Background Paper 2020

FEEM “Souths of the World” School Background Paper (Milan, November 2020)

Paolo Perulli

“Collective action” in the cities of the world. A perspective from the Souths.


In the cities of today, a new “collective action” is taking place. From Hong Kong, where an entire community is challenged by the Chinese authoritarian regime, to Santiago de Chile, whose government is unable to respond to social and democratic protests, conflict is the key word; powers are challenged; reforms are demanded. In Western cities like Barcelona, Paris and London, conflicts of social groups, protests against the national governments and demand for identity/autonomy have grown. In North America, racial conflict is exploding in cities, from Minneapolis to New York and elsewhere. In India, conflicts over the ethnic and religious minorities’ rights are ongoing against the backdrop of new Hindu nationalism. In Africa, conflicts over ethnicity, religion, land, poverty and migration are widespread.

A new normative framework for the cities of the world could be the outcome of the conflictual processes outlined here. A new lexicon would be created around terms like: economic, social, ethnic and environmental justice, autonomy, capabilities, rights, both in term of political-juridical culture and in term of power relations. Dilemmas of equality/inequality between North and South and among the different countries of the Souths, as well as within each city will be addressed. The search for ‘universal’ principles of justice or the necessarily ‘pluralistic’ logics and ‘relativistic’ ethics of identity are part of the dilemmas.

Among the dilemmas, sustainable development is the key. It is based on parameters-like the United Nations SDGs, which fail to address the existing difference between the North and the Souths, the dominant and the excluded, and the need for a new synthesis. The global interest to “save the Planet” cannot avoid the enormously different, conflicting points of view of developed and developing communities. Together they stand, together they fall.

  1. Justice and the Collective Action Problem.

The ‘lies that bind’ (Appiah 2018) are: creed, country, colour, class, culture. They are not ‘true’ but they are necessary for social groups to do things together.

Religion is not only a belief, it is a social system linking believers. Hence the social role of religion, and its ‘progressive’ interpretation, are important. But there are also more general, encompassing values that unite people beyond ethnic or religious differences. One is Justice.

From the Social view of Justice of the twentieth century, we are passing to new issues of:

*Ethnic Justice based on ethnic-driven inequalities of citizenship (Hindu nationalism in India, tribal conflicts in Africa, ethnic minorities in China, Myanmar etc.)

*Environmental Justice related to collective perception of environmental risks (many Western/ Latin America movements, fewer in Africa and Asia?)

*Local Justice due to central power’s injustice (Hong Kong as a special administrative region in China, post-Brexit overseas territories and Ireland-Scotland in the UK, ‘left behind’ regions in Europe, Catalonia demanding autonomy in Spain, other African, South Asian cases).

* Economic Justice related to the general polarisation of wealth on a global scale (in particular in Latin America and Africa) and the reduction of the lower-middle classes crushed in the Western world.

The collective action problem in Western culture has been based so far on the ‘rational theory’ approach: why participate if each can be a free rider? The problem has been theorised by economist Mancur Olson (The Logic of Collective Action, 1965). According to Olson, collective action is challenged by the free rider, the individual preferring to avoid the costs of participation based on a strict utilitarian logic. Groups organise themselves to obtain favourable outcomes on the basis of shared interests. Only small groups can directly control the participation of their members, whereas in large groups (mass action) free riding is the rule. To solve the problem, organisations of interest are created. The Illinois Farm Board studied by Olson attracts members because it offers commercial information and technical advice only to members. A second activity is to lobby the government to obtain favourable outcomes to the entire sector, members and non-members (in this case agriculture). Trade unions, agencies and other organised groups have been created for this purpose, but they are weaker today. Accordingly, collective conflicts should be less numerous, and self-interest should be the main motivation. However this is not often the case.

The new dimension of collective action in many Souths of the world seems to be rather different: why not participate if there are no alternatives? It is rational to participate to protest, for identity-building, to fight for justice (ethnic, environmental, local) if the world is so unjust.

In Morocco, in the football stadiums people sing “Fi bladidalmouni” (“I suffer injustice in my country”). 70% of young Moroccan people would leave their country to migrate.


  1. Three Stylised Models of recent growth in the Souths.

There are at least three stylised economic models of growth in the Souths today (Diar, McMillan, Rodrik 2019):

Africa, India Latin America Asia (China):
growth has been driven by demand, shocks and external sources in non-modern sectors (agriculture), hence labour productivity in modern sectors is driven down. the weak structural change is due to commodity dependence, hence labour moved from high to low productivity sectors. productivity growth in modern sectors (manufacturing, modern services, global trade) led to labour attraction in modern sectors and a rate of convergence to developed world levels of 2% per year.


  1. Three Stylised Models of Rural/Urban Development.

Africa, India Latin America Asia
Small manufacturing sector, Large informal sectors, Migration within rural areas (‘non-farm’ sector), Per capita income ratio between urban and rural: 2.0 Declining manufacturing, decline of urban middle class, informal sectors,lower productivity sectors High urbanisation, low urban concentration Urban/Tech manufacturing megacities, Financial Flows from Farmers to Industry, High ‘non-farm’ income, Growth of urban middle class,
Per capita income ratio between urban and rural: 3.0

There is a need to develop alternative models of rural/urban development in the Souths based not only on industrialisation, but on sustainable development in cooperative forms of social and solidarity economy able to reduce unemployment and underemployment, rural exodus and social, gender and regional disparities (Benchekroun, Saoudi 2020). In addition, education and training, and institutional reforms are among the priorities.


