Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sustainability Case Studies Chapter 16: Urban Vulnerability of Waste Workers in Nigerian Cities: The Case of Aba, Nigeria

Waste workers in Nigeria. 
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This is the 16th post in this blog series, Sustainability Case Studies, that is based on the book The Palgrave Handbook of Sustainability: Case Studies and Practical Solutions edited by Robert Brinkmann (yours truly) and Sandra Garren and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. Each post in the series will comment on the content of the chapter as well as some general take-aways or practical teaching or personal/organizational initiatives that could be gleaned from the chapter. Links to previous posts on the series (including the post that introduced the series) follow after the chapter review.

This chapter, Urban Vulnerability of Waste Workers in Nigerian Cities:  The Case of Aba, Nigeria, by Thaddeus Chidi Nzeabide and Friday Uchenna Ochege, is a fascinating look at informal waste workers in Africa. The authors take on an important topic--the informal waste trade--within the context of workers and their vulnerability. Waste management in Nigeria is underfunded in many areas and there is a robust economy associated with informal waste management. However, those who engage in the informal waste economy are among the most vulnerable members of Nigerian society. Assessing the vulnerability of these workers is the main focal point of the chapter.

The chapter begins with a review of the meaning of vulnerability, particularly in the context of the Nigerian informal waste trade. Those involved often have "...threats to well-being, snuggles and social-political contestations for rights garbage, tensions and competitions for survival, cultivation and maintenance of social networks, agency, and collective organizing..." There are a variety of threats to those involved with informal waste. For example, the waste itself is often dangerous. Plus there is a hefty competition among those involved with waste for access to garbage. Plus, governments often have a range of rules around the informal garbage trade and it is easy to run into regulatory problems.

The authors then review the setting for the case study in Aba, Nigeria. Aba is a city of over a million people that was a small town of 13,000 in 1931. Thus Aba is similar to some of the sunbelt cities in the U.S., in that it boomed in the 20th century. The growth in Aba was largely unplanned. As a result, there are often incompatible land uses adjacent to each other and there are a range of environmental and social problems present in the city--including a variety of issues associated with waste management.

The authors next provide a brief literature review around urban vulnerability in the informal waste trade. Many parts of the world, including Europe and the U.S., once had informal economies associated with waste. However, waste has become a highly organized part of what local governments do when they provide services to communities in most of the world. However, Africa remains one of the places where waste is still handled informally. In addition, workers in the waste business are not part of any organized planning or initiatives and are not part of any local or regional poverty reduction strategy. In addition, the informal waste economy is not taken into account in any measurable way when assessing local or regional economies. Thus, there is scant literature on who is involved, the economic impact, or the vulnerability of workers.

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The chapter then moves to a review of how a vulnerability index was constructed for waste workers in Aba. I will not go into all of the details on this as it is a complex undertaking. Suffice it to say that the authors use a range of variables to assess vulnerability in a variety of ways. What is particularly interesting in the chapter is that the authors developed a locational variable to assess vulnerability across the city. Those that are most vulnerable tend to work independently. The least vulnerable work at major dump sites and thus have means of mutual support. The chapter concludes by discussing that interventions around social innovation could assist the most vulnerable.


Here are some discussion questions when using this chapter for a unit on waste, informal waste management, or waste in Africa.

1. Where is Aba, Nigeria? Describe its population growth.

2. What is informal waste management and how does it compare with waste management in your community?

3. What is vulnerability? Why are waste workers in Aba a good focus for looking at worker vulnerability?

4. What variables were used in the binary-composite vulnerability index of Aba waste pickers?

5. How does location of waste work contribute to vulnerability?

6. What is social innovation and how can it be applied to waste workers in Aba?

7. How does this study intersect Sustainable Development Goals 8 and 11?

8. How would you assess the vulnerability of waste workers in your community?

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