertamina established itsEast Borneo headquarters in the city, and other international oil companies followed suit by opening their branch offices there.

Transformation to post-oil city

Balikpapan is not a solo city that has attempted to transform into a post-oil, sustainable city. Efforts are made all around the world in oil cities, such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Port Hartcourt. There is clearly a pressing need for an ecological transformation in major cities, and oil cities are at the center of this. However, when talking about the changes into the post-oil era, socio-ecological issues do not always receive the attention they deserve. Developing into a sustainable city belongs to the globally shared idea that “to be green is to be modern”. The narrative of modernity and the related environmental sustainability is largely based on Western notions of sustainability and a certain image that the city gives, such as solar panel parks or green areas. However, what is meant by sustainable development often remains vague. This strategic ambiguity makes ‘sustainability’ attractive to companies and cities operating in the oil sector, for example.

Balikpapan today

At present time, Balikpapan’s economy is dominated by, and firmly reliant on, the refined petroleum and coal manufacturing industry. Employing around 13% of its working population, the manufacturing industry contributed 47.2% of the city’s gross domestic regional product (GDRP) in 2022. The city attracted many oil companies and adjacent industries. These companies brought middle to high income workers to Balikpapan and consequently increased the city’s population size, as well as diversified businesses and retail industries. Other significant industries (see figure 1) in Balikpapan also include construction (15.8% of GDRP) and transport and storage (10.8% of GDRP). The unemployment rate was at 7%, around 2% above the national average, and 2.57% of the city’s population are considered to be living in poverty (the poverty line is measured at 613, 622 rupiah per capita per month) – around 7% below the national average (see also Statistics Balikpapan, 2023d; Statistics Indonesia, 2023a; Statistics Indonesia, 2023e; Statistics Indonesia, 2023f). There also remains disparities between men’s and women’s employment, with over 50% more men working as employees compared to women.

Figure 1: Distribution of GRDP at Current Market Prices by Industry in Balikpapan (2022) (Statistics Balikpapan, 2023)

While Tarigan et al. (2017) argue that the manufacturing industry has been on a downward trend since 2010, recent data(see figure 2) shows that the GDRP has remained largely stagnant, with small fluctuating changes over the last ten years. This could suggest that manufacturing remains, and is likely to remain, an important aspect of Balikpapan’s economy. Nevertheless, structural changes in the city’s economy have been strongly influenced by oil field maturation and price fluctuation. The changes have also been affected by sustainability agendas, environmental issues and changes in political system and administration. This happened in the early 2000s, when Indonesia moved from a centralized to a decentralized political system and local governments gained more power to develop their cities and control their natural and financial resources (see also Tarigan and Sagala, 2018).

Figure 2: Distribution of GRDP at Current Market Prices for Manufacturing in Balikpapan (2010-2022) (Statistics Balikpapan, 2023a)

The city of Balikpapan is aiming to move away from depending heavily on the oil industry to becoming a more sustainable city by concentrating on five dimensions of economic development outside of oil, including services, diversified industry (e.g., renewable energy and other green industries), commerce, tourism, and education (see also Tarigan and Sagala, 2018). These changes include, for example, plans for improved public transportation, monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions, developing empty downtown areas into open green spaces for the community and creating new centers and areas concentrated in different industrial sectors (see also Tarigan et al, 2017)

Social problems resulting from urban development dominated by oil industry

There are multiple social problems that could be the characteristics of an ‘oil city’, in which urban policies have developed mainly and infrastructure in the city have been built purposely to support the one specific industry, resulting in the emerging of disadvantaged communities. To better understand today’s Balikpapan, it is important to note that during the colonization period, the central Balikpapan was designed around the oil industry and to support all the oil related facilities. Additionally, the colonial administration offices were serving as the city centre. Spatially, Balikpapan has revolved around the oil industry ever since.  One of the effects of Balikpapan’s urban development is that there are areas that have been neglected. People in these areas are excluded from the basic infrastructure and the economic activities and live in poorer neighborhoods with inadequate housing around the central area. Roughly 12 sub-districts are considered as “slums”, and do not have access to clean water or proper sewer system and waste management and the housing conditions are poor.  Balikpapan has just recently created plans to include farmers, fishermen, low-income households and other minority groups in the economy. Another effect is that these neglected areas could not be reached by public transportation. The city’s transportation plans failed to include the poorer communities.

The city’s workforce since the colonial era, which was over-represented by imported workers, had not necessarily improved local employment. Even though the population in Balikpapan is young nowadays, with a total of 18% of the population ranging from 25 to 39 years, and an even younger workforce growing, there are concerns about the lack of university level education, which is required for increasing local productivity and competitiveness. Despite the city’s plans to develop the accessibility and availability of education, there’s still a lack of plans to connect tertiary education with the service and other sectors, which might lead students to find opportunities outside the city or them not ending up to a job that fits their level of education.


The neglected areas where the residents facing poor living and housing conditions and the lack of public infrastructure, the failure of providing quality and accessible public transportation, and the lack of qualified workforce in Balikpapan, as discussed, are social problems that stem from the “uneven” urban development since the colonial era which has solely facilitated the oil industry to extract natural resources and sell them. These consequences illustrate firstly that there is a certain level of city’s failure in providing basic infrastructure and a decent quality of living for all the residents, and secondly that the focus of urban development has been on the large-scale projects which benefit commercialization of the city. This being said, there’s a need for a more holistic approach that goes beyond economic progress. As characterized above, the influence of neoliberalism, which is an ideology that focuses on economic growth, is still deeply materialized in ways that has continued to undermine social sustainability, particularly in regard to urban policies and planning.