  1. Resilience, Sustainable Development Goals: a Comparison.

The United Nations SDGs strategy aims to provide parameters for measuring the 17 goals all over the world, both developed and developing, North and South. However, differences are not only quantitative but also qualitative. The goal to reduce pollution has a different meaning in Paris than in Peking or New Delhi.

We need a richer framework.

We need to compare conflicts, issues, competition, governance, collective action problems in the field of resilience and sustainable development in different cities of the North and Souths, following a territorial development approach in our School of the Souths’ city-cases both in the North and in the Souths:

Barcelona, Paris, Naples
Accra, Bangalore, Pune,
Buenos Aires, Santiago
Hong Kong, South-East Asia
 Sources of international organisations (e.g. Rockefeller Foundation, City Resilient Index, 2019; IFAD, Rural Development Report, 2016) are among the possible comparative sources.
  1. Interactions

Africa’s youth are largely unemploymed of self-employed in the informal economy in nascent/failed industrialised countries   Latin America’s youth are largely urban, unemployed or employed in premature industrialised countries
  Asia’s youth are largely factory workers in low-and high-tech sectors and urban middle class in successful industrialised countries  

Both competition and cooperation among the Souths are possible. Investments from Asian and Mena (Mediterranean and North African) countries in Sub-Saharan Africa can take the form of cooperation, but also of land grabbing and exploitation of natural resources. South America (e.g. Chile, Brazil) exports more commodities to China than to any other country. Hence competition of Chinese tech products can make the Latin American economy even more dependent. Therefore, alternative models of cooperation between the North and the Souths and among the Souths, e.g. microfinance for development projects, should be enhanced. Examples like Babyloan or Fiatope, both based in France for crowdfunding development projects in the Souths and the mobilisation of the African diaspora, should be followed.


  1. Income

Global injustice is decreasing according to some poverty indicators. Literature on global inequality (Milanovic 2016) underlines the emergence of a global middle class as a result of the rapid industrialisation and development of China and India.

However, differences in per capita GDP (data in US dollars 2018) are marked, not only between North and South but also among the Souths, and play a crucial role:

Ghana GDP: 2.200
India GDP: 2.000
China GDP: 9.700 Chile GDP: 15.000


  1. Global Environmental Crisis

Different interests in participating in the United Nations SDGs emerge among the different countries of the Souths:

Africa, India Latin America Asia (China)
High poverty (rural) Lower pollution (urban) High poverty (urban) Lower pollution (urban) Low poverty (already reduced) High pollution (urban)

China tops the carbon emissions list (metric tonnes per capita), while Brazil and India are much lower down (Sridhar 2019).

This raises problems of ‘trade off’ and conflicting interests between countries, cities and growth models.

The goal of poverty reduction is of the utmost importance but it is conflicting with goals of reducing pollution, and with climate change externalities of the economy.

To approximate the United Nations SDGs, a different model of collective action on an international scale is required, but interdependencies and conflicting interests should be taken into account. This raises questions of legitimacy and sovereignty of international and national powers. In this global framework, the role of cities is crucial and their possible interaction on the world stage is strategic, notwithstanding the modest role played by UN Habitat, COP 21, C40 Cities, and so on.

Working for a “framework” for the cities of the Souths would be an important contribution to collective action.


  1. A Proposed “Framework” for the Souths of world’s cities.

Which role could the Souths world cities play within the SDGs framework? A possible role for the School is to develop a stylised framework of action, explained in Part 2 below:


In the following part we will outline the “framework” articulated in 4 “drivers of change” (demographics, natural resources, conflicts and disruptive events, corrective policies) translated into “factors” of change: processes and actions to be analytically taken into account. Linkages and interrelations, and reactions between different factors of change will be considered. Two domains, human action and human-nature interaction, respectively, will frame the analysis.

  1. The Rural-Urban Transition.


The following graph is a projection of the urban and rural population by major world regions between 2011 and 2050 (source UN 2012)


The scenario describing the urban explosion of the Souths, Asia and Africa (and to a much lesser extent Latin America) is clearly critical. The consumption of energy, pollution and gas emissions, the supply of housing, clean water and sanitation, the welfare services needed and the job creation required by such a scenario call for a change of international strategy. However, the United Nations and other international organisations are silent or weak.

The change of strategy can be formulated at both supranational and national levels of governance, and implemented on city and regional scales.

In terms of the “collective action problem”, we can formulate the following assumption:

It is rational to participate in urbanisation if and only if well-designed interventions are forthcoming (K.S. Sridhar, G. Wan, eds., Urbanization in Asia, Springer India 2014) in order to:

-reduce negative externalities (epidemics, pollution, emissions, congestion, industrial agglomeration, etc.)

-increase positive externalities (factor productivity, environment-related infrastructures, service development, green technologies, public health facilities, etc.).

How cities can cope with the “collective action problem” is a matter of participation of urbanites. People should develop collective urban behaviour and invest in urban life improvements (civic action, waste management, use of public transport, education etc.). However, different segments of the urban population will behave in different ways: models of urban middle class and those of the urban poor are on opposite sides of the civic behavioural spectrum.

