Undergraduate Dissertation Prize

Congratulations to our 2020 Undergraduate Dissertation Prize Winners! We had a really high standard of submissions this year and well done to all entrants for doing such impressive work during such an uncertain year.

Winner: Rai Saad Khan, University of Oxford

“Lahore’s Performative Statehoods: a study of the form and practices of statehood of the Walled City of Lahore Authority in Pakistan”

You can find Rai’s blog post about his dissertation below.

Highly Commended: Wafia Yahyaoui, QMUL

“Life is Expensive….Navigating Waithood in Oran, Algeria”

Lahore’s Performative Statehoods: A study of the form and practices of statehood of the Walled City of Lahore Authority in Pakistan.

Rai Saad Khan, University of Oxford

For my dissertation ‘Lahore’s Performative Statehoods’, I was researching the relatively new public body, the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), which has been tasked with preserving the heritage and upgrading the facilities of the historic center of Lahore. I was fascinated with the area as it stood apart from so much of the rest of the city I knew. Highly compact and packed with Mughal-era architecture, it contrasts to a Lahore which is increasingly marked by large, low-density housing societies and real estate schemes, the logical extensions of a colonial-era aspiration to a ‘Garden City’ model. Indeed, the introduction of a permanent governmental body to manage the Walled City was itself a reversal of the long-lasting legacies of British colonial rule, which were marked by an overlying governmental ‘abandonment’ of the ‘unruly’ area in favour of the newer, colonial quarters.

In choosing to study the WCLA I was interested in the tensions which would arise with the state trying to re-establish authority, and the politics which surrounded the will to ‘improve’ and ‘upgrade’ these areas. With the latter, I was looking to engage with a set of geographical literature which examined the often problematic ways in which post-colonial states would import the logics of capitalism or seek to create ‘world-class’ aesthetics over the interests of local residents in the name of development.

The works of Ananya Roy and Asher Ghertner were particularly relevant here in linking how the politics and discourses created around these urban improvement projects are actually forming different forms of statehood to those studied in the global North. Roy demonstrates how rather than the interchangeable notions of informality and incompetence which are often used to describe the failure of India’s urban planning, informality is instead a particular form of planning through which the state can extend its powers. Ghertner further explains how in response to the unruliness of informality or ‘nuisance’ slums in urban India, a new calculative foundation of rule has emerged around aesthetic norms rather than the ‘scientific’ attempts – an aesthetic governmentality. Looking at these works, and a much wider literature on South Asian governmentalities, the politics of informality, and urban geographies, I was able to contextualize and better understand the relation between statecraft and the socio-spatiality of the urban environment in the Walled City.

By interviewing officials involved in the restoration project, and by studying key policy documents or reports published by the WCLA’s partner organizations (which included the World Bank and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture), my methodology was centered around elucidating on the discourses through which the government officials within the WCLA understood the Walled City, and how these discourses played a role in formulating their policy decisions. As a key aim of the WCLA was to  rehabilitate the heritage and ‘beauty’ elements of the area, which were increasingly threatened by dilapidation and commercial usage, there was obviously a very clear aesthetic element to the project (whether through preserving historic homes and facades or removing obstructing infrastructures). What I found surprising however was the level to which these discourses around aesthetics (to remove the ugly or disorganized, and replace it with the historical/beautiful) were subverted by the realities of the overwhelming informality and uncertainty of the area.  Through engagements with the complex, interlinked nature of the urban environment, the WCLA was undergoing a fundamental shift towards a more temporally and spatially-attuned form of planning, in which a level of care and precaution is adopted towards uncertainty. What started as admittedly ‘cosmetic’ changes such as removing overhead wires and covering up the open sewage system required the WCLA to take on an increasingly holistic form of planning, more attuned to infrastructural networks or even the topography of drainage catchments in the area. In this way, I argued how the WCLA articulates a different conception of ‘aesthetics’, based on its capacities and relation with the urban environment. As such, efforts to construct an aesthetics become embroiled in the state’s larger performance of functionality and order.

Altogether, I argued that the WCLA adopts an increasingly ‘performative’ form of statehood. This ‘performative’ statehood is more concerned with propagating large-scale shifts through highly symbolic or affective interventions than undertaking precise interventions. By projecting a discourse of responsibility and care towards the residents (promoting them to care for heritage buildings, or to cut littering), the WCLA positioned itself as a ‘catalyst’, leading the residents towards modernity and development. This is interesting as it demonstrates just one of the numerous ways in which post-colonial or developmental states worked around their constraints and developed particular modes of governance and statehood which are overlooked by studies from the Global North. Rather than viewing this in a matrix of neoliberalism or deregulation, this was the state working with and around its limited resources or capacities (whether that is in terms of funding, political authority, technical knowledge, local trust or otherwise), to co-opt the help of residents and extend its authority. In particular, I described a ‘politics of trust’ that the WCLA had to negotiate in order to maintain a level of participation from the local residents. This involved creating neighborhood communities or having significant ‘social mobilization’ teams through which the state was able to provide a more embodied and present form to the local residents to engineer consent and local acceptance of its plans. As a large part of the project involved removing ‘encroachments’ from vendors or residential properties onto public spaces in the area, ensuring community support was critical for the WCLA to achieve its goals.

