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Concordia PhD candidate’s paper on sustainability in sub-Saharan African cities earns a Prix Relève étoile

The Fonds de recherche du Québec recognizes Gideon Abagna Azunre for his research on inclusive urban redevelopment
January 18, 2023
A young, smiling man with short, dark, spiky hair, wearing a plaid shirt and with a poster in the background with big letters saying, "Concordia."
Gideon Abagna Azunre: “My intention is to start to build trust with the communities I’m researching.”

Gideon Abagna Azunre is currently pursuing his PhD in geography, urban and environmental studies at Concordia. His doctoral research led him to win December’s Prix Relève étoile Paul-Gérin-Lajoie from the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC).

Azunre secured the honour for his paper “Urban informalities in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA): A solution for or barrier against sustainable city development,” published in the peer-reviewed journal World Development. The FRQSC confers the prize monthly to promote and recognize exceptional research by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the province. 

Azunre’s research paper evaluated the role of urban informalities in sustainable city development in sub-Saharan Africa. Urban informalities refer to everyday economic, social or spatial activities not recognized by formal regulations. 

“Street vending in a lot of cities in the Global South is one of the activities that is considered informal because the state doesn’t recognize the vendors,” Azunre explains. “They’re not registered businesses; they lack labour and social protection.”

Housing can also be an informal activity when people construct homes without getting the proper permits or violate building codes. 

Hotly debated topic

Azunre says there is a lot of debate within the academic community about how to deal with urban informalities. 

“On the one hand, many academics say that these activities are problematic because they are chaotic. We should just get rid of them,” he notes.

“On the other hand, many people argue these activities are providing households with income. They are helping improve food security. Let’s allow them to remain.” 

In his research paper, Azunre aimed to clarify this debate by conducting a systematic literature review. He analyzed 174 articles, reports and books related to urban informalities in sub-Saharan Africa, paying special attention to the economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development. 

“We found that many research papers only look at one of these dimensions,” Azunre reports. “The current debate isn’t holistic.” 

His paper shows that current debates around urban informalities are missing the point, he maintains. 

“It is not whether we should get rid of urban informalities or leave them. The point is to make sure that we maximize the positive roles at play and minimize the negative roles,” Azunre explains.

“Estimates suggest that one billion people live in settlements that are informal. These aren’t just going to go away.” 

Azunre says the Global South is developing rapidly and he hopes his paper underlines the importance of adapting development plans to local contexts where urban informalities play an important role. 

Looking ahead

As part of his PhD thesis, Azunre is researching how to better include marginalized communities and vulnerable groups, like children and those with disabilities, into redevelopment plans.  

Specifically, he is looking at how to dismantle the top-down approach to development in Ghana. He’s planning on completing an internship with a grassroots community-based organization in the country within the next few months. 

“My intention is to start to build trust with the communities I’m researching for the data collection that I hope to do for my PhD in 2024.”

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