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Where can a research degree take you?

Will is a PhD student in the school of international development at UEA. He writes about what he’s learned during his studies

Some think that ‘international development’ is a practice where people in the ‘developed world’ (Europe and North America) create plans to impact and improve the lives of people in the ‘developing world’ (sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia).  

The idea of ‘international development’ brings to mind images of newly-constructed water pumps in Ethiopia, schools in Uganda and microfinance initiatives in India; of diligent NGO workers and smiling recipients; celebrity sponsors and pressing causes. But, for actual students of international development, the definition is far more complicated.

As students, we learn to identify different actors, interests and forms of evidence. ‘Impact’ is a word we are taught to use very carefully and is something that many of us hope to achieve with our research.

I am a PhD student in International Development at UEA. It is a huge privilege to be given three years to study a topic of my choosing. My research has taken me to the oldest marketplace in Kampala, capital of Uganda. Constructed by the British colonial administration in 1927, Nakasero market has been run at different times by Indian spice merchants, Kenyan traders and Ugandan farmers. It thrived during the most notorious periods in Ugandan history, including Idi Amin’s rule in the 1970s, and civil wars of the 1980s.  

Today, the market employs over 10,000 people and supplies fruit and vegetables to hotels, restaurants and households across the country. Despite this - plans are in place for its demolition and redevelopment into an ‘international standard modern commercial complex’.

This project would displace many of the people working in Nakasero today. The fate of the market is reminiscent of many urban communities across the world in the face of gentrification and ‘world class’ city making. It is important to understand this as it dissolves the difference between ‘developed’ and ‘developing,’ allowing other communities to learn from Nakasero market, and vice versa.   

I spent ten months of 2013-2014 working, researching, (and occasionally sleeping) in the Nakasero market, during which I learned:

  • The variety of ways that a diverse group of people can get along in the face of intense competition and political division (particularly during election season)
  • How it feels to live amid the looming threat of demolition.
  • That ambitious, centrally planned projects aiming to unite the market often failed
  • That spontaneous projects grounded in the histories of particular groups in the market often succeeded
  • Sports clubs, burial societies and gospel singing groups provided solutions to social and economic problems
  • That large, external interventions could not readily solve social and economic problems

These discoveries prepared me for writing my PhD and to present at international conferences. However, there remained the question of what these findings meant to the people in the market; the people who had actually given their time and energy to help my research.

This led me to apply for funding for a return trip to Uganda from the British Institute in East Africa.

 

I returned to the market in 2015 with a three-pronged strategy to generate an impact that would be meaningful to the people working there:

  1. Arrange a meeting with managers at the city council and write a summary report of my findings for the department responsible for market redevelopments.
  2. Present my writing to different groups in the market, in Luganda, (the local language) where appropriate, and ask for feedback.
  3. Write a short history of Nakasero specifically for people in the market, including pictures of past generations and famous events and visitors.

People in the market responded to these activities both directly, through the offering of gifts and exhibitions of the history in prominent places in their stalls and homes, but also indirectly, through engagement in discussions. Many said that the materials had revealed something new to them about their surroundings, something I hope that can also be achieved with the city council. If I have learnt anything from the people of Nakasero it’s that small, reflective attempts at impact often outlast larger, more ambitious projects.

 

Want to make an impact on the world around you like Will? Explore your study options at UEA.