The scenario of containment of urban expansion is not on the agenda. However, urban forms of compactness, transit-oriented development and green cities (G. Wan and M. Kahn, Urbanization and the Environment: An Asian Perspective, in K.S. Sridhar, G. Wan, eds., Urbanization in Asia, Springer India 2014) have been advocated.

An important issue is that of rural-urban continuum. According to ‘desakota region’ literature (T. McGee, The Emergence of Desakota Regions in Asia: Expanding a Hypothesis, in N. Brenner, ed., Implosions/Explosions, Berlin, Jovis 2014), a peculiar mix of rural and urban can be observed, particularly in Asia. Is it a phenomenon destined to last? Or is it a transitory phenomenon?

In terms of the “collective action problem”, it is rational to participate in experiments of rural-urban continuum if governments recognise these zones of intensive urban-rural interaction and promote a more careful policy of decentralised urban development and rural industrialisation, and rural integrated development schemes. This can retain rural migrants and prevent migration into urban areas. ‘Semi-urban villages’ in India are one example (M.N. Dive and A.B. Rao, Total Sanitation Campaign Intervention for a Semiurban Village Through Public-People-Private Partnership, in K.S. Sridhar, G. Wan, eds., Urbanization in Asia, Springer India 2014), with mixed results: more participation of villagers and behavioural change of the stakeholders are necessary. Not only could Asia follow this path, but Latin America and Africa too. Latin America already has a very high rate of urbanisation but it is less dense and more decentralised than in other contexts. Africa as a whole is less urbanised, hence it can improve its future development through the adoption of rural-urban continuum strategies. Europe of cities (M. Cremaschi, L’Europa delle città, Firenze, Alinea 2005) also has something to contribute, especially in cases like Southern Italy and Spain (‘rural towns’, local development projects).

CASES to be discussed during the School:

Hong Kong (Wing Shing Tang)

Urban India (Kala S. Sridhar)

Southern Italy (Laura Lieto)

Latin America (Margarita Greene, Enrique Aliste)


  1. Migration.

Types of migration vary greatly: from the “rural to urban” model, to the “rural to rural” model, to the “international migration” model, to the “transit city” model.

a) One major example of the first type is of course China (300 million migrants from the countryside to the city in recent decades). India also ranks high (the national average is 35%); the percentage of migrants in selected urban agglomerations is as follows: Surat 58%, Ludhiana 57%, Faridabad 55%, Nashik 50%, Pune 45%, Mumbai 43%, Delhi 43%, Kolkata 28%.

b) However, the predominant mobility pattern in India is rural-to-rural movement for short distances and short durations. Internal migration in India is predominantly an intra-state phenomenon (26%, 268 million), as opposed to inter-state, long distance migration (4%, 41 million). Within states, the intra-district movement comprised about 53% of all movements in 2007–2008, representing the largest proportion of internal migration, although the trend has since been in decline.

c) International migration is strong towards leading economic cities, but varies according to national immigration policies and traditions. The foreign-born population in major cities and countries in the Asia-Pacific Region is only 0.5% in Beijing, 1.4% in Mumbai, 3.0% in Tokyo, whereas it is 9.0% in Kuala Lumpur and 38% in More recent is the phenomenon of South-South migration: from Africa to China, from China to Africa, from India to the Emirates.

d) Transit cities are a recent phenomenon in Africa. These transit hubs can become places of long-term stay if options for moving on are closed down. As European border security has tightened and employment opportunities dwindled after the European financial crises, an increasing number of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa have remained in North African cities, such as Rabat, Tangiers, Tunis and Tripoli, traditionally seen as gateways to Europe rather than the final destination.

Both individual and collective migration is a complex phenomenon. It involves an exchange which is asymmetric by nature, between immigrants and hosting societies. Institutions are today largely unable to cope with the phenomenon. The driver of the phenomenon is mainly economic, the implications are largely political and cultural.

The “collective action problem” from the point of view of both home and hosting institutions is as follows: why participate in the management of migration if the costs exceed the benefits? “Free riding” and the individual migrant’s “trap” into criminal organisations are in most cases the necessary outcome.

However, “collective action” by migrants can contribute to the resilience of both home and host communities. Migrant groups and associations, for instance, can support development and risk reduction projects in areas of origin (such as food and water safety, basic services and infrastructural interventions) through financial resources, technical expertise or political engagement. They can also be actors of resilience in areas of destination (through the organisational diaspora of immigrants), allowing for the mobilisation of a variety of resources and capacities in normal times, as well as before, during and after crises (IOM-International Organization for Migration, World Migration Report, Geneva 2015).

Cities can be the “collective actors” in the management of migration on the political and cultural sides of the phenomenon. Inclusion, platforms and training are among the key tools.

CASES to be discussed during the School:

China in Africa (Paola Pasquali)


  1. Housing

The estimated urban population living in slums is as follows: 24% in Latin America, 13% in North Africa, 61.7% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 25% in West Asia, 35% in South Asia, 28% in East Asia, 31% in South-East Asia, 24% in Oceania (IOM-International Organization for Migration, World Migration Report, Geneva 2015).

