Gabriella Carolini: The Power of Proximate Peers: Grounding South-South Cooperation in Urban Infrastructure Development

Gabriella Carolini is an associate professor in the International Development Group in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. Her research and teaching at MIT focus on the dynamic relationship between social and fiscal responsibilities in the public sector. Her empirical research is largely based within sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, regions where she studies how South-South cooperation, fiscal and administrative reforms, and project evaluation practices impact urban infrastructure development, particularly with regard to water and sanitation services and community health.


The changing landscape of international development cooperation, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, elicits much political and growing financial attention. However, very little is known about its impact on cities. This talk shares insights from a grounded analysis of the impact and value of South-South cooperation (SSC) — among other cooperation typologies — in the urban African context. Based on evidence from six years of fieldwork studying infrastructure and basic service cooperation projects in Mozambique's capital, Maputo, Carolini forwards two major arguments about how the nature of African urban development and the value of SSC therein disrupts traditional accounts and practices of development. First, Carolini addresses the under-theorization of the value of SSC on the ground by explaining how and why a subset of SSC, namely that between proximate peers, creates particular space for equity concerns in the management and objectives of urban development cooperation projects. To this end, she explores and exposes the orthodox culture of project evaluation practices which prioritize efficiencies over equities in project-level work, and proposes a post-colonial lens on evaluation instead, i.e. one that prioritizes equities by recognizing the importance of power perceptions in work partnerships and the centrality of who learns (and what is learned) for equitable urban development. Secondly, she explains how and why a very rational logic of convenience — linked with the growing density of international donors covering basic municipal functions — dominates decision-making among municipal bureaucrats charged with directing the urban development process in African cities. She argues that this logic of convenience is emboldened by the growth of SSC writ large and complicates the realization of equitable urban growth and development in fragmented cities like Maputo.