Book review of Jacob Doherty's Waste Worlds: Inhabiting Kampala’s Infrastructures of Disposability (2022)
Waste Worlds: Inhabiting Kampala’s Infrastructures of Disposability, by Jacob Doherty (2022). Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Waste Worlds presents a fine-grained view of the world-making effects of waste infrastructures and the forms of work that have to be re-enacted for their functioning. In doing so, Doherty interrogates the ideas of development and disposability to show how the latter is integral to the former. Using garbage and its management as the central focus, the book critically examines the urban-transformation agenda in Kampala, Uganda. The resulting account is multi-sited even as it is rooted in one city, multi-scalar from the individual body to the global, and attentive to both structures and processes. The book has three parts, each exploring waste from different lenses: of governance, labor, and affect respectively.
Part 1 entitled “The Authority of Garbage” traces the imbrication of waste in governmental authority and in oppositional actions against state power. Chapter 1 contextualizes Kampala as the site of state power in Uganda from pre-colonial to contemporary times. It traces the segmented nature of the colonial city and the post-colonial project to remake it, undertaken by the national government and buoyed by international financial and non-governmental institutions. Chapter 2 explains how infrastructural maintenance and urban repair have become key issues used to shore up the state’s legitimacy and as political focal points harnessed by the opposition. The establishment of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), a central actor in the book, is reflective of the state’s attempt to consolidate authority by depoliticizing these issues into technocratic questions for experts to address.
Chapter 3 uses the eviction and demolition orders enacted by KCCA to show how the “wasting,” of existing materialities and institutions, constitutes development and ordering. Yet, these acts of governance do not succeed entirely; Doherty deploys the notion of “destructive creation” to highlight the encroachment into new spaces that have come to be occupied by those who are displaced. This is not a simple celebratory accounting of subaltern resistance, but a more nuanced take that recognizes how infrastructure’s “temporal-spatial lags (reveal) the entanglement of investment and abandonment” (p. 60). Chapter 4 further develops this point to move infrastructure scholarship from a focus on failures and “spectacle works” towards accounts of how state action to repair the built environment and clean up garbage are mobilized to legitimize technocratic power.
Part 2 – entitled “Away,” which denotes the spaces where waste is discarded – is the portion of the book that might be of most interest to anthropologists of work. It reveals the diversity of work and workers that go into producing the various socio-technical systems that constitute waste infrastructure. In this vein, Chapter 5 details the interconnectedness of formal and informal waste management systems. Doherty captures the located relationality between these realms by using the term “para-site” – whereby, “para” means adjacent to and “site” signifies geographies. Chapter 6 unpacks how the global neoliberal push to streamline waste management through privatization – with the state becoming a regulator, not a service provider – plays out in Kampala. It describes the splintering of infrastructure systems in which elite citizens are made “morally responsible” to become paying consumers of private waste services, and the non-elite are denied the same services due to their inability to pay. The formal ideal of a closed stream that moves waste from generation to disposal is entirely predicated on workers whose knowledge and labor are invisibilized. This group includes those employed by private companies to load waste onto trucks, who supplement their earnings through informal recycling.
Chapters 7 and 8 bring the reader to the sites most represented in popular and academic imaginings of waste: the landfill and low-income settlements. Doherty describes the informal economies surrounding the Kiteezi landfill and the logics of the people there who partake in salvaging. Economic principles of scale and autonomy, kinship, and moral reasoning combine to make accumulation possible even as it leaves workers vulnerable. Labor is also substituted to fill gaps in the infrastructure that provisions these informal settlements. Excessive emphasis is placed on behavioral change in poor residents to shift blame for the proliferation of waste while externalizing the costs for its removal. One way to do this is through shifting the onus of holding waste until it is taken away – from public dumpsites into people’s homes, thus relying on the free labor of women and children to self-load waste whenever the itinerant garbage truck arrives. Kato, the local politician, plays a central role in this assemblage by bridging the gap between official policies and everyday unofficial practices. Chapter 9 argues that the routine risks and hazards embodied by those working in waste infrastructures occur through the disposability of certain people and places.
This leads into Part 3 of the book, entitled “Racializing Disposability,” which delves into the ideologies and affects that underpin waste infrastructures. Chapter 10 argues how international development NGOs impose idealized notions of “community” and solutions for “empowerment” through their funding and projects even as their relations with locals remain deeply hierarchical. Chapter 11 describes the public cleaning events organized by NGOs and the state as exercises to generate “infrastructures of feeling.” This, again, places moral responsibility for waste management and infrastructure upkeep on the citizens themselves. Chapters 12 and 13 then unpack the racialized, colonial-inflected urban-transformation projects that seek to change “village mentalities” (p. 177). While it is arguable that the author’s attempt to link this “developmental respectability” discourse to “Black respectability politics” in the United States is somewhat tenuous, the larger point on how these performances reinforce racial binaries and the continuing racial legacies in post-colonial contexts is convincing. It also helps to tie the book’s discussion back to the consolidation of state authority (from Chapter 1) by fleshing out how post-colonial citizenship is forged through cultural and material projects. These are both repressive and ideological, contested both spectacularly and in the everyday.
The book concludes by tying together the four processes that constitute disposability as an “infrastructural condition: surplus, embodiment, displacement, and contestation” (p. 207). Even as it is rooted in Kampala, this is a framing that can travel to other contexts. By means of the book’s rich ethnographic accounts, Doherty’s analysis transgresses binary categorizations of formal-informal, elite-poor, state-civil society, and the material and affective. In this regard, it would speak to readers who are interested in the anthropology and sociology of work, labor geography, urban informality, planning and infrastructure, and discard studies. As such, the book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the work that underlies the infrastructures that are so vital to contemporary societies.
Malavika Narayan is a PhD student at the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. Her work focuses on the spatiality of informal work, specifically waste picking and home-based work, in the context of urban transformation in the Global South.