Consider the flying toilet. The term comes from the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Within the slum, there is often less than one latrine per 50 shacks, with each 12-foot by 12-foot shack containing, on average, eight people. Kibera sits on government land that never fully transferred legally to its pre-independence residents, and, as such, the government treats residents as squatters with no right or entitlement to legal, social, or economic protection. A complete lack of governmental presence within the slum means that at night, with no street lights and collections of roving thugs (and, at times, predatory policemen looking for a shakedown), using toilets can become dangerous. In response, shacks stock up on plastic bags, defecate or urinate into them after dark, and fling them from their windows out into the streets to bake in the morning sun. Hence flying toilets: literal cesspools of disease and degradation, and symbols of the stories of utter hopelessness that often come from slums.
Slums provide some of the most genuinely heart-wrenching stories in the world. As viewers, we ask ourselves how any place could possibly be so terrible, and then gladly provide – from time to time – a dollar or two for a relief and development project in the slums. But the slums never get better, and we often learn that our aid was used ineffectively.
We must also acknowledge a broadly true but not-so-obvious fact: Slums do not get worse. For all the horror stories of these post-apocalyptic wastelands, they remain perpetually, if just barely, livable. The question must become, how do slums manage to function, even in a barely tolerable state – especially with aid so ineffective and governments so rapacious? After all, in a strain of reasoning that has pervaded Western intellectual thought since Thomas Hobbes, life shouldbecome nasty, brutish, and short in the absence of government. Surprisingly, Kibera is best described organizationally by the word ‘anarchy,’ but seems to evade the negative, chaotic consequences so intrinsic to the word’s connotations. To find self-order in such a context, where government is not only lacking but also predatory, seems dissonant with common wisdom.
But more puzzling: How do the trends that manage to keep slums afloat fail to lift up and develop them? That question especially gains some credence when we consider that some famously degraded slums in the past have transformed into viable and successful neighborhoods, without modern gentrification processes or aid regimes. Even great and thoroughly modern cities sprang up from underserviced and unlivable shantytowns, like New York’s Lower East Side or the Chicago settlements described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. History may have changed the environment in which slums develop and operate, but if past cases demonstrate that slums can upgrade, where is that development in Kibera, Korangi, or Dharavi?
Kibera has a reputation as the largest slum in the world. That title overstates Kibera empirically – Dharavi in Mumbai, India, at times takes that title. Pakistanis point to the Korangi slum in Karachi, and larger still may be some of the favelas and shantytowns in Central and South America. It’s hard to tell, as data are always hard to collect; accounts of Kibera’s population span the wide range of 1 to 2.5 million people. But unarguably, the situation in Kibera is one of the most dire in the world – when I told a Korangi resident about flying toilets it left him absolutely flabbergasted. And, for practical purposes, it is one of the better-documented slums in the world.
Given all this, we would expect that the place should be a powder keg of unbelievable proportions. Kibera accounts for up to 60 percent of Nairobi’s population on 6 percent of its land. Of those residents, most are of the Luo, Luyah, or Kamba ethnic groups, while the people who own the shacks and rent them out at jacked-up prices are overwhelmingly Kikuyu (often absentee landlords living in better digs in the city) or Nubian (Muslim South Sudanese relocated during the colonial period – chronic and visible outsiders). Nationally and locally, Kenya has a history of violence between these ethnic groups. Yet while occasional small tussles break out, large-scale ethnic violence does not seem to erupt in Kibera.
With the prevalent consumption of cheap, slum-brewed moonshine called changaa, soaring unemployment, an epidemic of glue sniffing and cheap drugs, and the presence of wandering gangs of young men, the lack of absolute chaos and intolerable death in Kibera ought to be considered a miracle. A small miracle, to be sure – for some grim perspective, 50 percent of young girls ages 16 to 25 are pregnant at any given time, mostly as a result of rapes. Accounts by BBC reporters in 2002 relate that, when it rains at night, the clattering on corrugated tin roofs creates such a din that robbers can freely infiltrate and decimate a shack. Meanwhile, muggers wait outside changaa bars to rob patrons, if the bar owners have not already done so. Fifteen percent of residents have AIDS, and 50,000 are AIDS orphans.
Without question, Kibera is no place anyone should live, but the fact that people do live is indeed a small miracle.
Kibera limps by mainly becauseindividuals the world over do find ways to avoid abysmal conditions without the use of a central government, or really any formal governing body. The blog of an American college student and one of the few great resources on daily slum life in Kenya, Parentheses, published an interview with David Ngira and Darius Isaboke, two local Kenyan Kibera education aid workers. In it, they detail the ways in which slum residents organize themselves to control and limit the chaos of their lives, even in the absence ofgovernment. From their descriptions, it is clear that shockingly complex systems of barter and favor emerge, as do even more shocking welfare systems, to meet needs the state cannot.