Concluding remarks

For Balikpapan, the city needs more than simply a plan to diversify their economy in order to become a more sustainable city.  What is lacking is an effort to address the root causes of long-term socio-spatial inequalities and social stratification. In transitioning an oil-city to a post-oil, more sustainable city, there is a need for city managers and stakeholders to together reflect on and understand the city’s history of urban development, and to be able to make a “just” transition that does not reproduce or increase socio-spatial inequalities (see e.g. Obeng-Odoom, 2021). Besides, scholars should be critical about the idea of “I’m green, I’m modern” which is based on the confrontation between modernity and backwardness influenced by colonialism, and the spectacles of the green transition that should not be simply evaluated from the point of view of greenwashing because sustainability encompasses more than just only environmental equalitybut also social inequality (see also Koch, 2022). To fulfill its objectives of being a vibrant, inclusive, and resilient city for all its citizens, Balikpapan must recognize the historical and structural impact of its oil industry, and emphasize the needs of all inhabitants, particularly the disadvantaged, through more inclusive and participatory approach in urban policies, planning, and practices.

Unsettling Ecological Imperialism by Reconciling South-North Interests?

By Ayonghe Akonwi Nebasifu, University of Helsinki

Ecological imperialism characterises much of the global ecological crises today. In seeking justice therefore, we must be cautious of its dangers. Take for instance, the institutionalised long-term inequalities, unfettered economic growth, to tensions over land distribution, that emerge from ecologically unequal exchanges of capitalism and their detrimental effects on both nature and the human environment.

Yet, as Harini Nagendra recently pointed out in a presentation for the HELSUS Global South Encounters, entitled ‘Nature in the City’, the Global South offers many sustainability insights. Indigenous knowledge in the South has been documented to provide a wealth of wisdom.

One way to address these egregious harms and learn from the Global South is to seek respectful engagement with the Global South. Africa stands out. It continues to suffer the indignities of intellectual marginalisation. A number of areas of cooperation between the Nordics and Africa would seem to offer an alternative, but doing so would require reconciling the respective parties’ knowledge systems. Are different “interests”, by definition, part of a solution? What role do the rule of law and governance play in balancing different interests? Addressing these critical questions requires analysing the stance of anthropocentrism, local knowledge and transformational change, building on my own work in the GreenPole project (2021-2025), funded by NordForsk.

Anthropocentrism in Policy Governance

Since the 1950s, the notion that both human and natural events contribute to the degradation of nature has been broadly acknowledged and critiqued. The consensus seems to be that nature is a force to be governed. This is capturedin the concept of anthropocentrism. Ideas have emerged since then to reconsider nature’s capacity to fulfil its potential, giving rise to post-anthropocentrism. These views are widespread in policy contexts.

Three cases illustrate the point. Start with the 1981 World Conservation Strategy. It was shaped by conservation agencies (UNEP, IUCN, FAO), which emphasised the need to preserve living resources for sustainable development. Similar views were put forward later, first in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and later in the Paris Agreement, which saw a shift to including climate mitigation within the Conference of Parties (COPs).

The second case is the goal of climate neutrality in 2050 set by the European Union (EU), which is to be met by member states through policies and legislation at multi-societal levels. When implemented, advocates envisage sweeping benefits for society, such as cleaner air, less waste, healthier food, as well as efficiency in energy and public transport.

The third example is the African Union (AU) and its regulatory stance on climate response. African countries have opportunities to improve upon their contributions to climate mitigation, possibilities that have been outlined in the African Union Climate Change and Resilient Development Strategy and Action Plan (2022-2023). Among the Plan’s visions is realising Africa’s Agenda 2063. An important emphasis here is support for regional collaboration through joint action and international partnerships, which embodies the hope of a citizen-driven, integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa.

It seems, therefore, that we should now go on to ask whether and how this progress might accommodate different interests in the use of nature or natural resources. A key process to explore in answering this question is knowledge integration among actors.

Science, local knowledge and transformational change

There is a need to ask: What lessons can policy governance learn from Indigenous and local communities who have used natural resources long before the coming of modern systems for conservation? My anthropological study with the peoples of the Mount Cameroon National Park in sub-Saharan West Africa (2015-2022), revealed transformative ways to reconcile the needs of biodiversity and local livelihoods (Figures 1, 2, 3).

Figure 1: Mount Cameroon National Park (Author’s data, 2017)

Figure 2: Community settlement, Mount Cameroon National Park (Author’s data, 2017)

Figure 3: Camping site, Mount Cameroon National Park (Author’s data, 2017)

Underpinning the successful reconciliation of these interests has been the agency people have displayed in complex policy environments to preserve their traditions. This has taken the form of behaviours reflecting cultural resilience in which people connect with nature in ways that sustain genetic resources. My research also delved into the potential that lies in management systems embracing collaboration, that is, where (and if) systems allow for coping mechanisms. We must, however, be cautious of risks for local knowledge to be overshadowed by top-down channels for decision-making. Such findings suggest a need for opportunities to make comparable observations in other regions – the Nordics, Africa and other sites globally – where state resource management may operate alongside human communities that have long had relations with nature.

