Academic spotlight: On urban poverty and the role of NGOs
Nicola Banks is Senior Lecturer in Global Urbanism and Urban Development, as well as Deputy Director of the Global Development Institute. In her academic spotlight, she shares with us her background, what attracted her to work at Manchester and her area of research.
On your background
I found my love of research living and working in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I worked for the NGO BRAC’s Research and Evaluation Division. This gave me insight into how one of the biggest and best NGOs in the world operates and allowed me to be part of an inspiring and experienced cross-disciplinary research team. I initially went for a six-month internship and spent 18 months there.
Somewhat serendipitously, we co-hosted a conference on What Works for the Poorest with the University of Manchester, giving me the opportunity to meet colleagues and hear about the exciting research they were doing. It made me realise that further research training would be an excellent way of taking my career forwards and that Manchester would be a great home for this.
I worked with BRAC again after finishing my PhD, this time in Uganda where I headed their Research and Evaluation Unit. It was a sad departure from there for me in 2012, but at that stage in life I knew that I wanted to make the move back to academia and the UK. Taking up a research position while I applied for Postdoctoral Fellowships opened up that opportunity. This led to me winning an ESRC Future Research Leaders award and further down the line graduated into a permanent lectureship at the GDI.
On your decision to join Manchester
The biggest attraction for my PhD study here in Manchester was its people. Meeting GDI colleagues at the conference was a real spark. To know that they were engaged with such interesting and important research projects and partnerships around the world was a real attraction. I remain thankful that I work with such amazing and collegial friends and colleagues. It is an inspiring place to work; I am always learning thanks to my colleagues, my students, and my research partners.
The other thing that makes me most proud to work for Manchester is its commitment to and investment in Social Responsibility and impact. This is central to the University’s first place award in the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking – I couldn’t think of a better ranking to top. It was doing research that could make a difference, rather than a career in academia, per se, that has always driven me. A university like Manchester (and a department like GDI) that recognises and prioritises tangible impacts alongside world-leading research, is the place for me.
On your research
I have cultivated two main strands of research throughout my career to date. The first is around understanding urban poverty. My PhD explored urban poverty dynamics in Bangladesh, looking at the ways in which employment can facilitate escape from poverty in Dhaka. It became clear to me that we must understand urban poverty’s political roots, as well as its economic and social dimensions, underlining serious limitations to traditional frameworks for understanding urban poverty. Such frameworks over-prioritise the household or individual as the core actor in poverty outcomes and dynamics, when in fact household agency can be severely constrained by the structures and fabrics of society. This tension between structure and agency weaves throughout all of my research.
My postdoctoral work extended this to look specifically at the experiences of young people in urban Tanzania. There is a lot of research on young people, but looking at this through my fieldwork experience with young people I felt that this didn’t quite do justice to the depth and complexity of young people’s experiences of urban poverty. One of the things I love about Development Studies is its cross-disciplinary approach. I saw this as an opportunity to incorporate the discipline of Developmental Psychology into our understanding of young lives, a perspective that had yet to make it into the more global youth literature. My research here highlights how the key processes of psychosocial development that occur throughout youth-hood are severely undermined by the social, economic and political landscapes of the city.
My research has also expanded to explore the role and contributions of NGOs as development actors. Academic research, including my own, is largely critical of the transformative potential of NGOs. Now I find myself in the fortunate position that I can move beyond criticism to impact. Recently I was invited to join the Reimagining the International NGO project (RINGO). This brings donor and NGO practitioners together to design and implement prototypes seeking to break down the power inequalities that exist in NGO ‘partnerships’ across the global North and South. I am learning a lot and the experience is reiterating to me how important doing research that makes a difference is to me.
On your postgraduate engagement
I am Programme Director for the master’s in Global Urban Development and Planning, a cross-disciplinary master’s between Planning and Environmental Management and the Global Development Institute. It’s a great programme, giving students critical insight into the pressing urban issues facing towns and cities across the world as well as the planning knowledge and skills to address them. I also convene a GDI module on Critical Issues in Urban Inequality and deliver lectures across a wide range of GDI modules.