In many urban areas of Latin America, Asia and Africa, government restrictions on land have limited the supply of affordable housing, which has contributed to the growth of informal settlements. Informal settlements, squatting and slums are in part a response to the lack of low-income public housing or subsidies and reflect weak urban planning and governance both at the local and national level (UN-Habitat, 2013).

The situation can be improved by conferring secure land tenure through the regularisation of land markets and the residential status of people. This can lead to improved livelihoods for the urban poor, including migrants, as well as local development. The relatively few slums in North Africa are largely attributed to better urban development strategies, including investment in infrastructure and the upgrading of urban settlements. Morocco’s national urban improvement plan has sought to rehouse slum dwellers through the “Cities without Slums” programme (UN-Habitat, 2012).

Likewise in China, at a time when the urban migrant population grew more than 80% (2000–2010), the number of urban slum dwellers dropped, in part due to state controls on the building of shanty towns (The Economist, 2014).

Cities in West and Central Africa are now reportedly integrating customary land transactions into formal land markets, but poor immigrants are unlikely to benefit from this. Comparative studies of the regularisation of informal settlements in Latin America have found that, rather than applying one single approach, urban planners should present alternative options for secure land tenure for slum dwellers, such as communal land tenure as an option for the lowest income group (Murillo 2014). There is a lack of data on migrants and slums, including on their role in transforming slums into mainstream communities (IOM-International Organization for Migration, World Migration Report, Geneva 2015).

Current strategies include two opposing views: a neoliberal, market approach aimed at slum eviction and urban renewal, and a socially-driven approach aimed at slum improvement and socially negotiated management of the poor, or improvement of degraded neighbourhoods like ‘Quiero Mi Barrio’ [‘I love my Neighbourhood’] programme in Chile (see Appadurai on Mumbai, Owusu on Accra, Greene-Ortùzar on Latin America). A more ‘radical’ approach is aimed at refusing any ‘compromise’ and fighting for land occupation, occupancy urbanism and resistance (see A. Ong and A. Roy, Worlding Cities, Blackwell 2011).


CASES to be discussed during the School:

GHANA: Nima, Old Fadama (George Owusu)

INDIA: Bangalore (Kala S. Sridhar), Pune (Ashok Saraf)

LATIN AMERICA: Buenos Aires (Francesca Ferlicca, Gabriela Merlinsky), Santiago de Chile (Margarita Greene)


  1. Natural Resources.

 Human-Natural interaction is of the utmost importance for every civilization. West and East are opposed in their vision of Nature: it is a Western prejudice that all natural phenomena are marked by rationality, whereas in Eastern culture natural mutations occur at random (C. Levi Strauss, L’Autre Face de la lune. Ecrits sur le Japon, Seuil. Paris 2011). A very important characteristic of this Western approach is in the economic domain over nature. In capitalism, nature is a good to be exploited and a mine to be extracted: however, institutions should limit this exploitation and avoid the ultimate waste and consumption of the commons (water, energy, forests, fishing, landscape, etc.). The consumption of natural resources in the Souths of the world (Amazon rainforest is a major case) is a matter of concern for humankind. Moreover, green grabbing and the accumulation of land for ecological purposes may be a new factor of inequality for the Souths (Aliste 2020).

The “collective action problem” regarding natural common goods has been clearly stated by Elinor Ostrom, professor of Political Science and winner of the Nobel Prize 2009 in Economics for her book Governing the Commons (1990). How to avoid that everybody behaves as a ‘free rider’ in the consumption of common goods causing the ‘tragedy of commons’ (if nobody takes care of the common good it is destined for destruction)? According to Ostrom, only local collective action can avoid such tragedy: collective action is based on shared norms, reciprocal control, self-imposed sanctions and local governance.

Minerals extraction is a pertinent case (for Africa and Latin America). Are minerals part of the commons? And could Ostrom’s framework help avoid the plunder of minerals by arrangements between corrupt governments in the Souths and some mining companies? As Ostrom concedes, this has not been taken into account in her theory (E. Ostrom, The Future of Commons, Institute of Economic Affairs, London 2012). Minerals in the ground come very close to private goods. Oil in the ground has the problem of being a commons even though it is not a renewable resource like water, forests or fisheries.

The food system is an important field of implementation of such an approach: it involves soil and agriculture, water, pastures, fishing etc. According to UNEP (2016), the need to transition to more ‘resource-smart food systems’ is an imperative for the achievement of at least 12 out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Globally, food systems are responsible for 60% of global terrestrial biodiversity loss, around 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 33% of degraded soils, the depletion of 61% of ‘commercial’ fish populations and the overexploitation of 20% of the world’s aquifers. These pressures on our natural resource base are expected to significantly increase with population, urbanisation and ‘supermarketisation’ trends. By 2050, it is forecast that 40% of the world’s population will be living in severely water-stressed river basins and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture may increase from 24% to 30%.

Collective action is therefore essential to make visible the often invisible conflicts over the use of water, land and natural resources (as in the case of rivers in Buenos Aires, Melinsky 2020).

The response should come both from the North (changing consumption styles and commercial methods) and the South (cooperating for a better use of natural resources).

