Book review: Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal

Authored by Rosalind Fredericks and reviewed by Jenny McArthur

13 Jun 2019, 4:22 p.m.
Jenny McArthur

Garbage Citizenship cover

Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal

Authored by Rosalind Fredericks and reviewed by Jenny McArthur

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018; 216 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-4780-0141-6, £17.99 (pbk)


Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal presents an in-depth analysis of the ways that garbage, and waste infrastructures, played a central role in the politics of urban change in Dakar. This text presents a thoughtful and rigorous analysis of infrastructures as a complex artefact of urban life, adding to the growing field of infrastructure studies, including the work of Anand et al. (2018)Krinsky and Simonet (2017) and Ranganathan (2014). It reveals how garbage takes on symbolic importance in cities, as a visceral part of everyday urban life that signifies modernity or crisis, cleanliness or disorder, by its presence or absence. In Dakar, urban politics have turned on garbage, as the material manifestation of political breakdown or dysfunction. Garbage thus provides a useful lens to understand the city’s rich democratic context and its development across the past three decades. It also counters harmful and misleading depictions of cities in the Global South, by pointing to their political vitality and situating the analysis within Dakar’s postcolonial context.

The book tracks the politics of waste management in Dakar between two important political moments: the Set/Setal movement in 1988–1989, and the 2007 strikes following unionisation of garbage workers. Across this time scale, the broader, long-term impacts of structural adjustment, austerity and neoliberalism can be evaluated with nuance, avoiding the tendency to portray neoliberal globalisation as a ‘global bulldozer wreaking havoc on a passive local victim’ (p. 5), by illustrating the opportunities and tactics for counter-mobilisation in Dakar. Social studies of infrastructure face a challenging task in wrangling analysis of infrastructure’s intersecting material, political, cultural, gendered, moral and postcolonial dimensions into the form of a book. Fredericks successfully negotiates this by structuring the text in four chapters: ‘Governing disposability’, ‘Vital infrastructures of labor’, ‘Technologies of community’ and ‘Piety of refusal’. Each chapter focuses on key moments or processes that constitute urban and political change in Dakar, building to show how infrastructure is central to the complex and layered dynamics of urban change.

‘Governing disposability’ outlines the chronology of institutional changes in Dakar since 1960, showing how its ongoing reconfiguration was influenced by political imperatives to position Dakar as a world-class city, as well as colonial legacies of urban inequality and rendering certain populations ‘disposable’ (p. 35). Two decades of nationalist development between 1960 and 1980 were disrupted by structural adjustment: as well as substantial budget cuts for infrastructure, these reforms brought in a new mode of technocratic governance that struggled against the growth of informal markets, the burgeoning youth population and the erosion of the social contract and patronage regime of the former government. This crescendoed with the 1988 political crisis and the creation of the youth movement Set/Setal. Set/Setal operated as a participatory regime that solved the practical problem of cleaning up the city, while also recasting the state’s vision, from modernist, state-led urban development to participatory citizenship, framed with discourses of youth empowerment and entrepreneurialism. This foregrounds the later developments of the mid-2000s, where fragmented attempts to modernise waste infrastructures led to widespread strikes and another garbage crisis on Dakar’s streets.

‘Vital infrastructures of labor’ brings the important question of labour to the fore, drawing from Simone’s (2004) notion of people as infrastructure to show how the reconfigurations of formalised and participatory waste infrastructures variously transferred the work of trash collection and processing to human bodies, particularly young people and women. Set/Setal mobilised the voluntary labour of young people to clean up the city streets in 1989, invoking the neighbourhood as a rescaled arena for symbolic politics. In the broader context of disillusionment with political crisis and corruption, this movement allowed youth to literally take matters into their own hands. In the mid-2000s, garbage collectors worked in challenging conditions, with inadequate and unsafe equipment and often facing delays in payment. The chapter shows the significance of labour as the burden was transferred from technological systems onto human bodies, creating a reliance on people that would later create the opportunity to build power in forming a union movement.

‘Technologies of community’ focuses on the ways that the micropolitics of garbage are articulated, through a participatory community project in a peripheral neighbourhood. Gendered relations were centralised, as the project aimed to extend women’s household duties into public spaces as community ‘housekeepers’. The NGO-led project leveraged discourses of community development, appropriate technologies and environmentalism, but the outcomes were ultimately limited to ‘pushing the garbage from inside the neighbourhood to a festering pile on its periphery’ (p. 121). The final chapter of the book, ‘Piety of refusal’, recounts the moral politics of Dakar’s waste collection to show how the trajectory of institutional reforms and failed governance experiments culminated in a worker-led campaign and formation of a garbage workers’ union. The work was reframed in religious terms, as a practice of purification, successfully removing the stigma of waste collection and building public support for the workers’ movement as well as collective action to bargain with the city government. In this way, Fredericks demonstrates how religious values provided the ‘scaffolding through which politics and piety are enmeshed and through which new, more ethical infrastructures can be crafted’ (p. 148). The strands established in each chapter are brought together in the notion of garbage citizenship. This concept unpacks how the material, affective and political dimensions of waste management encode and enact values and a wide range of differentiated opportunities and barriers for urban dwellers. The everyday materiality of waste infrastructures and the frequent extension of infrastructural burdens onto human labour point to the potential opportunities and tactics for political mobilisation.

By bringing together materialist perspectives on infrastructure and the cultural and moral politics of trash, Garbage Citizenship makes a compelling argument for interdisciplinary and contextually-grounded studies of infrastructure. The book’s central issues represent what is at stake in the current era of infrastructural expansion across the globe, which still faces persistent political dysfunction, uneven and fragmented forms of development that perpetuate inequalities, and vulnerability to co-option by entrenched interests. In light of this, scholars face an urgent imperative to evaluate the preconditions for positive change in cities, to improve living standards and reduce inequalities. This text provides rich insights here, and the central focus on labour is important for considering how neoliberal urbanism may be resisted or reconfigured within local contexts. Extending the conclusions to consider how they inform the practical activities of urban governance – such as community organisation, public participation and urban development planning – would make a much-needed contribution to urban debates.





  Anand, N, Gupta, A, Appel, H (eds) (2017) The Promise of Infrastructure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 
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  Krinsky, J, Simonet, M (2017) Who Cleans the Park? Public Work and Urban Governance in New York City. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 
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  Ranganathan, M (2014) Paying for pipes, claiming citizenship: Political agency and water reforms at the urban periphery. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(2): 590–608. 
Google Scholar | ISI
  Simone, AM (2004) People as infrastructure: Intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture 16(3): 407–429. 
Google Scholar | ISI


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