Dr Vandana Desai

Personal profile

My research involves an integrated strategy of cross disciplinary research collaboration combining my own background in development with the research of academics from geography, sociology, social policy, gerontology and international NGOs such as Practical Action and WaterAid in seeking to influence international policy making – focussing on theoretical and implementation issues in development policy, urban governance, and North-South donor relations in areas of low-income housing and infrastructural development (water and sanitation), ageing and gender issues. 


My current research is organised in three themes. 

(i) Speculating on Slums: Thinking about the rising aspirations of slum citizens in cities of the global South, who are innovatively making increasing demands for higher living standards, leading to dispersed power and difficulties in reaching consensus within slums, this research highlights the ever growing fragmentation in terms of power, influence and decision making that can lead to more indecision, more impasse, and more insecurity for the poorest. The research concentrates on the poorly understood process of speculation on slums in urban poor communities of Mumbai and tries to stimulate new and better understandings of the relationship between slum housing, infrastructural investments in slums and rental processes emerging in the global South. It examines the spatial politics of land claims, processes of speculation and dispossession, which highlight the practices that shape future land security and insecurity and thereby claims and conflicts over urban space and property.  It also highlights that improved infrastructure and services creates threats for security of tenure for slum dwellers. (see interview http://facultimedia.com/geography-speculating-on-slums/)

(ii) Ageing and Poverty: This research is underpinned by recognition of older people’s agency, so considers both the importance of (a) providing older people with the support they require, but also (b) recognising and giving people the opportunity to contribute to the economy and society more broadly.  Two key interlinked research dimensions are important here: firstly, how social and economic changes have affected or will affect the well-being and support situation of present or future older people, and secondly how older people’s needs and position in society relate to poverty and development.  The primary aim is to understand and investigate the diverse strategies and the modifications to lifestyle adopted by the ageing urban poor population in slums.  It explicitly concentrates on the changing dynamics of the ageing slum dweller population and their changing needs and vulnerability. The research seeks to open up new ground for research by investigating the complex relations, the dynamics of household strategies, employment and livelihoods.   The knowledge base on well-being, poverty, and vulnerability among older urban poor and their households is very limited. This proposed research will help strengthen research in poverty reduction and the care of the rising number of older people in Asian countries living on the margins of the urban economy.  

(iii) Gender and Development: Gender has been a cross cutting theme in most of my research. My current interest is twofold (i) ageing and geographies of women over the life course and(ii) Youth spaces and practices of love in Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh, and Taipei, this project examines how female university students imagine, experience and express love within three Asian cities.  It will explore how young women talk about love and how, and where, it is enacted in their everyday lives.  The research focuses on the spaces and practices not only of romance, but also of women’s emotions towards parents, siblings, extended family as well as friends.  Additionally, examining the complexities of love as an emotion, a discourse and a set of practices, will allow insights into geographical concepts such as home, globalisation and place in some of Asia’s most dynamic urban centres. Second, by focusing on youth, our research will contribute to the growing tide of work which stresses the importance of this demographic generally for the increasingly urban futures that the Global South faces. While the majority of work focuses on young people and the harsh social and economic environments they must negotiate, we wish to consider their neglected emotional lives and what this means both in respect to everyday practice but also in terms of changing lifestyles, well-being and future aspirations.

 My previous research can be categorised in two themes:

(i) Grassroots Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)

Funded by DFID (UK) and a grant from the British Academy, the research was the first of its kind in focusing on a sample of 67 urban NGOs in one city i.e. Mumbai.  This research led theoretical debates on how NGOs are increasingly called upon to fill the gap between the needs of vulnerable urban groups and the partial service delivery of the public sector. I have collected data over the years and developed a data base on NGOs in Mumbai.  I am hoping to update this database again and I am intending to revisit the sector to construct what will be a unique longitudinal dataset on this vitally important sector.

(ii) Community Participation and Informal (slum) Housing

The research explores the nature and scope of community participation and analyses the concepts of 'influence' and 'power' in community participatory procesess.  The research focuses on two questions in Mumbai: What impact does community mobilisation have on the process of slum upgrading and secondly what is the extent of participation and how it affects the services provided at the grassroot level.  More specifically, the research seeks to understand how the needs of the urban poor with respect to housing and basic services are articulated and fulfilled, their involvement in community organisations and the role that the community and its leaders play in influencing state action.

I have been a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the journal Progress in Development Studies for the last eleven years.  I was appointed a member of the editorial board “The Urban World” a quarterly journal of the Regional Centre for Urban and Environmental Studies (RCUES), All India Institute of Local Self Government, Mumbai in May 2009.  

I have co-edited two of the leading development text books.  I teach on the undergraduate and Master’s programme and supervise PhD postgraduate and post-doctoral researchers.

I did my DPhil at Oxford University on completion in 1992, I was appointed as a Research Fellow for three years at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and in 1996 moved to a Lectureship to the Geography Department at Royal Holloway.

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