Governmental actions should include:

  • removal of subsidies that encourage unsustainable production or practices (e.g. fossil fuel subsidies);
  • creation of adequate legal frameworks to secure property rights (not only private but local-collective) and land tenure, and regulate access to and use of water, biodiversity, and ecosystem services;
  • creation of adequate legal frameworks to regulate the environmental impact of food systems (e.g. regulation to prevent nutrient losses at all stages);
  • investment in management practices and research development to enable a more effective use of biodiversity and ecosystem services in food production;
  • investment in technology and research development for locally suitable seeds and breeds (with proper infrastructure, distribution system, quality assurance and certification schemes);
  • creation of incentives for local or regional sourcing and investment in sustainable local supply chains;
  • attraction of investments in rural infrastructure, small enterprise development (e.g. inputs, local storage and processing facilities, logistics and transport);
  • facilitation of collaborative schemes between different food system actors (e.g. cooperation agreements among retailers to establish marketing codes of conduct);
  • creation of incentives for cities to become innovation incubators where ideas on sustainable food systems are tested (urban farming, education campaigns, sustainable sourcing, food environment regulations, etc.);
  • adoption of consumption-oriented policies (e.g. to promote consumption behaviour research, stricter marketing rules for unhealthy food, create a food environment that stimulates healthy and sustainable diets);
  • creation of adequate monitoring systems of the status of the natural resources needed in food systems, as well as their environmental impacts;
  • creation of educational programmes in the field.

The AfCFTA (African Continental Free Trade Area) agreement has been signed by 54 states to introduce cooperation and reciprocity into inter-African exchanges. Reduction of tariffs and other barriers will help African economies to move away from extractive commodities (oil and minerals) toward a more sustainable export base (manufacturing and agriculture). Today, 76% of Africa’s exports out of Africa are extractive exports, whereas non-extractive exports account for 61% of Africa’s exports within the continent.

Such a free trade area is expected to benefit:

  1. local SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) accounting for 80% of African business (vs export-oriented foreign and big enterprises)
  2. women in informal cross-border trades (today obliged to avoid controls and suffering exploitation and violence: see Paola Piscitelli’s case-study on South Africa)

iii. regional value chains (destined to increase the inter-African chains vs global value chains driven by foreign capitalism)

  1. agriculture and food, new sectors of business expansion to feed local markets and increase export of agriculture and agro-industry products vs export-oriented monopolies.

However, this is only a top-down approach to the problem. The other necessary side is bottom-up: mobilisation of local knowledge to protect the environment, local skills and local development projects (A.O. Hirschman, Development Projects Observed, Washington, The Brooking Institution 1967). Any national or supranational policy, like those previously analysed, should take into account that unintended consequences may arise and agency problems, dualism of interests and conflicts are the rule. By way of example, any national irrigation project should consider the research and development of crops, product distribution and other ‘forward linkages’ to the market. Otherwise the irrigation project is destined to fail. In other words, local knowledge is essential to solve the collective action problem. It is a problem of increasing education (see further).

CASES to be discussed during the School:

Local knowledge in integrated landscape approach in Zambia, Africa (Malaika Pauline Yanou)

Cross-Border Trades in Africa (Paola Piscitelli).


  1. Climate change and epidemics.

 Today, climate change disasters and epidemics are widespread. The localisation of natural disasters is more heavily concentrated in coastal economies, dry regions and densely populated territories. Epidemics are even more widespread. The compromise between humans and nature, which has made our life on Earth possible, is severely damaged. Capitalism has introduced economic globalisation with such a speed that the extraction, transformation and marketing of every good is taken for granted. As Fredric Jameson (Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of late Capitalism, 1991) put it, the modernisation process is complete and nature is gone for good.

Global value chains are the main expression of economic interrelation and interdependence. Hence contact and contagion go hand in hand.

As R. Baldwin and B. di Mauro (Economics in the Time of COVID-19, London, CEPR Press 2020) have shown, global value chains are based on hubs and spokes: China, Italy and the USA are the interconnected hubs in the textile industry, China + Japan + Korea + Taiwan, Germany and the USA in the information technology industry, and so on. All other countries depend on them. Africa and Latin America are never hubs.

It is time to change the perspective. More ‘local’ and fewer ‘global’ industries may be emerging. Is a re-opening of the human-nature ‘dialogue’ possible? A neo-regional perspective (and how ‘regional’) is useful?

All this goes against the capitalist imperative of globalisation, the world market envisaged by Marx, which is now producing such negative externalities to be destined for revision.

Epidemics are produced and spread in cities. More precisely, they are a product of the interaction between rural and urban worlds. The social urban interaction is hence under attack and containment, remote control and repressive policies are being implemented. Is an “exodus” from cities the response (Paul Virilio, The Great Accelerator, 2010)? Containment is necessary in an emergency (we can take the example of the Urban Function-Spatial Response Strategy for the Epidemic-A Concise Manual on Urban Emergency Management, produced by the School of Architecture, Southeast University, China, in March 2020) but we need more in-depth analysis of the causal chains and possible prevention strategies.

