School of Earth and Environment

Katie Massarella

Postgraduate Researcher

Email address:
Room: 9.157

Affiliation: Sustainability Research Institute


I am a final year PhD student working across the University of York and the University of Leeds as part of a White Rose DTC Network Scholarship. My PhD research takes a critical look at the use of pilot projects in international conservation and development policy and practice, using a case study of REDD+ in Tanzania. I have an MSc in Sustainability: Environment and Development from the University of Leeds, for which I was awarded a distinction. In addition to my research, I have taught both undergraduate and master’s students at the University of Leeds. Modules I have taught on include Critical perspectives in Environment and Development, Making of the Modern World, Qualitative Research Methods and Environment-Development International Field Course (in Tanzania). Before my master’s I was a communications professional, working for a range of for-profit and non-profit organisations. I have also worked as a freelance researcher and writer, producing articles on wellbeing, self-care and mental health in the workplace.

My research interests lie in the critical exploration of international conservation and development policy and practice, with a focus on social and political dimensions. My research draws heavily on political ecology, critical development studies, social justice theory and science and technology studies (STS). I have used a wide range of social research techniques, with a focus on qualitative, ethnographic research, and a speciality in narrative interviewing and analysis, in order to better understand conservation and development intervention as an agent of social change.


University of Leeds. MSc Sustainability: Environment and Development (Distinction)

Lancaster University: BA English Language and Linguistics (2:1)


Development Studies Association (ENRCC study group)

Research Interests

  • Critical development studies
  • Political Ecology
  • Social and Environmental Justice
  • Science and Technology Studies (STS)
  • Social and political aspects of forest and wildlife conservation
  • Ethnography and ‘aidnography’
  • NGOs and international environmental aid

Teaching Interests

  • Critical perspectives on environment and development
  • Political ecology
  • International development
  • Qualitative research methods

Project details

Project title

The social life of pilot projects in conservation and development policy and practice: Actor perspectives of the REDD+ pilot phase in Tanzania


Dr Susannah Sallu

Dr Rob Marchant (University of York)

Dr Jon Ensor (Stockholm Environment Institute)


ESRC (White Rose DTC Network Scholarship)

Project outline

Pilot projects are often used as policy tools to test ‘new’ solutions to global conservation and development concerns such as climate change and natural resource management. They are frequently framed as mechanisms that provide evidence of ‘what works’ in order to influence policy and practice. However, despite the perceived importance and widespread use of pilot projects, their dynamics, impacts and implications are not well studied. Drawing insights from political ecology, critical development studies, science and technology studies, social justice theory, and policy and governance literature, this thesis critically explores the phenomenon of pilot projects using a case study of the REDD+ pilot phase in Tanzania. An interpretivist, actor-based approach to research is taken, drawing on ethnographic data that includes over 150 narrative interviews with a wide range of actors, including international, national and local policy-makers and practitioners, and village-level actors in pilot project sites.

Findings are presented in three empirical chapters. The first chapter problematizes the evidence-based paradigm driving the use of pilots by investigating the relationship between the projects and policy and decision-making. A contradiction is identified between the design of the pilot projects as experimental and outside of the constraints of existing institutions, and the ability of the projects to have meaningful and longer-term influence on policy, practice and decision-making. The second empirical chapter explores the complex dynamics and implications of the rise and fall of expectations related to the pilot projects, identifying a trade-off between fully piloting new initiatives and raising expectations. The final chapter uses a recognition lens to explore pilot project evaluations, finding that the ways of knowing, values and perspectives of the most powerful actors are discursively reproduced through the process, excluding and delegitimizing alternative perspectives.

These results contribute to critical debates in international conservation and development intervention policy and practice by challenging the discourse of ‘needing’ to pilot, and by providing a critique of arguments that evidence generated by pilot projects improves conservation and development policy and practice. Results also contribute to conservation justice debates by evidencing the complex dynamics of pilot projects, which act as agents of social change and can lead to an accumulation of negative impacts on the most marginalised in society.