Towards the Future

Ecological imperialism–where a dominant power controls trade, investment, labour, natural resources of peoples, and knowledge systems, both locally and globally – is harmful. It increases the risk of widening the burden of ecological degradation. As concerning are the uneven and unequal ramifications of ecological imperialism for both the Global North and the Global South. All is not lost. Despite dissimilar interests, there are possibilities to accommodate people, nature and policy governance alike. A certain co-creation is possible between the Global South and the Global North. For instance, the benefits of information exchange, sharing and collaboration in addressing the global ecological crisis could be fostered. Concepts such as participation, integration and inclusion, as well as their role in transformational change, invite rethinking in this respect.

With several questions of reconciliation that remain to be presented to various audiences in seeking better options for cooperation between people, nature and governance, interdisciplinary research projects are worth considering. Such studies would seem to offer new ways of agreeing on and addressing different needs in society, such as sustainability.

Where to go from this point is an open question. Personally, I look forward to researching new challenges in the near future with curiosity and hope. For instance, working with other investigators in the GreenPole project affords an opportunity to address many of the questions raised in this article, contributing in turn, to debates about the sustainable use of Nordic forests to deliver multiple benefits and values. Drawing on interviews with researchers, I plan to examine qualitative assessments of forest policy outcomes (climate, biodiversity, and wider societal impacts), synergies and trade-offs.

Such assessments may produce newer understanding about future changes of multifunctionality in the management of Nordic forests. A salient example, based on my ongoing interviews, is the term “anticipatory policy governance”, with which policy makers can minimize future risks in the Nordic Forest sector if applied systematically. This “anticipation” also includes practices of resilience, of re-evaluating, of reflecting and of learning across multiple actors, building the bricks of reconciliation one step at a time.


Neuquén, A Heart of Oil

The biggest city in Patagonia which holds an incredible history of Indigenous people and colonial explorations in the Argentinian republic.

By Sonu Dawadi, Daniel Freire Espin, Saara Kemppainen, Kaisa Lahikainen, Nadin Sadek
The authors are students of Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki

Neuquén is the largest city in Argentinian Patagonia. The city is also the most important economic hub in Patagonia. Relying heavily on the energy sector, revenue from oil in Vaca Muerta is the main source of income for the city.


The confluence of the Neuquén and lImay rivers, in Patagonia, has shown signs of human occupation for thousands of years. Indigenous communities such as the Mapuches extended their territories here. During the 16th century the “Mapuche acculturation” occurred, a process during which this group extended their influence throughout much of Patagonia. The Ratsrilladas, a series of paths that connected several populations of Indigenous people, were built during this time. By the time the Spanish conquistadores reached Patagonia, several groups were ruled by Loncos.

During the colonial period, Patagonia remained largely unexplored and the Mapuches had not much contact with European invaders. However, with the independence of Argentina, the nation gained interest in effectively controlling more of its territory. To attain this goal, several expeditions were organised. For example, the expedition of Las Rosas in 1833, in which the Argentinians intended to take control of Patagonia, that led to violent confrontations with the Mapuche and the expedition ended in failure. Later, the expedition of La Roca was staged to take the future territory of Neuquén as it had several rastrilladas.

Patagonia was finally controlled by Argentina and many migrants from Buenos Aires arrived. These early settlements were dispersed, and the locality was named Confluencia. Some infrastructure that permitted the connection with the rest of Argentina was built, for example a train station and a telegraph. These constructions made Confluencia more attractive for new settlers, which is why when the province of Neuquén was created, its capital was decided to be established at Confluencia’s site: in 1904, Neuquén is officially founded here.

Economic Composition and Structural Change

In the 1970s a large hydrocarbon field was found in the area. This discovery displaced the existing economic foundation of the city which was mainly based on agriculture, and the city became one of the major fuel producers in Argentina. This ‘oiling of the urban economy’, to use a descriptor in the literature, attracted many multinational oil companies to the city.

But it was not until the 1990s, when Argentina underwent significant structural economic reforms, including privatization and liberalization of many industries, that the ownership structure of the oil industries shifted into private hands. The end of the military dictatorship in 1983 also facilitated this structural adjustment. Until the 1990’s the state owned Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF) was the main oil provider in Argentina, but after that the country transferred from state owned oil companies to private firms. During this process, YPF was also privatized and in 1998 60% of the company was privately owned.

From 1990 onwards, national and multinational oil companies took more power on the urban economic scene. In 2000s there have been state incentives towards unconventional energy projects, but the hierarchical structure and dependency on existing infrastructure in the energy system restricts involvement of local actors in UEP -market and promotes extractivist practices.

Even more recently, Neuquén’s economy continues to be largely driven by the energy sector. It accounted for some 42 per cent of the city’s 2019 GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (Figure 1). Many national and international companies such as YPF, Tecpetrol, and Pan American Energy, have made substantial investment in exploration and production of oil.