Starting from the disruptive event of the Coronavirus pandemic, we can address the natural resources issue (how epidemics are generated by chains of interaction between species), and ask questions like: is the urban space able to protect, react and respond to epidemics and how? It seems that many of the SDGs are precisely about this matter: urban safety, health, sanitation, sustainability, and emergency in response to environmental issues. Sustainable development goals 3, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 16 and 17 all raise the deficiencies of current human society development and the direction that should strive from different aspects. Then we can address the demographics issue (how demographic explosion, urbanisation and the rural-urban transition cope with epidemics) and ask questions like: are urban mobility and migration the main vector of epidemics? According to the Chinese manual cited above, the causes of the spread of epidemics include:

  1. Excessive urban population density. This problem is particularly acute in developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America. The virus of coronavirus disease is highly infectious, has a long incubation period and is characterised by human-to-human transmission. It is more likely to spread in cities with high population density. In these cities, it is more difficult to control population movements, cut off the virus transmission route, and other urban systems will face greater pressure after the necessary quarantine is implemented.
  2. Traffic congestion. Causes of traffic congestion include disordered city road hierarchy and low level of road facilities. The urban transportation system is important to ensure the timely transportation of medical personnel, patients and various emergency materials when an epidemic occurs. It is the lifeline of the city during the epidemic period and its accessibility should be guaranteed first.
  3. Insufficient open space. It is mainly reflected in the uneven distribution of large open spaces, the limited number of small open spaces and the small scale. During the epidemic, open spaces in cities can be designated as a temporary storage area for materials and temporary patient admission spots. Insufficient open space also means that the overall scale of the city's potential to cope with risks is reduced.

And finally we can address the corrective policies needed: reduce the length of global value chains and re-internalise production (reshoring); formulate and implement policies of ‘decentralised’ urbanisation; make people active participants in the control strategy; and coordinate the efforts of cities around the world. Urban forms of compactness are under attack due to the explosion of epidemics in compact city-regions (from Wuhan to Milan to New York).

A less transit-oriented development (as opposed to Elliott and Urry’s Mobile Lives 2010,) and green city models (Peter Taylor, Extraordinary Cities.2013) could be advocated.

Cities can experiment with collective action on these issues. To do so, a new balance is needed between natural and human rights.

CASES to be discussed during the School:

The impact of COVID-19 epidemics in our cities: results of a FEEM Survey (Marco Cremaschi).


  1. Natural and human rights.

“Natural rights” are the needs of the natural environment to be recognised and accepted by human society. They are violated when, like in China or in Brazil, the human model of development directly affects such rights as land protection or the maintenance of the rainforests. These are rights the people can advocate. In China, the first cases of urban local movements for the protection of natural commons (like trees) have been advocated in response to land occupation for urbanisation. “Protecting the home garden” is a case of mobilisation of moral resources in urban movements (Chen Yingfang, “Proteggere il giardino di casa”. La mobilitazione delle risorse morali nei movimenti urbani, in Wang Xiaoming, ed., Città senza limiti, 2016). This is a novelty in a regime like China’s. In Brazil and Latin America, resistance to the exploitation of land and natural resources is another example (Sem Terra movement in Brazil). Re-peasantisation can be a response to the rural exodus and the ruralisation of cities. Within urban areas, quasi-rural activities are conducted by people recently migrated from the countryside, and petty commodity production in urban areas is another case of social response to urbanisation. These are all collective actions to go “beyond current modernisation” (Jan Van der Ploeg, Oltre la modernizzazione, 2006).

Another example is the environmental justice movement. In Latin American cities like Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro, social segregation is the result of urban social groups using the perception of violence to make spatial segregation possible. Therefore highways, high-rise buildings and the expansion of peripheries make the public space and the landscape fragmented and socially segregated. A response can be to reopen squares, parks, green corridors and public space to respect local history and democratise the urban environment (Andres Ramirez, Ecologia urbana y medio ambiente, in Margarita Greene, Juan de Dios Ortùzar, El camino de Latinoamèrica y el Caribe hacia la sustentabilididad urbana, Santiago de Chile, s.d.).

A further case is Hong Kong, where public housing is widespread (50% of the population) in high-rise, high-density environments. Housing quality has deteriorated for every sector of society: those who can afford large dwellings have to reduce the size, those who cannot afford tenement buildings live in former industrial spaces. In Public Rental Housing and Subdivided Units, problems of local injustice arise. Contamination of drinking water has also occurred. The government has publicised the rhetoric that the current housing problem is due to limited land supply, but society has reacted (see High-Density Development and Social Justice, HKBU, December 2015). Movements for human rights and democracy in Hong Kong have a history in these issues of natural and urban justice (W.S. Tang, Land Development in Hong Kong, 2020).


  1. Corrective Policies.

  1. Increasing Education

“On independence educated middle-class elites claimed power, not the gentry or chiefs. But their power base was limited for there was no ‘nation’ to mobilise. Democracy did not usually last long (India was different).” Historical sociologist Michael Mann (The Sources of Social Power, vol. 4, Globalizations 1945-2011, 2013) vividly presents the main actors of change in a post-colonial world.

Education is clearly a key factor of social change, maybe the most important and durable one. It is linked to aspirations, critical thinking and the ability to address problems by innovative solutions. However, it is not directly linked to power. In other issues we can observe a gap between mass education and power elites. This is the case of the recent Arab spring movements, of Hong Kong’s long-lasting protests and of the Chilean movements for reform.

