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SweDev’s interview series: Meet Patience Mususa

June 23, 2022

Patience Mususa at the Nordic Africa Institute discusses the role of environmental anthropologists in an interview with the SweDev Secretariat.

Photo: Unsplash / Thomas Kinto

Patience Mususa is a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI). Mususa’s research focuses on mining and human settlement, planning and urbanization, as well as community welfare. In conversation with SweDev’s Alessandro Giacardi, she describes the current environmental, development, and urbanisation challenges through an anthropology lens. 

Q:  What does it mean to be an environmental anthropologist? What does development mean in this field of research?  

A: I consider myself to be an environmental anthropologist, which means working at the intersection between nature and society. I draw on a political ecology lens in anthropology, trying to understand how human actions capitalise on transformation, both economically and environmentally. My research area is the mining sector in Zambia. Here, development and urbanization processes – the transformation of places in more urban and industrial settings – can be addressed through different forms and dimensions. On the one hand, the dimension of equality and inequality in access to resources. On the other hand, the prevailing relationship between society and nature, i.e. how society and the environment can shape each other.

Given the inexistence of fixed boundaries, I believe the development research can help match the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Implementing this holistic view can help various actors at the global and local levels to better understand these interrelationships.

Q: The latest IPCC report “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” showcases that the time for action is now. Can policymaking design better social programmes – more inclusive and attuned to people’s lifestyles – thanks to the collaboration with researchers?    

A: Researchers have always been informing policymakers, but the problem arises at the political implementation stage. Taking the African region as an example, several countries went through different societal and economic crises, and now they must face the climate crisis. Do they have the capacity to handle the scale of this threat?   

A global shared solution to the climate crisis would have wealthier countries, who consume more resources and have a larger carbon footprint support mitigation and adaptation efforts in poorer countries.  It would also have all countries commit more of their budgets to addressing the crisis. However, do they have the political will to act and to learn from and scale up on the creative efforts that marginalised communities around the world are making?

Communities are innovating. This is what I learnt from experience working with the Peoples Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia, that supports a housing movement addressing issues of land rights and decent housing. Connecting members and municipalities in rural and urban settings, they demonstrate that they can mobilise resources to build housing with low carbon technologies and plan for green neighbourhoods. The Zambian state could effectively scale up and support many of those initiatives. However, they tend to prioritise big carbon heavy infrastructure projects, such as roads.

Patience Mususa, Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute said: 

“There is space for collaboration between the Global North and South. Local movements in both these settings are organising and mobilising multiple voices and solutions. Researchers can inform policy makers on these initiatives, and act as a bridge for partnerships. However, the main challenge lies in how to address the inequalities.”

Q: Your background includes an architecture education, an interesting combination within social science. Which is your view on the role that African municipalities can play in climate policy?

A: Many African municipalities have a colonial legacy, having inherited their town plans and regulatory structures – and have done little to change them. Notably, building codes established during the colonial period which often suppressed vernacular architecture have been maintained in the post-colonial period, largely due to aspirations of modernity that favour concrete and glass. However, with the climate crisis, vernacular architecture is being revisited as it presents a low carbon solution for building cities. The fast pace of urbanisation in Africa’s cities and a desire for green growth provides a unique opportunity for African countries to revise their building codes to be inclusive of traditional building technologies that have been neglected.

In terms of curricula, this is also what my science-based background resulted in. There are university courses in which students do learn vernacular building material techniques, but the predominant approach is to work with industrial building schemes. These days the shift is increasingly towards smart cities. However, there is a link between those realities. Smart cities rely on digital information systems to make the city work more efficiently in terms of resource management (energy and water for example). To do so, cities need to create their digital infrastructure: fibre cables, and multiple data centres. Smart cities therefore potentially bring together efficiency in use of resources, as we transition to low carbon use and renewables. But they should also consider recycling and reuse.

Overall, on a broad level, I believe that when we operate in a context of scarcity, we must remind ourselves what the society and environment can allow us to do.

Q: You recently published a book about the privatization of copper mines in Zambia. Which development challenges do you see in this region, and how can your research findings be taken into consideration by Zambian policymakers?   

A: Rent redistribution – this to me is the big challenge that arises from the management of natural resources. The post-independence Zambian state went through a period of economic redistribution and pursued a welfare orientation. Economic downturns forced the country to adopt austerity policies and privatisation of the mining industry. Then came the copper boom. Mining is dominated by the private sector now.

Natural resources can potentially generate income (in terms of taxes) which governments must spend for the

welfare of the whole society. The big challenge for policymakers is to figure out the best mechanisms for the collection of rents and redistribution in view of challenges like corporate tax evasion and corruption. Research can help in this regard. In resource rich countries such as Zambia there is a lack of ongoing day to day research that could inform policymakers in that country. They rely mostly instead on external consultants rather than building local research capacity.

Q: SweDev aims to connect development researchers across Sweden to strengthen collaboration with practitioners. Which are your most important research outcomes and key messages you would like to share with our community?

A: My personal view is that globally the shift towards more managerial perspectives in development has forgotten that people’s experiences are central. In my book, I tried not to come up with a structural analysis of the privatization process, but to center the narrative around people that have been left behind.

“In Zambia, as well as globally, the rise of populism does play a role. Some political actors have been able to articulate marginalised people’s fears. If we do not consider personal stories, community experiences, and how to convey them with resource management in development programmes, we are leaving a free space for these phenomena to happen.”. 

The role of the state must be central again, especially in redistribution matters. Besides, strong governments and institutions could better address the climate change crisis. Climate actions in African cities are inevitably linked with those addressing inequality. Some lessons have been learnt from previous crises. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has unfortunately affected the capacity of the state to act. There is a crisis and rising prices having an impact on food, health, and daily basic needs. African countries who also diminishing global solidarity are trying to establish self-sufficiency in food and pharmaceuticals for example, since they know that the next crisis will leave them even worse off.

All in all, advocating for solidarity in addressing global challenges should be prioritised.


Written by Alessandro Giacardi, Communication, and Research Intern at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) for the Development and Aid Policy Team and SweDev. Edited by Alice Castensson, and Ylva Rylander at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).