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The Kenyan federation, Mungano wa wanavijiji, kicked off an enumeration of the railway line slum of Kibera in Nairobi this week. The survey process there is an example of how politically complicated collecting information can get, as well as just how valuable the data actually is.

My colleague Jack Makau has a great in-depth piece on the history of enumerations in Kibera. This is the second large-scale enumeration undertaken by the federation there in the past six years. It is all tied to planned evictions along the line that have never been carried out, as the Kenyan government’s move to privatize the railway line has proceeded in very slow fits and starts. The twists of this process, which was originally envisioned to have finished years ago, shine a light on the combustible combination of resources, government processes, the role of multinational institutions (in this case, the World Bank), and a community’s attempt to organize itself around its own resources and capacities.

Slums in Nairobi face acute tension between structure owners and tenants. An enumeration can highlight such divisions, especially when it is so closely tied to an eviction. Everyone wants to be counted so they can get their hands on the resources associated with the relocation. An exchange team from the South African Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) was supposed to leave a week ago to support the enumeration process, but postponed the trip when conflict between structure owners and tenants delayed the start of the survey. I will be joining the team when it leaves for Nairobi on Sunday, and will be keeping this blog updated with how the process plays out over the next week or so.

The Kibera case complicates what is often seen as a simple binary between evicting and not evicting when some kind of business project threatens people’s homes. In this case, the relocation is allowing slum dwellers to assert themselves in their relationship with government and multinational organizations. It was a big accomplishment for the federation to get the government to agree to let the community count itself, and to have that information be the basis for their relocation.

When the World Bank — a major funding partner of the railway rehabilitation and relocation of the nearby slum dwellers — accepts a methodology like community-led enumeration to serve as the basis for its programs, it is an important first step towards putting organized communities of the urban poor at the center of their own development. At the end of the day, resources — money — are the name of the game. And it is an important development that resources for relocation are directly tied to the results of information that comes out of a community’s own organizational capacity and practice. Land and money will be allocated to those who are counted.

It can be hard to see the full impact of these kinds of activities in the short term. What looks like collusion today can appear to be a major contestation tomorrow. What looks like incremental change today could spark a revolution in five years time.

The process of engagement with government and other key actors like the World Bank is a messy one. But when slum dwellers can get hold of this process and use it to direct resources towards the organized poor, new, people-centered kinds of development can begin to take place. Getting these kinds of institutions to rely on one of the most valuable resources poor people have — information — is an important first step to changing the overall relationship that they have with the poor.

Perhaps even more importantly, it is a step towards changing the relationships that the poor have with each other. As Jack writes about the first enumeration of Kibera in 2004,

What previously were amorphous collections of shacks and stalls transformed into a community. The residents and traders were joined by what they perceived as a common threat. Community organizations formed months ago to fight off eviction found new purpose. Both traders and residents formulated and started to articulate issues that affected them generally. The enumeration would serve to capacitate and federate these groups.