Figure 1. Relative Sector Contribution (%) to Regional GDP, 2019
National Institute of Statistics and Censuses of Argentina (INDEC, 2019)

To this day, Vaca Muerta shale formation is the second largest gas reserve and fourth largest oil in the world. As an oil city, the most pressing problem Neuquén faces is what has been called the ‘energy transition’. It is one of many key issues faced by Neuquén.

Ecocide, Just Transition, and Just Sustainability

Neuquén, like many other cities, faces several issues, such as traffic congestion  and a shortage of adequate housing,  that are considered urban questions. The LUCA project aims to address urban mobility and public transport. More than 3 in 10 persons in Argentina lack adequate housing due to factors such as migration, limited social housing programs, and high land prices worsened by economic crises, inflation, and devaluation. The Neighbourhood projects offers training and financing to improve housing quality and self-management, as well as supervised rentals for families with a history of poor housing conditions. Conflict between the Mapuche nation and the state has also become a significant issue. Legislative improvements and organizations such as the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs and IWGIA have worked to protect the collective and individual rights of Indigenous peoples. The construction of the Nahueve dam has raised concerns among environmental groups and Indigenous communities, highlights a transparent and participatory decision-making process that considers the potential impacts of the dam is necessary to ensure its sustainability. The Neuquén region has several tourism hubs that attract a growing number of both, traditional tourism and lifestyle migrants which is starting to push the urban frontiers.  So, all these problems appear transient.

A more persistent and structural problem is ecocide. Oil and gas companies operating in Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shaleformation are facing allegations of illegal dumping of toxic waste. Environmental groups are calling for stricter regulations and enforcement to prevent further ecocide. The government has launched a public registry to address the issue. Greenpeace activists previously blocked a waste site used by these companies, but this activism did not impact production.

Aerial view of Comarsa’s oil and gas waste storage and treatment facility in the city of Neuquén, Argentina. Credit: Martín Barzilai 

The problems of oil production are not limited to extractivism and environmental degradation. For example, issues regarding oil rents and patronage as well as effects on labor  which have impact on local social realities. Looking at the future, it is clear that oil cities are due to a transition towards green energy alternatives. However, current realities and just transition from oil are affected by the historical and cultural structures. In fact, recent events show the growing numbers of oil export and new investments.

Lack of state and local government regulation in land and real estate development reproduces value systems of a neoliberal market-based approach rather than local values and interests. The impact of unregulated urban planning and development has led to exclusion and gentrification. To address these problems, regulation and planning, that has the collective local interests as a core, could offer solutions. Reproduction of conflicting social imaginaries and institutional violence from hegemonic discourses should be critically observed.

What is at issue is not simply about just transition. At the root, there are deeper questions of just sustainabilities. In Neuquén, inclusive of ecocide remedies, sustainability policies should address social injustices more holistically, beyond the environmental aspects.

Odesa: City Profile

By Niccolò Bianchi, Mira Hämäläinen, Linnea Karsikas, Elina Kilkki, Cameron Marshall & Harry Retief
The authors are students of Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki

Odesa (Оде́са in Ukrainian) is a port city in Southern Ukraine, situated by the shores of the Black Sea. With around one million habitants, it is the third largest city in Ukraine, on top of having the largest seaport in Ukraine and one of the largest in the Black Sea. Due to its size and critical trading port, Odesa’s economic, political, and cultural significance cannot be understated.

Figure 1 – Map showing the location of Odesa, in Ukraine

In this post, we will undertake an in-depth analysis of Odesa, focusing on the factors contributing to its strategic importance on the national and regional levels. Our research aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the main drivers behind the city’s prominence, taking into account its historical development, geopolitical position, and socio-economic dynamics. By delving into these aspects, we hope to shed light on the complex interplay of factors that have shaped Odesa’s trajectory and resulted in its current strategic importance, aggravated by the context of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Figure 2 – Volume and share of imported and exported goods and services in the Odesa Region in 2019

Figure 3 – Main destinations of Odesa’s export  


Odesa has had a long history under the rule of different peoples and empires as an important crossroad for the movement of people and goods. This history has contributed to Odesa’s intercultural and diverse nature. The current city of Odesastarted to form under Tatar rule when a fortress called Khadzhibey was built. After the Russian-Turkey war of 1787-1792, the city was renamed Odesa in 1794. Under Russian rule in the 19th century, Odesa grew rapidly in size and population and developed into a bustling trading hub while operating as a free port. During the Soviet era, Odesa experienced rapid industrialization and growth, becoming a vital center for maritime trade and shipbuilding. Despite facing challenges under strict centralized control, the city fostered a unique cultural identity, which endured and thrived throughout the period. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Odesa continued to grow and maintained its importance in transportation, trading, and industry.


The city’s harbor, arguably Odesa’s most relevant asset, has now become home to a Special Economic Zone called “Odesa Free Port,” created in 2000 with the aim of “investment attraction in priority industries of production for preserving existing and creations of new workplaces”. Due to the creation of the SEZ, paired with politics aimed at attracting foreign investors, the volume of foreign direct investments in the Odesa Region reached 1794,2 million USD in 2020. In terms of industry, heavy industries such as metalworking and machine building are the leading sectors, accounting for over one-third of the industrial output and having several of their key industries listed as “enterprises of strategic importance”. Agriculture is also an important sector in the areas surrounding Odesa: in 2012, it employed over 35% of the population and produced 40% of the GRP of the Odesa Region.


