Community Spotlight: Dr. Aisha Abubakar

Researcher at Strathclyde University

Community Spotlight: Dr. Aisha Abubakar


Dr. Aisha Abubakar is a researcher at the UDSU Department of Architecture at Strathclyde University. Her research focuses on approaches for management of slum settlement and the need for standard conceptions and definitions of the slum. She speaks of her work with the MyScienceWork editorial as the MSW Researcher of the Month.


Q: To begin with, I'd really like to know how you heard about us at MSW? What brings you to our platform? 

Dr. Aisha Abubakar: Working on my PhD research and thesis, it was necessary to find ways to access relevant papers in an organised and efficient way. MSW was one of the platforms I came across during targeted web searches. The newsletters provide access to relevant research on various topics as well as other productivity boosting resources and support. 

Q: What are you currently working on?

AA: Currently, I am working on a project that seeks to efficiently streamline slums and their improvement to city prosperity. Vital to this process is compiling and working within a comprehensive, context-specific, and operational definition of slums. Streamlining a framework for this is a vital part of the project. 

Q: You conducted research on slum settlement and positive integration of it in the city. Could you tell us more about it? How is evolving the definition of slum following your research?

AA: A consistent reality is that slums are part of our developing cities, and even in historical terms, they were a norm for the now developed or western cities. One of my favourite quotes is from the book triumph of the city by Edward Glaeser who notes that ‘poverty is a sign of a city’s success’. Look at it from a positive angle: cities are and have always been hubs for varied productivity, knowledge, cultures, ideas etc. all coming together to mature and expand, creating vast opportunities. Opportunities that may not be readily available in less socially and economically vibrant hinterlands. So, the disadvantaged and poor vote with their feet and pool to cities with slums acting as a readily available source of cheap domicile. 

Another reality is the two-way social and, especially, economic relationships that exist between slums and cities. This aspect is even more nuanced as we face this current lockdown on all movements and activities. In some cities the informal economy accounts for more than 40% of economic activities with millions of dollars moving per day. So, slums have been and continue to be a part of cities, and improvement to quality of life is a human right that should extend and apply to all population. Then why not work on this two-way relation between the city and slum, ensuring it benefits all sectors? This I have found is an argument that is gaining more voice not just within the research community but also global organisations.

Edward Glaeser rightly further points out that cities don’t fail because they attract less fortunate and opportunity seekers to their centres, on the contrary. They only fail when they are unable to move people to gain better lives and slums become the general default. Now, the challenge for city administrations is and has always been how to effectively manage slums whilst catering to the progress of cities, being relevant and meeting global urban demands.  

For me, one way to overcome this is to advance on the existing triadic reality between slums, cities, and the pursuit of prosperity (at least certain aspects of it). Prosperity itself is another complex concept. My approach is novel. However, to engage with slums or anything in fact, it is necessary to properly understand them, and for slums the limitations to a definition framework is historical as well as perceptual. On the one hand there are the negative perceptions of slums that seem to overwhelm the positives; on the other hand, slums, like every other place are complex, and this complexity in themselves and their existence in cities, needs to be factored into any operational definition for effective outcomes. 

Now, in recent decades we have seen some progress in more streamlined people-centred approaches to slum upgrade with some degree of success. However, even for these, having a well-established background of and ongoing dynamics in slums to effectively work with is a constant limitation. Hence the need to evolve the operational definition of slums to one that not only helps with effective action, but also allows for a common platform of engagement for both city and slum, and as well harnesses strengths and resources in slums in the process. 

Q: Have you ever had issues about editing or sorting data using analysis solutions? Have you heard about our solutions PolarisOS and SIRIUS? 

AA: I have had issues with ways to analyse and effectively communicate my research in the past. Now I explore the use of data analysis through the R software and also the use of dashboards. And no, I have not come across PolarisOS, but intend to check it out.  

Q: You talk about positivity within your research, could you tell us more about the impact of positivity on your work? 