The current situation has historical roots. As Mann puts it: “If a country possessed a high level of civilization before the Europeans arrived, and then managed to hold onto it after the colonists departed, it could adapt its own forms of advanced economy and government. This fits India, China (under communism), South Korea, and most Southeast Asia, the countries that have had the highest growth rates. In the more backward Africa the Europeans ended the chances that indigenous African economies might have been actors in the world economy(…) Africa was too damaged to recover quickly from the ravages of empires”.

This is still a lasting account of African political regimes. According to The Economist (7 March 2020): “The colonial legacy is one reason why nearly every country became authoritarian. Africa has more than 2,000 languages and 6,000-10,000 political groupings. Europeans drew borders with callous disregard for facts on the ground. They ruled using coercion and co-option, devolving power to tribal leaders. When they took over weak and diverse states, new leaders often adopted tools of repression and patronage”.

However, a new wave of democratisation occurred. A new urban middle class emerged, notwithstanding the regimes basing their economies on the export of natural resources and foreign aid rather than on income taxes. Regimes are often resistant to such change. The closing of the public space is apparent elsewhere. Dissatisfaction is reflected in the rising number of protests. In 2019, there were 10,793 demonstrations in Africa, according to the Armed Conflict Location § Event Data Project, compared with 819 in 2009. From 2011 to 2019, the number of protests grew from more than 2,000 to more than 10,000.

African people are young and rapidly urbanising: 21 of the world’s 30 fastest-growing cities are in Africa. They are more educated than their rural peers and have greater access to information. According to political science research, demonstrations are inspired by a mix of middle class demand for freedom and poorer young people in slums.

This is surprising given that in other contexts like India, the educated middle class and the poor in the slums are often on opposite sides. The former ask for ‘capitalist’ urban renewal and ‘proper’ community services, the latter for remaining in their precarious shelters. In India, civil society often plays the role of a lobby to promote the ‘proper’ use of public commons to privatise the city, hegemonically submitting the subaltern groups. The middle class is less of a progressive force than in other contexts, and its drive for modernisation is more exclusionary and aggressive. The poor are seen as encroachers, but often their presence on the land is based on older rights or arrangements.

If education is the main driver of movements for democratisation both in the promotion of a middle class and in the upgrading of the poor, it is important to evaluate the current uneven playing field around the world.

TABLE. Trends in school enrolment rates across regions, 2000–16 (percent)

  Primary               Secondary  Tertiary
  2000 2016 2000 2016 2000 2016
World 85 91 64 77 27 48
Africa 66 82 32 44 6 16
Asia 88 93 61 77 23 43
Europe 95 95 86 92 45 68
Latin Am.  92 92 63 78 28 53

(Source: World Bank World Development Indicators database)

Africa has a gap in education which has not been addressed by either national and international, or public and private investments. In fact, most blended finance funds and facilities investing in Africa have had the lowest allocation in the areas of greatest need: Education, Healthcare, Water and Sanitation and Communications (Source: OECD, Blended Finance Funds and Facilities, 2019).

The collective action problem is therefore: why invest in education if investments in the energy and finance sectors are much more profitable? Only the Ostrom approach based on the activism of local communities and collective ownership can reverse such a trend. In Africa and elsewhere, there are numerous examples where attempts to impose individual property rights or government ownership have had disastrous consequences. Attempts to privatise natural resources have resulted in corruption and cronyism as ruling elites have sought to seize access to resources for themselves and their political and tribal allies (N. Van de Walle, African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, 2001). In such cases, local customary rights to use natural resources have been overridden by national governments responding to the demands of either domestic or international business interests in resource-extraction industries (M. Pennington, Elinor Ostrom, Common-Pool Resources and the Classical Liberal Tradition, in E. Ostrom, The Future of Commons, 2012). However, as Ostrom puts it “there are many, many settings in Africa where people have self-organised and are doing very well”. Other examples have been found in the collective management of land in the Andean communities of Bolivia and Peru, where land is communally owned and its use is communally decided by the ‘sindicato’ made up of community members (C. Chang, Ostrom’s Ideas in Action, in E. Ostrom, 2012).

How can education make the difference in addressing the collective action problem?

One example is CENDA (Centro de Comunicación y Desarrollo Andino [Andean Communication and Development Centre]) in Latin America, active since 1985 in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which was born from a study on appropriate technologies in rural communities. The diffusion of knowledge among rural people is facilitated by a bilingual newspaper, both Quechua and Spanish, “Conosur Ñawpaqman”, in the areas of Oruro and Potosí. CENDA challenged the dominant development model based on the so-called green revolution (Revolución Verde) driven by the State and many NGOs. This model demands optimisation of rural systems but the introduction of technological ‘innovations’ from outside creates more poverty, fragmentation and migration of rural communities, and suicides. CENDA’s mission is to create locally indigenous technical experts in the rural communities and alliances between universities and NGOs in Latin America (Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile). Local education is the key, both for adults and children. The land-territory relationship is then widened and enhanced. Hence plans for local indigenous communities are designed and a national pact among rural indigenous autonomous communities was signed in 2004. Since 2013, CENDA has been active in the development of agroecology models against climate change and the collective management of water resources against exploitation by the mining industries.