Figure 4 – Commodity structure of foreign trade in the Odesa Region in the first quarter of 2020, showing the importance of the food industry in the economy of the region.

Though employment in the informal and semi-formal economy has been under the national average in Odesa, in 2016, 8,3% of the population worked in the informal economy and 10,2% were informally employed in the formal sector. In 2016, Odesa was the only region where the reduction in informal employment was higher than the country average. One of the largest hubs of Odesa’s informal economy is the Seventh-kilometers market, established during Soviet rule and now one of the largest market complexes in Eastern Europe. While the number of official shops has increased in recent years, the majority are still individually owned small shops.

Figure 5a & 5b – Break-down of regions by informal employment in the formal sector (5a) and by employment in the informal sector as % of employed (5b) in 2015-2016

Furthermore, tourism is a significant industry in Odesa, as it is famous for its beaches and rich cultural history. However, tourism steadily decreased after Russia annexed Crimea and after the 2022 escalation in the war. In 2015, the number of tourists in the Odesa region had decreased by 11.58% since 2012 and in 2022, most hotels in the city reported occupancy of only 15-20%.


As a transportation hub, Odesa is heavily reliant on resources extracted elsewhere in the country. The port complex contains an oil and gas transfer and storage facility able to handle over 25 million tons of crude oil and oil products per year, which makes it Ukraine’s largest oil harbor and one of the largest in Europe. It also handles over 34.5 million tons of cargo and up to 4 million passengers every year, making it the busiest international port in Ukraine and a crucial hub in the region’s economic network. Its importance is highlighted by the fact that up to 70% of Ukraine’s imports and exports are carried by sea, and of that 65% move through the Port of Odesa. Furthermore, several important oil and gas pipelines run through the Odesa region. One of these is the Odesa-Brody pipeline, through which Ukraine can transport non-Russian oil to the rest of Europe, something that Russia has been strongly opposed to.

Figure 6 – International transport corridors passing through Odesa.

Figure 7 – Main gas (in red) and oil (in blue) pipelines transiting through Ukraine, including the Odesa-Brody pipeline


Over the last decades, Odesa has faced (and is still facing) several urban challenges. For example, housing in Odesa has been among the most expensive in Ukraine and the public transportation infrastructure is out-of-date and insufficient. The eradication of urban intersectional inequalities and ‘glocal’ social stratification should be in the centre of any successful solutions to these and other urban issues in Odesa. To be able to provide sustainable urban transport and housing that is just in a social and spatial sense, it would be vital to secure domestic, public funding. One way to achieve this would be by collectivizing socially created rent that has been privately appropriated.

Figure 8Production, export, and import of Ukrainian wheat in 2020, highlighting Ukraine’s role as a critical grain exporter to the world


After years of escalating tensions, on the 24th of February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine. Even though Odesa is not on the frontlines, it has suffered bombings and attacks on its naval bases. The war has also altered the role of the city in the region and has had devastating effects on the population, infrastructure, and industry. Due to Odesa’s location and its strategic importance, its invasion would destabilize the region and open other countries in the region, such as Moldova, for invasion. Furthermore, the main base of the Ukrainian Navy is in Odesa. This links Odesa, with its pipelines and port, to the theory, proposed by some scholars, which portrays Russia’s war on Ukraine as being partly due to the competition Ukraine’s pipelines and energy reserves pose for Russia’s domination in energy exports to Europe. Therefore, some conceptualize Russia’s attacks in a framework of resource dependency.

Others contest the resource war framework as an easy and too logical of an explanation for the irrational actions of Russia. Furthermore, Russia wastes its own natural resources in the war and destroys Ukraine’s resources. Instead, some see the war as having the objective to destroy Ukrainian (resource) cities, such as Odesa. On a more profound level, the war can be seen as a deliberate attempt to destroy Ukrainian national identity.

As Ukraine is one of the biggest producers of grain in the world, Odesa’s role as the most important port for grain shipments has become very visible during the war. Pre-war Ukraine exported 15% of the world’s corn and 10% of its cereals, meaning the Russian naval blockade hit the economy of port cities such as Odesa hard. The blockade also affects the nearly 400 million people around the world that are dependent on Ukraine’s grain exports. The Black Sea Grain Initiative between Russia and Ukraine permits grain shipments from the ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi. The deal was extended on 18.3.2023 for at least 60 days. This demonstrates how Odesa has continued to play a significant role during the war, due to its location, port, and other strategic enterprises.

Protecting resource cities like Odesa, in the end, goes beyond safeguarding national interests. It becomes a critical responsibility to ensure the stability and resilience of global food systems. By preserving and defending these cities, we can help maintain a steady flow of essential resources to meet the needs of not only the local population but also the interconnected network of countries around the world.



Dubai ━ Differentiated Luxury and the Illusion of Sustainability

By Blen Hailu, Tiina Raasakka, Diane Sheehy & Sara Vanhanen
The authors are students of Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki

Aerial view of Dubai’s artificial Palm Islands. Source: Adobe Stock.

In January 2023, Dubai announced an $8.7 trillion economic plan to boost trade, investment and global hub status of the city. Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktetoum, the ruler of Dubai has said he aims to double the size of its economy in the next ten years and become “one of the top three cities in the world”. This complements popular images of Dubai.

