By Simon Kokoyo
The inhuman condition of poor neighborhoods in Nairobi has attracted government attention since the Jubilee administration came to power in 2013. The Ministry of Devolution and Planning through the National Youth Service (NYS) initiated a slum infrastructure improvement project targeting Mathare, Korogocho, Mukuru and Kibera. Unfortunately, the initiative has been on hold for sometime due to corruption and poor planning. Regrettably the project seems to be moving in the direction of all the ‘DEVELOPMENT GONE WRONG’ projects in the world.
The slum improvement project by the National Youth Service was started on the premise that slums do not have essential and adequate services such as water, health, sanitation, security or electricity. Youth unemployment is rife in poor neighborhoods which is partly true depending with how one understands the real situation in such neighbourhoods. Of course, poor people must work hard in creative ways, often in the informal economy. Otherwise, they would not survive.
When the NYS initiative was launched in Mathare, President Uhuru said the government will construct 12 police posts, 12 ablution blocks, posh mills, sack garden, dispensaries and also create jobs for the local youth. This process was to be replicated in Kibera, Mukuru and Korogocho neighbourhoods.
The first mistake was to assume that there is ‘free or open space’ within such neighbourhoods which will give way to infrastructure improvement. A series of evictions and conflict between hired NYS cohorts and local community members ensued. In some cases the scene turned ugly since the NYS surprisingly did not have a relocation or compensation plan for affected families.
On the other hand, the designers of the NYS project failed to acknowledge that when government falls short of providing basic services people will organize themselves and offer alternatives services which in most cases end up being expensive and of low quality. This situation is a direct result of governance failures within such settings as highlighted in the 2003 UN-HABITAT report on ‘The Challenges of Slums’ (See also NPI’s Interview with Dr. David Nilsson on Water and Inequality)
A keen look at the Open Street Map for Kibera and Mathare Valley before the NYS initiative started reveals the existence of services such as education, health, water and sanitation points. In Korogocho, Mukuru, Mathare and Kibera self help groups had emerged even before the NYS Initiative started to earn daily income from activities such as urban farming, garbage collection and water delivery services. It is a fact that most toilets are not connected to the main sewer and private clinics are either not registered or managed by quacks, while illegal power connections abound.
The NYS Initiative would have scored big by establishing connections with already existing services providers in poor neighbourhoods by either improving their capacity to offer quality and affordable services to the urban poor or by trying to create an enabling environment for slum entrepreneurs to be part of formal and legal business entities. It is a mistake to assume that there are no service providers within poor neighborhoods. Poverty and lack of basic services is an urban reality which has motivated the establishment of civil society groups to initiate health, education and income generating activities for women and youths as a supplement to government efforts in meeting its obligations. No government in the world can be able to solve the complex community problems of the poor by itself.
Experience from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the Urban Poverty and Slum Upgrading Project funded by the World Bank might be instructive. The project has some similarities with the NYS project in terms of targeting poor neighborhoods but was able to achieve more success because it worked more closely with local communities and partnered with Dar es Salaam Municipal Council officials from conception to implementation and monitoring stages, a situation which is totally lacking with the National Youth Service projects. The NYS Initiative seems to be a duplication and competition with the mandate of Nairobi City County.
Most people in poor neighborhoods agree that the project needs to continue, and they welcome an intensification of government efforts to provide better services, but a few issues need to be addressed. Employing local youth for the NYS project as laborers does not necessarily amount to community participation but rather can be viewed as tokenism youth development, which is meant to appease or cool down anxiety among the high number of unemployed youths in poor neighbourhoods. It is not empowering or sustainable either since it ends abruptly with the project.
Currently the NYS project has stalled, and because the NYS raised expectations and also displaced existing service providers, the situation has now degenerated into increased incidences of crime, a breakdown of a once vibrant garbage collection system established by youth groups and the presence of unfinished structures that are symbols of broken promises. This disarray leaves behind a vacuum that can be easily exploited negatively by politicians as we head towards the general elections. It would be very tragic if a project which was to improve conditions for Nairobi’s citizens in poor neighborhoods, in fact, makes life much worse for them in the end.