Taken together, my dissertation demonstrated to me the immense potential for further research to expand our understanding of emerging state practices in both local and Southern contexts, especially given how this case study provides a subtle subversion of several tropes discussed already in literature on South Asian Governmentalities. As a Pakistani looking at the literature in these fields, I had noticed how little research had been done on Pakistan and thought it would be interesting to explore some of the differences which would emerge if I set my research on the WCLA. However, I was completely surprised by how, even at the level of an undergraduate dissertation, I was able to learn so much and develop some of my own unique insights.

For future and present geography students, I just want to say how a dissertation is an incredible opportunity to learn more about an area which interests you, to develop your skills, and to see how geography can be used to better understand the world. If you have any questions about writing a dissertation, or about my dissertation, feel free to reach me via DevGRG  at developmentgeographies.rgs@gmail.com.

Previous Winners:

  • 1995: Ming-Lee Lim (Oxford) ‘Kotadesasi Zones: A New Hypothesis on Megalopisation in Asia: A Case Study of Beijing, China’
  • 1996: Rachel Jenkings (University of the West of England) ‘What role does female participation play in the effectiveness of community development? A Case study of the Christian Community Services Department in the Machakos Diocese of the Church of the Province of Kenya’
  • 1997: Rebecca Dell (Birmingham) ‘Visions of Africa: Pictoral Images in Oxfam Publications’
  • 1998: Haleh Darwazeh (University College, London) ‘Micro-Credit Enterprises and Women’s Empowerment’
  • 1999: Simon Hayden (Oxford) ‘Fair Trade Coffee as a Strategy for Human Development in Rural Peru’
  • 2000: Alice Pettigrew (Durham) ‘Shaka to Shakespeare: An Examination of the Relationship between Education and Identity in Twentieth Century KwaZulu-Natal’.
  • 2001: Samantha Shepherd (UWE) ‘The Attitudes of Indigenous People to Their Environment: A Study of the Bajau Community in Tukangbesi Archipelago, Indonesia’.
  • 2002: Emilie Filou (Oxford) ‘Camels, Marabouts and Docs: Health Care Provision for Tuaregs in Northern Niger’.
  • 2003: Sarah Rothmell (Birmingham) ‘The Connectivitea of Britain and Sri Lanka’.
  • 2004: Edward Poulter (Edinburgh) ‘Challenging the Epidemiological Transition: An Investigation into the Influence of Urban Slum Environments on health with Kibera Slum, Nairobi’.
  • 2005: Harriet White (Edinburgh) ‘Governance and performance: A case study of identity construction among two Karen groups’. [List of shortlisted dissertations]
  • 2006: Siobhan Luikham (UCL) ‘Why don’t the kids go to school? A comparative study of the constraints on achievement of free compulsory universal basic education (fCUBE) in Ghana from a household perspective’. [List of shortlisted dissertations]
  • 2007: Ruth Pearse (The University of Edinburgh) ‘The gender politics of credit control: Social appropriation of the mobile phone in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’
  • 2008: David Parry (Queen Mary UoL) ‘Motivation as assemblage: sustainable agriculture in rural Mexico’.
  • 2009: Richard Mallett (UCL) ”It’s like one leg is in the village, one leg is here’: Transition, Connection and (Uncertain?) Aspirations among Urban Internally Displaced Persons in Kampala, Uganda
  • 2010: Thomas Grant (Exeter) ‘Making way for Arecelor Mittal’.
  • 2011: James Mak (LSE) ‘Spaces in the (Re-) construction of Post-conflict Cambodia.’
  • 2013: Sally Millett (Durham) ‘Representing and Encountering Tanzania: Locating Agency in the Discursive Formation of Nature and Poverty in Western ‘Voluntourism’ Narratives’
  • 2014: Christopher Blois-Brooke (Durham) ‘Postcolonial destabilisation of expert knowledge through Theatre for Development? A spatial analysis in (and away from) Lusaka, Zambia.’
  • 2015: Matita Afoakwa (UCL) ‘Self, Status and Survival: The experience of return migration of professionals to Accra, Ghana’.”
  • 2016: Daphne Lee (UCL) ‘Ageing environmental relationships in Singapore.’
  • 2017: Clara Ida Bartram Gurresø (Edinburgh) ‘Why do People Volunteer? A Critical Study into the Motivations of International Volunteers.’
  • 2018: Miles Harrison (UCL) Empowering the poor?’ The effects of formalising informal settlements in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.’
  • 2019: Lucy Petty (Newcastle) ‘Responsible Volunteering: A Viable Solution? A Postcolonial Reading of International Volunteering in Jambiani, Zanzibar.’

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