But this oil city was not always prosperous. In 1822, it was a fishing and pearling village with a population of less than 2000 inhabitants, with piracy additionally playing a consistent part in its economy. The Gulf area is generally known for its oil which has brought affluence to some, but not to all. For Dubai, though, its transformation is as much about oil as it is about urban economic strategy and policy centred on trade. Dubai is a city and an emirate in the United Arab Emirates, which are in the Gulf area. The Gulf Area was first colonized by the Portuguese who controlled the area from 1500 to 1750, and later by the British. It presented a strategic geopolitical location as an entrepot between Asia, Africa and Europe created a great opportunity for its continuous importance as a trade hub in the region. Throughout the early and mid-20th century Dubai remained under British influence, enabling, for example, British companies to have exclusive contracts with Dubai. Even so, this city has struggled with two different, but interlinked, forms of migration: expatriates and foreign labor. These migrant flows have built, and today sustain, Dubai, but their differential treatment and their general precarious form pose a risk to Dubai’s current 2040 sustainability plan.

Even though Dubai’s structural economic changes have taken place over several decades, the most significant shifts occurred in the last few decades and were triggered by the discovery of oil in 1966. UAE holds the eight largest oil reserves globally. Although Dubai’s oil reserves are relatively small, amounting to only 4 billion barrels compared to Abu Dhabi’s reserves that make up 92% of the UAE’s total of 98 billion barrels, the discovery of oil  played a crucial role in financing the early and rapid expansion of the city’s infrastructure from the construction of dry ports and modern banking systems to the establishment of the Chamber of Commerce. What made this possible can be explained through a combination of factors, ranging from an open-door policy to migration, a certain developmental state, and a particular type of free trade.

Central to these factors in particular is migration. The Harris-Todaro Model suggests that the decision to migrate from rural to urban areas is made rationally, based on expected income differentials. But, in Dubai, the developmental state has developed a policy to attract labour in a way that defies this idea of rationally defined and enacted equalizing flows – the kafala system. In Dubai, migration is guided by sponsorship-based migration policy characterized by temporariness and precariousness, where the visas of the workers are tied to their employers and very few migrants can attain permanent residency.

Dubai’s development, still, has been largely dependent on foreign workforce ━ it is a city and economy sustained by migration. Historically Dubai began to attract migration from neighboring countries during the late 19th century and already in the mid-20th century foreign workers constituted over around half the population in Dubai. In 2022, 88.52% of Dubai’s population was formed by expatriates. Dubai attracts both highly educated people from the Global North ━ those labeled as expatriates ━ as well as lower educated people from the neighboring areas ━ those labeled as foreign labor. Both types of migrants have been necessary for the growth and development of Dubai and this outsourcing of Dubai’s workforce has enabled the city to react extremely swiftly in the face of new strategic opportunities or development agendas.

First, in terms of expatriate workforce, Dubai’s economy is built on trade, and it has open-door, pro-business policies that attract new businesses. Free zones aimed to expand the economic growth of Dubai began with the Jebel Ali free zone, which has grown from 19 companies in 1985 to 9,500 businesses today. It attracts 23.9% of Dubai’s Foreign Direct Investment, which in the first half of 2022, was the world leader. In these areas, expatriates and foreigners can have full ownership of companies, 100% repatriation of capital and profits, 100% exemption from customs duties and corporate and income taxes and modern infrastructure. Even so, these expatriates nevertheless remain outside privileges catered towards the nationals, such as state-allocated land. Even though Dubai’s image, and thus economy thrives on the image of cosmopolitanism, its governance structures are ruled by logics of non-integration.

And second, foreign labor is largely driven by the image of luxury Dubai presents. Dubai is known around the world for its modern infrastructure and tourist destinations including Burj Khalifah, Dubai Mall and the “most luxurious hotel in the world” the Burj Al Arab. It reported 14.36 million international tourists in 2022. Tourism in Dubai is based on luxury tourism focusing on high-end shopping, transport, and tour operations which are supported by events such as conferences and sporting events. The building of the glamorous, consumption-heavy and megaproject-driven tourism industry, has, however, been driven not only by the extremely heavy use of the environment, but by migrant workers in conditions which Human Rights Watch describes as forced labor, with issues of unlawful arrests, detentions, torture, and deportations.

Dubai represents a case of rapid transformation from a small village to a global cosmopolitan centere. First enabled by oil, its developmental urban governance combined with economic liberalism have built it into a diversified economy, driven by migration and an image of luxury. Under this image, however, lies another picture of everything made invisible, from exploited low-income foreign labour to a hierarchical labour structure. Still, this oil city depicts a case of the potential and the problems of the urban developmental state, committed to using urban resources to drive growth and change.

In the light of growing questions about sustainability, modern urbanization that is built on perpetual increase in production and consumption is unsustainable. Mumtaz contends that a city is sustainable when it fully recycles what it consumes. Julian Agyeman shows that a sustainable city is inclusive. Sustainable urban development is illusory in Dubai’s environment of differentiated luxury.

Reflections on Professor Dronova’s Lecture: ‘Breaking stereotypes: Ukraine, Kyiv, the War’

By Aino Arkko
The author is a student of Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki

Figure 1. damaged tank Russian’s war in Ukraine, Image by Freepik.