Individuals often come to Kibera alone, as Ngira and Isaboke explain, transplanted from more rural or communally close regions. As individuals encounter the difficulties and lack of resources of slum life, they seek to recreate some of the networks to which they belonged in their previous residences. Small associations develop within the slum, centered around kinship ties or some other salient identity grouping to form low-level community organization and mobilization projects. This includes basic welfare schemes, into which every individual pays a monthly lump sum, which is, in turn, paid out either to community members in dire need, or in times of good to fund entrepreneurial pursuits or community improvement. These organizations, to which up to 75 percent of Kibera residents belong, promote savings, operate (ill-stocked, but extant) group stores, and provide other services.
Such projects and associations help to engender cooperation, mutual contact and familiarity, and order. These, in turn – say John Momanyo Birongo and Nhi Quyen Le of Roskilde University in a study of civil society in Kibera – develop systems of chiefs, village elders, church leadership, as well as gang rulers, who provide modicums of mediation and justice focused around the provision of basic security within their regions. Gangs and young men do float from region to region, especially those unable to incorporate into one of the existing groupings. But the need to find food and shelter means that the otherwise-thugs often barter favors; this provides security, if imperfect and manipulative, in return for meals and shelter from communal organizations. The ethnic violence of the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya provides several documented accounts of this behavior on a large scale.
It is an imperfect system, and it should not be interpreted as a libertarian’s fantasy. Kibera is not a case for bootstraps arguments or a place where groups areable to self-organize their way to prosperity if allowed. The slum may hold itself stable and functional, but as the visuals in the next save-a-child infomercial one sees will testify, the unofficial communal organizations of Kibera have not made much progress in turning the slum into a neighborhood. That stagnation is less the fault of the slums themselves, by virtue of being slums, and more the fault of local governments and the aid organizations working in the slums.
The problems of local governance in keeping slums underdeveloped are easy enough to see; planned legal neglect alongside rampant corruption protects government and private interests at the expense of the slums and their residents.
The benefits of neglect for governments are not always obvious. One might think the poverty and discontent in slums would concern a government more than any other factors. But neglect can, for example, serve as a crude, yet powerful, form of gerrymandering. Kibera – which accounts for so much of Nairobi’s population – falls within the Langata district of the city, one of eight legislative districts electing Members of Parliament. The Langata district accounts for Kibera, but also for the wealthy neighborhoods of Karen and Langata (from which the district derives its name). Given that the citizens of Kibera mostly do not pay taxes or have identity cards, few vote. As such, despite the overwhelming factual demographics of the district, the wealthy neighborhoods elected Kenya’s first white Member of Parliament after independence, Phillip Leakey. The interest of minority segments of wealth in controlling both Kibera and disproportionate parliamentary power (the current Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, was elected to Parliament from Langata, and has incited ethnic riots in Kibera to mobilize ethnic support for his elections) necessitates a policy of no-rule, including a failure to provide judicial or welfare services into the region, let alone to ensure the delivery of basic sanitation and sustenance needs. This policy – denying the legal right of individuals to live on government land – politically and economicallydisenfranchises the poor and the marginalized to the point that their voices, legally defined as those of squatters in violation of national law, should not and cannot be heeded.
Kenya’s government has agreed to some programs to improve the lives of Kibera residents, largely at the behest of the United Nations and its idealistic and – in Kenya’s case especially – ineffectual UN-HABITAT program meant to combat and upgrade slums. The resulting Kenyan Slum Upgrading Program, which has existed for almost eight years in a sluggish state, has modest goals: to relocate Kibera residents, some temporarily and some permanently, from 13 of the slum’s up to 200 villages, in order to bulldoze those villages and redevelop them as legally recognized, fully provisioned, and governmentally protected land. The government long ago completed construction on its temporary housing – large urban apartments complete with utilities, legal recognition, and locale value. But the units remain largely unoccupied.
Many of those who do occupy the new housing are non-slum residents who have bribed their way into long-term residency in the well-placed and provisioned (and supposedly temporary) flats. Residents in the slums often must pay bribes to move into their allotted housing and bribes to have their possessions moved, and then must pay rent on the units that is up to twice as much as what they pay in the slums for utilities. All of these bribes, which most slum residents encounter, make the transition untenable. The effort becomes especially unreasonable if it merely allows one to live in a tenuous, transitory state with unsure outcomes in terms of legal status, security of property, or work prospects and steady incomes to pay non-negotiable rents while living in housing units. It is often in the best interest of the residents to not deal with the coercive and abusive government, but instead to depend on what they have – a shack that is not their own, but that is a place to live, rather than a questionable, unaffordable, and insecure temporary lodging with a loan shark’s promise from the government for sustainable living in the future.
And all this is despite the fact that Kenya has created one of the most developed and pervasive anti-corruption campaigns in Africa. Every Kenyan government official I met had a calendar depicting anti-corruption cartoons. Posters were everywhere. News stories lauding good behavior and castigating the bad filled the press. And the anti-corruption bureau now has a shiny, new, upscale office. The fact that corruption remains pervasive, especially in the slum programs, is profoundly disappointing. Whether this is bias or failure on the part of the anti-corruption regime and the government as a whole, the persistence of corruption inordinately burdens the slums and efforts at slum development. And even if corruption were to vanish in the case of slum development, a history of greed and inefficiency would still cause tension and distrust by slum residents toward any large-scale slum upgrades or governmental intercession in the near future.
