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University of Basel

In Focus: Thomas Betschart researched Ethiopian infrastructure by bike

Thomas Betschart in his Basel office.
In his doctoral dissertation at the Department of Urban Studies, Thomas Betschart combines field research in southern Ethiopia and data analysis in Basel. (Photo: University of Basel, Eleni Kougionis)

Ethiopia is known for its coffee but also regularly makes headlines for poverty and the flaring up of violence. For his dissertation project, geographer Thomas Betschart investigates how the design of the country’s infrastructure shapes daily life. Getting into conversation with locals and gathering information turned out to be quite a challenge.

18 August 2022

Thomas Betschart in his Basel office.
In his doctoral dissertation at the Department of Urban Studies, Thomas Betschart combines field research in southern Ethiopia and data analysis in Basel. (Photo: University of Basel, Eleni Kougionis)

Thomas Betschart has found his dream job. He had to put up a fight for it. He recalls submitting dozens of applications for doctorate positions. Finally, one became available in Urban Studies at the University of Basel. Betschart was 38 years old and had taught his degree subjects of geography, history and English in secondary school for several years after completing his pedagogical training. He had also worked at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) and at the Federal Office for the Environment.

A teaching diploma and teaching job were always a back-up plan for the now 42-year-old. Not a bad one, in his opinion. But research was what he really wanted to do. When the acceptance letter arrived, he had a position as a secondary school teacher in Hamburg in view. “When I received the acceptance letter for the doctorate, I was only too happy to put that off.”

Dodging animals on a bike

He traveled to Africa instead of northern Germany. His dissertation project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), focuses on Ethiopia’s infrastructure and how its design affects the life of the population.

“The planning is top-down. Whole cities are conjured from nothing and roads are built from scratch or extended,” says Betschart. An example is the road connecting the capital Addis Ababa and Nairobi: the drive used to take four to five days, but since 2020 that has been cut to about 24 hours. One could see this as making things easier for the population. However: “In theory, roads like this are for everyone, but in practice large parts of the population cannot afford mobility.” Nevertheless, improved infrastructure is one of the government’s most sacred promises.

Betschart spreads out a map to show how the country is organized. Ethiopia has 84 ethnic groups, but not all people have the same opportunities in life. This causes persistent social and political tensions, which also also affected Betschart’s fieldwork. “I never knew if the next conflict that flared up could become dangerous for me too,” he recalls of his stay in 2021.

“But the most dangerous thing in Ethiopia is the traffic. It’s hard to anticipate.” He usually traveled by bike, sometimes by motorcycle. “People drive at insane speeds. There are so many deadly accidents. And then you have the animals – donkeys, cows and goats on the road that you have to look out for.” His passion becomes evident when he talks about his impressions from his fieldwork and leave no doubt of his enthusiasm for what he does.

Youth in precarious poverty

Betschart’s first trip to Ethiopia was in 2019. “It’s a gorgeous country with very diverse landscapes and cultures. Still, being there in person was emotionally and mentally challenging.” The poverty, violence on the streets and lack of opportunity of the local people shocked him.

Karte von Äthiopien
Ethiopia is more than 26 times the size of Switzerland. A good transport infrastructure is of great importance for the country, but not all parts of the population can benefit equally from an expansion of the roads. (Photo: University of Basel, Eleni Kougionis)

Betschart primarily stayed in the region around the city of Hawassa, south of Addis Ababa. An industrial park was built there a few years ago to house the factories of major clothing brands. The people who work there earn roughly CHF 20 a month, which is barely enough to sustain a living. “The result is a class of precarious workers. It's unimaginable to us here,” says the native of Magden, canton Aargau.

The country has a very young population with often few prospects: high corruption, little education, rampant unemployment and, also depending on ethnicity, differential access to resources and  rights and many undernourished street children. “The young people sometimes have access to smartphones, where they can see a different standard of living on social media. They look for that in the cities. The effects of climate change and land scarcity further drive people away from the rural. ” The resulting urbanization is encouraged by the new roads and the promise of industrialization.

Adaptability as the most important tool

Fieldwork demanded a lot of adaptation on the part of Betschart and the translator he hired for the full period of his stay. Planning would have been pointless: “We had to take it one day at a time. We never knew in the morning where we’d be in the evening. We just took whatever paths we found.” That meant, for example, that a conversation partner might direct them to someone who could tell them more about a topic. Betschart calls it “stop and go” research.

He visited people unannounced and sometimes had to be careful not to cause a stir: “I said I was looking at how the city is developing. I asked specific questions about the infrastructure and then in a more casual way how it’s politicized.” He could not record conversations, but if he felt trust had been established, he pulled out his notebook. In the evenings, he wrote down what he had learned during the day. “It was important to me to give the local people a voice. That was really appreciated.”

But sometimes local authorities became anxious and reached for their phones if he appeared in a sensitive context. Then Betschart just collected the relevant data and made himself scarce. It was often advisable not to return. The authorities were sometimes not keen on his work and were accordingly uncooperative. He gathered most of his information in the field through a large number of conversation partners, allowing him to profile a great diversity of people in their daily lives.

He relied on participatory observation: he worked in a mill for a day, traveled with illegal soap traders, accompanied civil engineers, and spent much time in the new poverty-ridden neighborhoods that have grown up around the textile factories.  “I wanted to get as close as possible and experience how people lived, the problems and opportunities they had.” He is fascinated by the relationship between people and the environment. “I think the link between human geography and physical geography is important.” They are perfectly combined in his project.

Thomas Betschart
Thomas Betschart. (Photo: University of Basel, Eleni Kougionis)

The guitar for balance

Betschart has been back in Basel since December 2021. He’s “a bit travel-weary” and is enjoying jogging and chilling by the Rhine in his adopted home. He loves the city’s quality of life. Music plays an important role in his life – rock music, to be precise. He plays guitar and bass, sings, and composes and produces his own music. He’s currently working on a new album. “When I’m making music, that’s my zen,” he says. He had his guitar with him in Ethiopia, but “touched it only about three times”. He was always simply too tired in the evenings.

Betschart is spending the summer of 2022 in front of the computer, where he will evaluate the data he collected and analyze it in a broader context. He wants to not only compile his own data, but also make a theoretical contribution to the question of how infrastructure should be understood in the context of urbanization and the impact it can have. “I was able to go deep and broad with the subject. That was possible only through flexible methods and I am proud of myself for succeeding so well,” he says.

Money for the home stretch

As he could not travel during the coronavirus pandemic and had to temporarily put his fieldwork on ice, his project was delayed by a year. “But I’ve been able to make up some lost ground and I think I will finish the dissertation by February.” The only problem the delay has caused is a lack of money, as the funding was not extended. Betschart is applying for a completion grant.

He plans to continue working in academia after the dissertation. “It’s a privilege to be able to become so involved in a topic like this,” he believes. As long as he can earn a living through research, he’s going all-in. Moving abroad is also an option. His back-up plan continues to be teaching.

In Focus: the University of Basel summer series

The In Focus series showcases young researchers who are playing an important role in furthering the university’s international reputation. Over the coming weeks, we will profile seven academics from different fields – a small representative sample of the 3,000+ doctoral students and postdocs at the University of Basel.

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