  1. Reducing spatial inequality

In the past, an optimistic view regarding world spatial inequality was based on the Kuznets curve hypothesis. It is an inverted U curve: it posits that as a nation undergoes the mechanisation of agriculture, the centre of the nation’s economy will shift to the cities. As farmers look for better-paid jobs in the urban economy, a significant rural-urban inequality gap develops (business owners would profit, labourers would see their incomes rise at a much slower rate and agricultural workers would see their incomes decrease). Rural populations decrease as urban populations increase. Inequality is then expected to decrease when a certain level of average income is reached and the process of industrialisation and the rise of the welfare state allow for the benefits from rapid growth, with an increase in the per-capita income.

This hypothesis has not proven effective in most Souths of the world. The rate of industrialisation has remained slow and extractive in nature, driven by multinational companies or Chinese-style kombinats and foreign investments. A small and medium-sized enterprise model (like the European one) has not developed, hence an indigenous middle class has not been created. Farmers attracted by the urban economy do not find formal jobs in the cities, and survive in informal activities. The polarisation of social structure between a small power elite and the predominantly poor population -with a limited middle class in between- is the common outcome.

Corrective policies based on urban planning principles imported from the North are ineffective. Their goal is to replicate Western rational planning and to eradicate the informal urban setting and street economies. However, as Hansen, Little and Migram (Street Economies in the Urban Global South, 2014) have written, this is a way to make social conflicts inevitable. When a young fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, committed suicide in a small city in Tunisia on 17 December 2010, he ignited demonstrations that helped topple the country’s autocratic ruler and started the Arab Spring movements. The volatility of the street economy helps explain his desperate act: he might have conducted business without a permit, city officials confiscated his goods, they even hit him, and, meanwhile, his debt grew, making him unable to bribe officials. In fact, changing combinations of circumstances like these give street economies their ambiguous nature and complicate the explanatory power of analytical dichotomies like public–private, legal–illegal and formal–informal.

How to revise the urban planning principles and accommodate the informal economy of the countries of the Souths into a new paradigm of collective action is a matter of research. “Street economy” (vendors) and “slum economy” (the process of production of goods from rubbish, of repairing, collecting and transforming objects) should be matters of study and planning. The informal economy in general is a key issue to be jointly developed by urban economists and planners.

  1. Developing physical and digital infrastructures.

In a world dominated by the digital revolution, the dream of a global village (inspired by Western thinkers like McLuhan, Negroponte and Mitchell) has never been realised. In fact, the idea that technological communication can take the place of social community is essentially wrong. This is particularly true in the Souths of the world, where the digital revolution has only partially arrived and the community dimension is linked to particular socio-cultural roots.

One of the causes and consequences of the backward development of infrastructures and digitalisation is economic marginality. China, the US and Europe are leading the way, while Africa and Latin America are never hubs. Digital investment is very limited in marginal economies.

In Africa (according to the Africa Impact Report, 2019), access to road, rail and telecommunication infrastructure are all lower than in its developing counterparts. The need to develop the infrastructure sector is crucial as this bottleneck impedes how the continent can compete internationally. Landlocked countries face a lack of multi-modal infrastructure which in turn delays processing and lead times, all of which ultimately increases costs. The lack of transport nodes impedes access to markets, whilst developing good quality transportation nodes can support businesses in servicing these markets quicker. Better telecommunication across regions can assist with the flow of information. The AfDB (African Development Bank) estimates the continent’s infrastructure gap to be US$130-170 bn a year, whilst the continent only spends an average of US$45 bn. Financing infrastructure has been difficult and volatile for the continent. According to the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa (ICA (2018), infrastructure funding was US$81 bn in 2017, up by 22% from 2016. This is driven mostly by Chinese investors.

Africa is digitally underconnected. The percentage of the population using the Internet is only high (60% or more) in North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia) and South Africa; in Ghana and Nigeria the rate stands at around 40%; many countries are below 20%. Mobile connectivity is linked to economic complexity.

Collective action in this field is difficult as it depends on technical expertise which is largely foreign (Western, Chinese). Independent consortia should be created based on national and local interests. A movement driven by local groups (universities, urban industries) oriented towards such goals is greatly needed.

  1. Equalising race, religion and culture and creating citizenship.


Fatou Sow is a sociologist from Senegal. She explains that colonialism has driven laicity in a country where religion (Islam) is important. Hence a dual system emerged: state law/family law. The current revival of Islam is politically “used” against laicity. In the war in Mali, the North/South divide is similar: as different tribes are installed, both race and religion are “used”, forming a backlash against laicity. Issues of radicalism and fundamentalism are common ground there.

Hence we finally turn to Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian-British philosopher at New York University. He wrote Cosmopolitanism. Ethics in a World of strangers (2006), a text that is highly regarded at the United Nations and by many Western intellectuals and journals, but what about its reception in the Souths of the world?

Appiah rejects globalisation, a term that refers to a marketing strategy and then a macroeconomic thesis. He also rejects multiculturalism, a term which designates the disease it purports to cure. Cosmopolitanism comes from the ancient Greek culture. “A citizen belonged to a particular city (polis), the cosmos referred to the world. Cosmopolitanism rejected the view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities”.

Today, cosmopolitanism means that we have obligations to others, also beyond the ties of kinship and local citizenship. We take seriously the values of human lives. People are different and there is much to learn from differences.

Until now, cosmopolitanism has been a cultural approach of a global educated elite. Can it become the common view of the many locals of the world? Appiah’s response is based on ethics. We should make it work on the basis of collective action.