The story “corrupt government abuses marginalized population” is nothing new. What has recently emerged in the academic literature is a more nuanced and disturbing critique of the behavior of non-governmental aid organizations in slums and their inadvertent perpetuation of poverty and prevention of more effective channels of development in slums. To briefly summarize, the long-term effectiveness of the long-term effectiveness of aid delivered to slums often falls far short of donors’ expectations. This is one of the driving factors in an increasingly intensely competitive aid market, where individual NGOs and agencies scramble and step on each other’s toes for limited funds. Aid also suffers from an inability to engage with civil society within the slums for effective deployment. Unfortunately, this leads to a false sense of accomplishment on the part of donor; an artificial blockage to the impetus for grassroots, community action programs; and general fatigue and complacency on both sides of the giver-receiver lines.
Take, for example, the issue of microcredit and microfinancing – so popular in recent years – within Kibera. Bloggers within the aid community recount the many failures of these systems. Microfinancing and microcredit did initially lead to some visible results in the forms of small businesses and projects.However, individuals soon realized that there was neither any real penalty in the case of default nor education as to how to incorporate those financing schemes into communal systems (especially those beyond Kibera). The result: The proportion of defaults grew astronomically. Meanwhile, basic relief work, compounding communal welfare provisions, created a situation of livability that discouraged participation in microfinance. In a similar on-the-ground failure, exogenous education programs that failed to integrate with civil society in the slums led to available – but highly varied, dysfunctional, and limited – education. Aid is a costly gambit, and time and again in Kibera, it proves its inability to develop the slum. Instead, aid serves as a measure of complacency or distraction from other, more effective grassroots and endogenous movements.
What ones sees in Kibera and in most slums, to one degree or another, is a heartening series of internal forces – community organizations and self-originated welfare, mediation, and safety programs – stymied by governments ranging from apathetic to predatory and aid organizations ranging from ill-informed to utterly incompetent. While governments block avenues to the development of grassroots solutions for the betterment of slums, aid organizations perpetuate complacency and fail to empower and fund the actors with the most potential and the most local knowledge and credibility.
Examples do exist of programs that have navigated the difficulties of and worked well with the pre-existing groups within slums. Ushirika wa Usafi, a community based organization dedicated to sanitation and staffed by interested parties within mobilized community groups, garners attention as an example of a successful development program (combating the problems around flying toilets, among other issues). Part of Ushirika wa Usafi’s success is undoubtedly the fact that it was an endogenous movement that, using its innate knowledge of organization and civil society navigation, was then funded and given the recognition and power to work effectively within Kibera. Pamoja FM is likewise a Kibera-based and-run organization, providing news adapted for, generated by, and broadcast by slum residents. Pamoja credits a great deal of its success in creating a form of media with widespread engagement, access, and consumption throughout Kibera to its local knowledge, as well as the sense of ownership Kibera residents feel through the proximity to, origins of, and participation of locals in the project. What these examples of success teach us is, if nothing else, that slums are not hopeless – that communal organizations have the power to become agents for more than just a functional baseline in slums. By rethinking how we engage with aid and development in slums, we can empower pre-existing structures within the slums to turn them into cohesive and mobilized neighborhoods.
The lessons of Kibera thus far hint at how to allocate our time and money in aid: funnel it into pre-existing programs to empower without taking undue credit, creating confusion or disengaged services, or engendering a sense of complacency. But the governmental malfeasance must be addressed as well. Aid organizations would do well to refocus some of their effort and clout – as could the United Nations and other multinational actors – upon pressuring the states that play host to slums to grant legal status and protections that will necessitate justice and welfare to a basic level. They must also recognize that promoting anti-corruption practices is synonymous with making slum upgrade programs more effective. It is state pressure in an indirect legal and anti-corruption campaign, rather than direct relief and development efforts, which has the greatest potential to develop slums – all development programs, national or international, must focus on removing roadblocks to endogenous, community-based movements for neighborhood improvement being empowered from outside.
And herein returns the concept of the development of mobilized neighborhoods: Once a state accepts responsibility for a slum, it must look for partners. But if no international actors are present as the major developers, then the state can be pushed to partner with community-based organizations. These organizations represent those populations the state has previously marginalized or ignored, giving them a unique power and voice in relation to the state. It’s a hard bullet to bite, but if the stick or the carrot from external actors is large enough, states can be forced into such partnerships. By not just empowering local organizations, but also giving them some relationship to the state, it allows for endogenous development and the political empowerment of the formerly marginalized super-poor of a nation. It may be a utopian dream, the current incarnations of slums. But it is not impossible, so long as we recognize what our role as outsiders can be within slums, what actually keeps slums down, which actors can really bring them up. We should not focus on how we can best teach them or provide for them, but rather, best empower them.