AA: Earlier I mentioned the need to harness strengths and resources in slums. The truth is that in slums as much as there are many challenges, much of which are not of the people’s making but direct outcomes of the economic and social contexts they live within, there are also positives. Two sides of the same coin. We find some slum communities making great strides in physical innovations to build their homes as their wallets allow, innovations in forms of enterprise, cultural hubs, social networks and even capacity building. Many of these initiatives triggered the people’s need to overcome poverty and exclusion. The youth are especially making waves in this regard becoming very tech savvy and forming sensitisation networks. My work seeks to ensure that in the definition of slums, these aspects become explicit and can become partners in and brokers to further improvement and prosperity. A case study that was done shows that this is possible. 

Q: Are slums an issue concerning the current epidemic crisis? 

AA: Very much so. The Covid19 or coronavirus pandemic that the global community is currently living through is having unprecedented economic and social impacts. So, imagine the effect on communities already termed as vulnerable in many aspects. For instance, building and population densities in many slums are high, and sanitary facilities are often shared. This does not allow for social distancing, the main ongoing defensive strategy against the coronavirus. 

There is another socio-spatial dynamic to also consider. What constitutes home and personal space, and shared space is aligned to how people use space and interactions that occur in them, and people’s sense of ownership and belonging. These define the constructs that people form about what is private and what is public space. For example, a foot path that spans the front yard of homes in a setting can seem to be public space where social distancing should be implemented; however, for the residents, this space may be front yard, playground, relaxing yard, or enterprise hub. All these complex spatial and physical, and social dynamics need to be understood to provide proper guidance and put in place effective safety measures and responses. Where other city sectors can enclose and protect themselves, in slums, a run-away infection can lead to pandemonium. 

In Dharavi slum for example, where Covid19 cases are emerging, authorities are trying to put in place effective quarantining strategies and finding it very difficult. In situations like these also, catering to and taking extra precautions to protect those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly becomes harder and the money may not be available. This leads us to the economic impact of the lock down for slum communities. The larger percentage of slum population are informal, short term, and/or day to day earners and necessities like water for instance is collected from water points outside the home and/or bought on a daily basis. Staying home opens several challenges that include the risk of going hungry, lack of water, and worst still becoming homeless. In instances, financial insecurity can also lead to security challenges for the whole city, like the current rise in armed robbery being experienced in Lagos city Nigeria. 

Still yet, in these challenging times we find positive initiatives coming out of slums: hand washing points are springing up like the ones in Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world; the youth are making videos to sensitise or seek help like the one done by the Moira refugee camp youths for the BBC; medical aid organisations are staying on in some areas and ramping up their response to the needs of people; local community organisations like the ‘shining hope for communities’ (SHOFCO operating in Kenya mostly) are fostering prevention efforts and implementing information dissemination projects, to mention a few. The pandemic, I think, has further emphasised the argument for a comprehensive and dynamic approach to profiling slums where weaknesses, strengths and assets are clearly highlighted.

Q: Are you involved in women's rights in science? 

AA: At the moment, no. I think for me it is not just a question of rights but that of ‘opportunity’. I was brought up to understand that I could do anything my will, capacities, and inherent capacities and available resources would allow. My parents were very religious and used examples, like the life of our prophet and his wife, to teach us that principally there is no culture of male suppression, and the sky is the limit whether you are female or male. When I say that the issue of women in science has more to do with opportunity, I mean both opportunity that comes from changing cultural perspectives that are oppressive to women, encouraging the women, and building their inherent and acquired capacities; and fair opportunity in the event that when women seek any form of engagement or recognition, it is their skills and capacities that will determine the result, not their gender.  I do support the principles behind the women’s rights movements. Opportunities and rights are always two sides of the same coin. Where there is opportunity, then one can exercise a right and, as my mentor recently noted in a discussion, without rights, opportunity is less of a choice.