Faculty Friday: Marcus Walton

Faculty Friday is a series highlighting members of the Initiative on Cities (IOC) Faculty Advisory Board, by exploring their work on campus and in the city. This week, we are highlighting Marcus Walton, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). 

By Jaclyn Berman

Jaclyn Berman: Tell me about yourself and what you are currently working on.

I am an assistant professor of political science at BU. My current research is looking at the role played by regime type, and contestation over public goods in African cities. More succinctly, I look at whether democracy actually matters for people trying to gain access to public goods, such as housing, electricity, food, etcetera. I do that through a comparison between three different cities in Africa: Cairo, Egypt, Lagos, Nigeria and Johannesburg, South Africa. The current project that I am working on looks at a comparison of three protest movements that have occurred in those different cities over time. The manuscript seeks to understand to what extent movements existing in a more democratic state or city, like Johannesburg, have certain advantages over movements in a less democratic city, like Lagos, and one that is non-democratic, like Cairo. The main question is: what does democracy matter for contestation over public goods?

What role, if any, do cities play in enabling social activism and political protest for a region/country? 

It differs, and that is what I am interested in. In some cities, there are institutionalized avenues that allow for forms of participation such as protest, and in other ones, they are not as hospitable or welcoming, or they have not institutionalized those same kinds of pathways and processes. My main interest is in trying to understand why some movements have been more successful than others. I find that it often boils down to the extent to which protest is considered a legitimate form of political participation, and how that participation is defined and how it is understood. Specifically, in instances in which legitimate participation includes highly contentious protests, governments have been more responsive to citizens, and in instances in which they don’t, those protest movements have been less successful.

How do the success and responses to protests in North and Sub-Saharan Africa compare to that of protests in US cities?

The contexts that they are operating in are quite different. There is a significant difference in thinking about urban politics in the Global South, but concepts themselves can still appear in the US or Europe compared to South Africa or Brazil. That said, there are a number of significant challenges in the cities that I’m looking at around urbanization, state capacity, and strength of democratic institutions, which do present a different set of issues than in the United States. One of the ways my findings can be extrapolated to the US, is the importance to more broadly to think about the forms of political participation that are considered legitimate, but I do think that the challenges of what we are looking at differ largely because Africa is the fastest urbanizing region of the world. As a result, the scale of urbanization, the ability of cities across the continent to deal with rising numbers of urban residents, the challenges of state capacity, the challenges of being an established democracy, are all factors coming together in ways that make for a quite unique context. This is the main reason I am interested in this. Therefore, can my research be extrapolated to the US? Certainly the main findings can be, but the challenge of what I am trying to investigate I think is greatest in the Global South in general and particularly across the African continent.

One of the main issues in addition to urbanization is informality, which does exist in US cities, but not to the extent of Cairo, Lagos, and Johannesburg. A lot of the people I am working with, they are living in homes that are informal, living in essentially slums or shacks that don’t have a formal title. This is another aspect that makes the politics we are dealing with in the Global South unique.

What are some comparisons for the challenges in urban areas for protest between the three cities you are studying? 

They have a similar challenge which is that these are the biggest cities in the continent, and that is partly what drew me to them, but they have completely different regime types. Along with the differences in the political context, the major challenge in contrasting them is a question of state capacity, meaning to what extent is a city capable of responding to these demands or protests, and that varies. I would say the state capacity is larger, more so within Egypt and South Africa, and less so in Nigeria. Nonetheless, for Egypt, despite its broader state capacity, there is a stronger lack of democracy, so these are the sort of issues that are being balanced. In general, the main differences between them are the political contexts, or regime types, in which they are operating. Overall, my main finding is that people contest quite similarly across different regime types, but what they are able to do with those forms of contestation, in terms of engagement with the forms of political systems, varies considerably.

What policy/policies do you think are most difficult for cities to pass or execute successfully?

Across the board for cities in general, I would say that a major challenge is questions about land. A lot of it is about housing and where you can live. Land reform is a huge challenge and one that constantly comes up, particularly in South African politics, but it is one that is quite difficult to achieve. Generally, states are quite hesitant to engage in any reform, especially democratic states, and people who own land are very hesitant to give it up. It’s a significant obstacle specifically for democracies, but the politics of land, complicated by a lot of the protections around property rights, make land reform a huge issue. Therefore, I would say that is one of the most prominent types of reform that is difficult to pass across cities around the world. Particularly dealing with housing, the challenges appear as really inescapable and are huge barriers for expanding housing in the South African context. More broadly, the major issue is state capacity, which is to say if a state has a plan how is it carried through. Some cities are better than others, but getting an effective bureaucracy, one that actually works, and establishing a process together in which people are held accountable, are quite difficult. In all cases, the state makes plans for things that they want to do, but actually getting it done is another thing, and in terms of specific issues one of the hardest policy areas is typically around land, development of land, and land reform.

What is one change you wish to see in Boston?

I would like to see a T line that goes from Cambridge running south into Roxbury. I think the T is strange in this way. If you’re in Cambridge, and you’re going to come to BU, you have to take the red line to Park Street, and then the green line out here (BU). I think there’s a lot of room for different lines that give you more mobility. You have a decent amount in the more eastern part of the city, but in the western part you really can’t go south, unless you take the orange line, which also seems to coincidentally skip Roxbury. On the eastern part, you can go from Quincy to Cambridge, which is a huge north to south line, but there’s not a similar type of line that takes you from the Cambridge area down south into Roxbury. I think greater mobility on the T especially on the western parts of the city would be a great idea. I have never had a car since I have lived in Boston, so I have only ever used public transportation, and I am quite familiar with some of the limits of the public transportation system and I do think it could be improved.

What is one aspect of Boston you hope never changes? 

I hope the walkability of Boston never changes. Large parts of the city are easily walkable, and I do think that is something you do not want to change, so I will leave it at that.