In order to uncover the paper trails of the powerful, one has to first learn how to track down, read and decipher obscure planning documents that are often available in the public sphere. One professor teaches these critical skills to students interested in learning about who decides, who benefits and who suffers from the global expansion of infrastructures.


A growing field of research with significant public and global implications interrogates the politics of the making and maintenance of infrastructures. Such infrastructure includes electricity and water, waste collection, railroads, ports and airports, data and telecommunications, canals and dams and irrigation. The central questions of this field are who decides, who benefits, who has access and who suffers because of these infrastructures?

An indispensable method for answering these questions is embedded in the often arcane planning documents and technical reports produced by states and private actors, as well as in public ownership records and business filings. This document trove constitutes a valuable paper trail of deeply political and politicised activities, assumptions and choices that open new vistas of knowledge to those willing to look. The documents themselves are usually technical and opaque and finding and navigating them often requires knowledge of and experience with various bureaucracies. As such, learning about the politics of infrastructures requires, inter alia, also learning how to find and interpret these paper trails.

Before writing my forthcoming book on maritime infrastructures in the Arabian Peninsula, I began teaching a masters level module on “Infrastructures, Conflict and Struggle” at SOAS University of London. Every week, the module required the students to read a number of critical articles on the politics of the making and use of infrastructures. Each week, a group of students presented a relevant instance of the kind of infrastructure we were studying, with an eye to the political struggles that had shaped their planning, construction, access to them and the like. Over the course of the two years that I taught the module, the students presented on dams in Myanmar, data centers in China, road-building in Sinai, offshore oil rigs in Saudi Arabia and a score of other projects worldwide.

The students were required to complete two research projects as part of their written assignments for the module. In the first assignment, they chose an infrastructure in London—such as London’s new Gateway Port, community electricity projects, Heathrow airport, the Regent’s Canal, high speed rail, the Underground and so on—and produced a technical report about it. The technical report did not entail an explicit political analysis, but rather a precis of the kind of financial, engineering, or policy planning that goes into the building or operation of that infrastructure.

In order to produce a technical report, students were required to find and interpret planning documents and related materials—the paper trails of their chosen infrastructure project or case study. Although they were not asked to directly focus on the political struggles that had made their chosen infrastructure possible, the students inevitably picked up all the ways in which politics was deeply inscribed into the ostensibly non-political and technocratic language of these planning documents. Many of the students also conducted interviews for ethnographies of these infrastructures. Their oft-critical reading of the technical documents was beautifully supplemented with sharp observations about the everyday life of the infrastructures they were analyzing.

Students inevitably picked up all the ways in which politics was deeply inscribed into the ostensibly non-political and technocratic language of these planning documents.

For their second and longer assignment, the students chose that same infrastructure but in a country in Asia or Africa, and here they would not only write about the technical aspects, but also about the political struggles around the infrastructure. Combining these two different assignments compelled students to engage with the continuities (more often than differences) between the processes of ownership, financing, design and construction of infrastructures in the Global North and Global South. Asymmetric power relations and slow or structural violence were constant features of these processes in both the North and the South.

The students paired studies of Tower Hamlets borough’s plans for mitigating public urination with a study of public toilets in Ghana; London’s under-construction and controversial HS2 high speed rail with a high speed rail plan in South Africa; recycling in London with waste collection in Beirut; the free zones at Gatwick airport and Jabal Ali port in Dubai; storm sewers in London and rainwater drainage in Jakarta; and so on. They visited ports, interviewed municipal officers and bankers, worked their way through labyrinthine ownership documents for shell companies, read through mind-numbingly dull (but also richly informative) engineering plans and so on. The module also allowed them to acquire or hone their skills not only in writing critical essays but also in digging up and scrutinizing and picking apart these jargon-ridden technical documents.

To learn how to track down, read and decipher technocratic paper trails is a critical skill for understanding and, perhaps even more importantly, challenging power asymmetries and injustices perpetuated through the global accumulation of capital. In today’s world, information is not scarce; it is often available in all sorts of venues, much of it now online. For example, the Pentagon, an enormously important infrastructural actor in the United States and abroad, is also a prolific online archiver of technical materials, periodic reports and publications. But one has to not only know where to look (most search engines don’t easily find these documents) but also how to search through decades of opaquely catalogued materials and long daily reports (not too dissimilar from the mind-bogglingly bewildering catalogues of the US National Archives).

Learning how to extract information from these oft-hidden paper trails is necessary not only for understanding how infrastructures work, but also for stripping away the language of “development,” “progress” and “improvement” so central to the current World Bank fetish for infrastructures. Knowing who benefits and who suffers from and who actually pays for a publicly or privately funded infrastructure is also necessary knowledge for activists trying to find points of political leverage. Locating these pressure points—in funding and financing, shareholder portfolios, resource allocation and profit distribution—and mobilizing around them also helps in the processes of claim-making against states, local and transnational financial institutions, legal regimes and global capitalists that so rapaciously benefit from fleecing the public through expensive and complex infrastructure projects.  ■

How to cite this article:

Laleh Khalili "Paper Trails Pedagogy," Middle East Report 291 (Summer 2019).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This