Urban Poverty Essay Competition: Stephanie Butcher

by Rebekah Revello and Stephanie Butcher

Each year, IHC, the World Bank, Cities Alliance, the Woodrow Wilson Center and USAID collaborate to hold an Urban Poverty Essay Competition, in order to hear from the best and brightest in the urban development community and to encourage new thinking and innovation about urban poverty from young scholars. This is the first of the interviews with our three finalists.

Stephanie Butcher is the winner of this year’s Urban Poverty Essay Competition. She is a PhD candidate from California that is currently studying at University College London. But London is not where she’s spending her time; she is deep into promoting sustainable development in Kathmandu, Nepal, and she doesn’t plan on stopping her work there. We asked Stephanie a couple of questions about who she is and what she wants to do to change the world.

  1. What inspired you to get into the urban development sector?

My interest in the field came from a slow and gentle shift from an interest in international politics, to a focus on developing countries, which finally brought me to the development sector. While I’ve always been interested in governance and the ways in which people make decisions, this interest really activated when I started thinking about the particular challenges of urban poverty within a social and political framework.

  1. What are your current or future plans? 

I’m currently in the second year of my PhD, based in Kathmandu Nepal, working with several squatter settlements located alongside the Bagmati river. The research topic looks at the ‘everyday (micro) politics’ which impacts how diverse residents are accessing and controlling water and sanitation services, and how this influences their experience of citizenship in the wider city.

Following the end of fieldwork here, it’s the long task of writing up and finishing, and developing a new undergraduate course focused on ‘Global inequalities and Urban Development’ with my department, the Development Planning Unit, University College London. 

Beyond that, it’s hard to say—I’m sure I will continue to have a connection with the academic world, but I also would love to spend some more time ‘in practice’, with an NGO or similar, perhaps continuing to explore the South East Asian context.

  1. What is a particular cause you are motivated by? (One that you haven’t discussed)

One thing I’m very interested in is the creation of new democratic platforms to raise the voice and visibility of issues faced the urban poor. I’m thinking here of the role of citizen media, or the use of participatory photo/video as used for advocacy or raising certain issues. I’m really excited to see some of the interactive tools being used by individuals themselves to highlight inequalities.

  1. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing cities is, as they work to reduce and eliminate extreme poverty?

I still think there is a real challenge in ‘linking the scales’ at which change is needed in order to reduce and eliminate extreme poverty. When you talk about social equality or justice in urban areas, this requires interventions which focus on interlinked deprivations happening at the home, community, and city scale. This means understanding how wider political trends or infrastructure services impacts diverse individuals, or reinforces inequalities in households, for example. This becomes even more a challenge when you start to think about individuals as containing multiple facets of identity, for instance, understanding how female tenants might have more or different risks than female homeowners.  

  1. Is there a benefit of thinking through development issues through an urban lens (rather than a specific sector)? Have you seen differences in how projects might be implemented in cities vs rural areas?

There is absolutely a benefit of a specific focus on the urban. Of course, this is apparent in many visible ways, including the heightened intensity of issues around urban services such as water, waste and drainage, as well as the need for interventions to support a diversity of people with different needs and aspirations. In terms of specific project implementation, a key issue that I have seen in the urban context is the need to account for impacts on tenants and the rental market with slum upgrading initiatives. The implementation of community infrastructure or housing improvements can often have an unintended impact on vulnerable tenants or more transient populations that cannot cope with a subsequent rise in rental fees. Including this population in the benefits of any development intervention needs to be a key consideration in projects focused on urban areas, in distinction with rural based projects.

  1. As you continue your research, what topic(s) do you think are most in need of further research and attention? 

One of the areas on which I have focused, and which I think should continue to receive more attention, is the influence of embedded social norms around identity, and how this affects the implementation and sustainability of development interventions. While the emphasis on participatory forms of development is an exciting one, I still think that the ‘everyday politics’ through which people negotiate with each other, and have a differentiated access to these participatory platforms, is much harder to make visible. Still, there is a lot of interesting work that is being done linking the urban poor’s material conditions with a wider project that seeks to reshape their recognition in their societies, and that’s where I see exciting change happening!

Stephanie is one of the many students honored for their participation in the Urban Poverty Essay Competition, and who are dedicated to creating sustainable communities across the globe. Check out the rest of the blog to learn about the other honorees.