The fluctuating nature of modern warfare and armed conflict often ignore the severe environmental consequences which are frequently pervasive and devastating, not only impacting the immediate environment but moreover the larger global ecology and ecosystem. In this regard,  Global South Encounters lecture by Professor Olena Dronova, a distinguished Ukrainian geographer, gives a passionate and insightful analysis of the interconnections between urban geography, urban ecology, and urban sustainable development in the context of Ukraine under war. This passion is founded. Although her statement that “this [Russia] is a country of barbarians” is clearly an overgeneralization it must be understood in the context of her grief for the loss of loved ones, the destruction of her country, and the extermination of Ukrainian identity. Historically, this kind of labeling has typically only exacerbated dehumanization and stereotyping, but Dronova’s central arguments are based on a systematic analysis of the evidence, which is crucial to concentrate on addressing specific actions and policies that one might hold problematic.

The lecture itself is based on careful, systematic research, initially published in Urbani Izziv. the study by Dronova, Khomenko, and Brunn (2022) examines urban morphologies in Kyiv, concluding how crucial it is to comprehend the distinct social structure and human-centeredness to create a sustainable and comfortable living environment. In the lecture, Dronova draws from these insights and builds on the topic to include the broader global implications of urban planning and sustainability. She does this by theorizing questions of peace, war, resources, and sustainability through geography. Not only was this approach new to me, but her explanation of urban morphologies seems truly topical and relevant to our studies as a whole. By using her case examples Dronova shows how urban morphologies can both expand our understanding of spatial structures and organization of urban areas as well as help us understand better the intricate interplay of social, cultural, economic, and ecological elements that influence urban growth.

Prior to the war, Dr. Dronova’s work had focused on neoliberal approaches in urban planning and governance especially in post-communist cities (e.g. Dronova & Brunn, 2018; Dronova, Klyui, & Khomenko, 2021). Her research sheds light on the forces that drive urban development and how those forces affect urban populations. The social, economic, and environmental effects of neoliberal policies, such as the uprooting of vulnerable populations, the emergence of urban inequality, and the depletion of natural resources, can also be better understood. Furthermore, Dronova’s work often points to the direction of alternatives that put urban residents’ demands and interests first. More specifically, there is rising interest in participatory urban planning strategies that involve locals in decision-making and give public goods precedence over private gain. As a response to the undermining effects of neoliberalism on widely cherished collectivism, urban commons need to be protected and promoted more than ever before. To draw from Dr. Franklin Obeng-Odoom’s recently published book The Commons in an Age of Uncertainty, by promoting a change towards a more community-oriented approach, the protection of the commons can be examined as a decolonization process of economy, society, and environment.

But could that alternative be provided by Russia? Dronova’s analysis of Russian imperialism is graphic. As she points out, Russian forces have purposefully targeted Ukrainian cities during this war and the warfare has resulted in massive destruction of private residences, commercial buildings, and public structures, including hospitals, schools, and sites of cultural significance. When such horrendous attacks will end is not clear, but Dronova focuses on the possibilities that the aftermath of the war might bring, a radically “new perception for development” that is sustainable and equitable, ideals which hopefully will be reflected in city and community reconstruction and redesign, taking into consideration community participation and cultural heritage preservation. These are fundamentally different from both Western neoliberalism and Russian imperialism.

Finland has now joined NATO, changing years of hesitation to join this major defensive alliance. As a Finn studying development and change, locally and globally, I found Professor Dronova’s insights interesting on many levels. She is particularly clear in her stance and addresses the possibility to see the war not so much as a resource war but as a war on identity, a sensitive issue in Finland. This also opens my last point on Dronova’s notions of sustainability under war. Her remarks reminded me of our lecture in Cities in the Global South on “sustainable urban development”. It reflects many of the insights by Julian Agyeman, whose assigned article (Agyeman, 2008), quotes Shellenberger and Nordhaus (2004) approvingly: “Why, for instance, is a human-made phenomenon like global warming – which may kill hundreds of millions of human beings over the next century – considered ‘environmental’? Why are poverty and war not considered environmental problems while global warming is?” In other words, since wars are typically seen more as social, economic, and political issues rather than purely environmental ones, they are not considered environmental problems in the same way as global warming, for example. However, a just ecological political economy approach to war and warfare regards these questions as intertwined. Further development and closer examination of this approach are warranted, as Professor Dronova suggests in a GSE that clearly broke the stereotypes about Ukraine, Kyiv, and the War.


Lagos – a model megacity? 

By Anna-Maria Mitchell, Cristina Gomez Saari, Hellevi Holopainen, Lilli Somero, Olli Moilanen, Sara Aalto-Setälä
The authors are students of Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki

Lagos, the former capital city of Nigeria, one of the world’s fastest-growing urban centres, and leading African economies has been considered a model for megacities in Africa. The city went through a phase of various urban problems in the 1990s, after which it underwent major structural changes, as the idea of a “model megacity” was adopted in various city and state strategies since 1999.

While Lagos has undergone notable changes, the modernist and neoliberal ideals which have guided the city’s development, are ill-equipped to provide a transformative and equitable path for development. The modernist approach to urban development is epitomized in the current development strategy and its results are visible in the unequally distributed benefits of the city’s economic growth. We argue that this gives evidence to suggest that the city strategy should include deeper analysis of the historical roots of social stratification and inequality to produce more equitable solutions.

