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deepsea village (1)

photos by Irene Karanja, Pamoja Trust

By early December, ordinary people living on the riparian reserve in Deep Sea informal settlement had organized themselves to move off the land. The move was in compliance with a Kenyan Ministry of Environment order. The people on the reserve assumed that they would end up living on the land within the settlement that had been designated for this relocation. Muungano wa wanavijiji, the Kenyan Homeless People’s Federation, assisted the people living close to the water to count themselves. The completion of this exercise meant that community members would know exactly who would be affected by the move to a far away corner within Deep Sea informal settlement, in the Westlands division of Nairobi. 160 households — 349 people — were now set to relocate.

So why was the land allocated to others? Why are Muungano wa wanavijiji members from this community in prison? Most significantly, why are the people once living on the riparian reserve now homeless?

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Violence, displacement, and legal disempowerment perpetrated by entrenched political and market interests are systematic realities in the lives of slum dwellers the world over. In the past six months, we have noted threats and witnessed acts of evictions in the historic Old Fadama informal settlement in Accra, Ghana, as well as the death, destruction of houses, and illegitimate arrest of slum dweller activists in the Kennedy Road informal settlement in Durban, South Africa. In both of these cases, it was clear that moves towards people-driven development were threatening vested interests of capital and power. Local politicians and businessmen resorted — either by themselves or through associated vigilantes — to violent means to assert their claims to the spoils of development. This is the same development that should be going to those who are otherwise the legitimate owners of their own fate: informal settlement dwellers themselves.

In previous bulletins about these cases, we have noted the need for closer analysis of the vulnerabilities of slum dwellers to the structural violence, either direct or indirect, perpetrated through state, parastatal, and market forces. The new case from the Deep Sea informal settlement illuminates the ways in which these susceptibilities arise when communities organize themselves towards their own development. This exposes the cruel contradictions of the state and the market as custodians of housing and urban development.

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According to Pamoja Trust, a support NGO for Muungano wa wanavijiji, construction began on the allocated parcel of land for the relocation shortly after the Muungano-led enumeration. These houses went to allies of the local chief, according to residents. Those living on the riparian reserve were cut out of the move.

Community leaders drew up a letter of complaint, which was taken up by the Westlands District Officer. In response, he ordered a partial demolition of the new structures on 18 December. Now those who occupied the new structures protested, demanding back the money they claimed to have paid for the right to live there. According to eyewitness accounts gathered by Pamoja Trust, the police, local chief, and district officer began searching for the community chairman to serve as a scapegoat.

While the demolition was taking place, local police handcuffed the chairman, Richard Monari, who had helped write the letter of complaint. He was held in a police car for two hours, during which time witnesses report seeing a stranger handing a sachet of bhang (marijuana) to a plainclothes police officer. Three police officers and the local chief then took Monari to his house. His wife protested to the police and district officer, according to her testimony given to Pamoja Trust:

“I have seen and heard you from the time you came. You arrested my husband for exposing the transactions that have happened over this parcel of land through your office. Now I have seen this policeman plant the bhang in my bed. I know you want to get rid of my husband because he is contesting the business that you have been doing in this community in the name of resolving the riparian reserve issue.”

As she held her baby, a policeman slapped her. Her husband was arrested and taken to Parklands police station on charges of drug possession.

The crowd saw what was taking place and turned on the government officials. Both the chief and district officer had to flee.

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The Deep Sea case is just the latest to highlight the need for slum dwellers everywhere to organize around their own capabilities and resources to fundamentally alter the ways that state and market assets accrue to them as urban citizens. Deep-seated interests are vested in the urbanization of poverty. Laws, near-pyrrhic victories in courts, and unfocused public demonstrations will not restrain them. It will take the full force of ordinary slum dwellers organizing themselves community-by-community, coming together at the city level, at the national level, and at the international level. It will take alliances with professionals who reinforce and enable the priorities, methods, and capabilities of poor people themselves.

The state and the market clearly must be challenged when they perpetrate acts of violence and oppression against ordinary poor urban dwellers like in Deep Sea, Kennedy Road, Old Fadama, and elsewhere. But ultimately, these forces must be engaged to achieve the development priorities of ordinary poor people at a scale that will change the course of the urbanization of poverty in our world. People-centered development will come when the people are truly the focus the state’s political structures purport to serve.

Governments can provide the resources to facilitate development. Still, they must ultimately recognize the primacy of the priorities and capabilities of organized, ordinary poor people. Such organized communities, working in hand with the facilitating power of the state, will put an end to the all-too-present specter of the cruel hand of the market and government, and engage the poor as full citizens of the places where they live and work.

demolitions going on

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David A. Smith of the Affordable Housing Institute has a great post about a Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) – led enumeration in Durban last month. It gives a good sense of how the community-led self-surveying is a key tool for community empowerment, as well as how this fits into the greater strategies of community-driven housing delivery and slum upgrading. Here’s a key quote from Smith:

Enumeration by the people themselves represents outsourcing an essential governmental function both to accelerate its delivery and to create political standing for the poor themselves. If you won’t do it for us, we will do it for ourselves and make you acknowledge us.

When we talk about “outsourcing an essential governmental function” such as census-taking for evidence-based solutions, I wonder what does it really mean to “outsource” such a project? If governments are not doing it, then is it really an “essential government function”? And what does it even mean to call something an “essential government function”?

The political value of an enumeration sheds some light on these questions. As I mentioned, enumerations are not just about momentary community empowerment for the sake of community empowerment. Having witnessed other FEDUP enumerations, I can say that the show of songs, slogans, and speeches can have a powerful emotional effect, something Smith also describes in his Durban experience. But the real test of enumerations is the way they can change our very notions of government.

It is helpful to think of these surveys not as “outsourcing,” which implies that it is some kind of half-hearted, last ditch measure, but rather as the most effective way to do such a survey to begin with. Poor communities are best placed to know the kinds of issues that really need to be surveyed, they stand to benefit the most from the information, and they have the most legitimacy to conduct the surveys. Once they have the information, they can negotiate with governments from a more informed, more organized, and more constructive standpoint.

In fact, it may be more useful to think of such “outsourcing” as the most effective thing government can do on this particular issue. But we can do away with this market-based language (every time I type the word “outsourcing” I think of big telecom companies, but maybe that’s my own problem). Ultimately, the government will have to act on this information. Instead of being the driving force behind development of poor communities, governments can think of themselves as facilitators working in partnership with poor communities — in fact, being led by poor communities. Poor communities need the political will, the technical capacities, and the finance that only governments can provide. And governments cannot facilitate these things without encouraging the organization of poor communities around their own resources, a key example being the information gathered through enumerations.

So it is not a binary of either governments leading or governments throwing up their hands and “outsourcing” community development and organization. Instead, governments can be facilitators, encouraging the very people they serve to take the lead and organize themselves. Then, governments will benefit through the strengthened political will and practical expertise to work towards development that can only come from these kinds of “people-centered” approaches.