Situating Lagos 

To dissect Lagos’ development ideal what the city itself and some commentators call a “model megacity”, one must first look at its history. A model implies reproduction, yet cities and their economies evolve through and within their own unique histories. Lagos, like many others, is a post-colonial city. First colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th century, the city, which had been a trading and migration hub already before its colonization, became a centre for the transatlantic slave trade. The period of British colonization began in the 19th century and continued until Nigeria’s independence in 1960. Lagos had been made the capital of colonial Nigeria, making it not only a major trading port but the centre of the country’s administrative, educational, and judiciary institutions. This resulted in an amassment of elites, who benefited from the country’s trade with its colonizers.

While an in-depth analysis of Nigeria’s ruling elite and its connection to British pre-, post-, and colonial powerholders is out of the scope of this text, it is worth understanding how the history of trade and colonialism brought about a concentration of power, which was later challenged by the city’s social upheaval and led to some of the structural changes that then resulted in the current economic developments in Lagos. At the same time, there is a question of whether those who have made good use of the changes are the same transnational networks that benefited most during previous historical periods as well.

Political drivers and enablers of the structural changes

By the end of the 1990s transition to democracy, Lagos was riddled with urban, fiscal, and social crises that served as pressures for change. Exploding population growth exacerbated urban decay and disorder, federal revenue was in decline, and public finances unbalanced. The city, struggling with political fractionalization, was on the brink of collapse. As a result, and as an act of self-preservation, the city’s ruling elite coordinated a political coalition to structure a long-term development strategy.

This strategy included committing key constituencies to the policy goals. Business stakeholders were engaged in governmental dialogue, middle-class professionals provided with incentives to pay taxes, and quid pro quo relations constructed between the government and grassroots leaders. The fiscal and political autonomy provided by Nigeria’s federalist structure has been crucial for the reformists’ success.

The envisioned goal for Lagos is self-sufficiency and urban renewal, as well as maintaining the city’s status as an export hub. This was to be achieved by policy shifts favouring economic and fiscal transformations that are pro-productivity, pro-growth, and pro-stabilizing public sector reforms. The focus of urban planning has shifted towards neoliberal policesenticing private and foreign investment and large infrastructure projects.

A diversified economy

These political drivers have contributed to a diversification of the economy. An illustration of the change is an increased internal revenue generation (IGR) and diminishing reliance on federal oil revenue transfers of the Lagos state budget: between 2000 to 2017 federal transfers have dropped from 52% to a little over 20%, while IGR has risen from 42.9% to 84%.

Today, Lagos is the fifth largest economy in Africa. Trade (53.8%), real estate (12.9%) and manufacturing (8.7%) sectors account for over 75% of Lagos’s GDP. However, most of Lagos’s population work in the informal sector and it is estimated that the informal sector accounts for more than 75% of Lagos’s GDP.

Some of the factor endowments that have contributed to the diversification of Lagos’s economy include investment in education and better access to finance. Finance credit, however, is less available for micro and small-scale firms. Additionally, foreign direct investment has resulted in a growing and active private sector, generating for example a highly lucrative real estate business of luxury apartments, office complexes, residential buildings, hotels, and shopping centres.

Key issues

While diversification of the economy has resulted in economic growth, the poor and vulnerable have suffered from urban developments despite the state’s plan to reduce poverty. The neoliberalist vision adopted by the state has resulted in the detriment of social logistics, causing negative socioeconomic repercussions such as homelessness and loss of livelihood for the “urban poor” – a group that is visible in megacities, shaped by poor living circumstances, and a lack of decent living standards.

The model megacity plans have led to forced evictions in some of the city’s 200 informal settlements. Ironically, the building of new housing has resulted in homelessness as infrastructure developments have focused on luxury housingwhile ignoring the urban poor. At the same time, livelihoods of the urban poor, such as street trading, hawking and commercial motorcycles have been prohibited, further enhancing their suffering.

In conclusion: searching for solution-driven alternatives?

It is clear, that while the economy of Lagos has diversified and grown, the benefits are not being distributed equitably. The structural changes aimed at creating a model megacity have instead increased inequality and driven the poor away from the city. The modernist, neoliberal ideals that have led the changes have ignored the poor and marginalized who are viewed as part of the city’s problem, rather than beneficiaries of change.

As an alternative development path that could address the city’s inequalities we suggest a system of land value taxation, in which the revenues gained from taxing land would be shared equally with the citizens or used for public socio-ecological projects. As land would be taxed more, labor could be taxed less, and people would be able to receive more of the value they produce. In addition, we argue that the aspect of global responsibility should also be acknowledged, when searching for solution-driven alternatives to Lagos. Mere apologies will not be enough to fix the injustices of colonialism, rather, reparations from the Global North will need to be strengthened and institutionalized.

Therefore, we conclude that any alternative paths will require understanding the structural changes that occurred in Lagos during the 21st century, as well as its history of colonialism which continues to impact the city through neo-colonial power structures. These historical aspects, which have shaped Lagos to be what it is today, are not addressed in the neoliberalist vision the city currently engages in.