It is no doubt that unregulated urbanism, or simply put slumification is, and has accounted for the better share of urbanization in Kenyan cities (and of course the larger Sub-Saharan Africa region) in the last few decades. The basic principles of agglomeration in economics state that the converging of “elements” with a similar objective contributes to what is commonly referred to as the economies of scale. For lack of a better way to explain this, the high concentrations of persons in Kenya’s informal settlements (with estimates as high as 60% of city population living in informal settlements), have created the required “threshold” for action, or if you like the economies of population. Action, or to be more precise upgrading has manifested in various ways/alternatives in the country, with varying levels of success.

The slum upgrading agenda in Kenya has remained discursive for as long as it has existed, with two dominant dogmas emerging – top down and bottom up approaches. While the former is majorly associated with government programmes, the latter is the gospel of the civil society and NGOs. An offspring of these two dominant approaches is a hybrid approach, which borrows from both extremes and seeks to build on their strengths and minimize on the weaknesses. All these three approaches can be picked from various upgrading projects throughout the country, and this at varying magnitudes depending on the gauging factors of the observer.

From a Planner’s point of view, only piecemeal upgrading is evident. Having observed the work in the slum upgrading for the last 3 years and analysis of the past, we have come across some of the most innovative, dynamic and realistic ideas from slum residents – the kind which you don’t find in any book or scholarly works. Whereas slum communities have managed to innovate potentially transformative ideas, the facilitation to upscale these efforts have been crippled by the lack of coordination in upgrading programmes. Of particular interest is the breakdown in the innovation-documentation-implementation-replication chain, which requires collaboration between the government (and its varied organs), civil society/NGOs and the slum dwellers themselves.  Although there have been successful stories of upgrading projects achieved through this collaboration, the larger part has been marred with poor coordination between and within the concerned parties.  As a result, framing slum upgrading issues has become subjective – largely depending on the agenda that is fit to these institutions. With the government’s shift from one programme to another, the civil society has recorded an increasing number of NGOs undertaking diverse slum upgrading projects. For example, an estimated 6000 – 15,000 NGOs operate in Kibera, which roughly implies a ratio of 1 NGO for every 57 residents (based on a 600, 000 population estimate- KENSUP). At this point, the game of numbers concerning the slum populations and number of NGOs will be a topic for another day. Probably the numbers are as confusing as the work itself.

The NGOs have been on the fore front in leveling criticisms against the government for its approaches to slum upgrading. Just like in many other “evaluations”, some of these criticisms have been positive and for that, credit goes to the NGOs (watchdogs). However, isn’t it also rational to evaluate the work of these NGOs in slum upgrading? and especially considering the large sums of money injected into their programmes? In as much as the government programmes have had their downsides (which by the way are massive), most of the so called upgrading-set NGOs are cons, with very little if anything to show for the millions pumped into them by donors. In a good number of occasions, the NGOs work has been characterized by duplication of projects, competition rather than collaboration and long project life cycles which lead to delays in achieving set targets. These delays are too long to match the fast rate of changes in the issues being addressed and consequently, the projects become inconsequential. Furthermore, these projects primarily rely on donor funding and when the funds dry out, the NGOs exit and strategize for the next wave of funding. As a result, most of these projects collapse.  Partly to blame is the very much wanting lack of effort in designing sustainable projects.

some NGOs working in Kenyas slums are today more or less like business (family kiosks if you like) empires, which are quick to produce neatly authored Monitoring and Evaluations reports for their donors and whose real impact is rarely felt by the target populations. The question that critics and non partisan persons would agree on is whether upgrading projects driven by the so called upgrading-set-NGOs have any significant impact on the lives of the slum.If we compile the donor funding to Kenyan NGOs for slum upgrading, the outputs are likely to be highly incommensurate with the approved funded proposals. Nevertheless, the reports they produce always reflect tremendous improvement in the livelihoods of the targeted project beneficiaries. Only demonstration sites are evident and every important visitor is usually taken for a ‘slum tour’, in the now very popular slum tourism in the major cities. An outsider, or more so a foreigner is likely to be excited, but why is the local population (the alleged beneficiary) rarely excited?

This is not by any means to undermine innovative projects that communities have successfully implemented through the support of some of these NGOs. If anything, the noble work of the decent NGOs and CBOs is very highly appreciated.  If we get rid of the dubious money scams in the name of NGOS, create a proper working and collaborating environment among stakeholders and enforce mechanisms for promoting and upscaling workable upgrading alternatives, then we will definitely attain a significant milestone in the slum menace in our cities.

On the other end are the “grassroots experts” who are always accumulating knowledge and expertise no matter how fictitious a project is. In Nairobi slums for instance, there exists  ‘professors’ in all fields possible – from urban planning & architecture to land management, social work, engineering, micro-finance, community health, political science and many others. Sadly, these experts, who have accumulated years of knowledge, have been overshadowed by conventional professionals and their expertise often goes unrecognized. Even in these very important and complex environments, those who know the least about the interactions and complexities of the slums are more powerful (by virtue of their tag – learned/educated) than those who have lived it their entire lives! Indeed the world is unfair!

We wouldn’t blame the professionals for their arrogance every once in a while, not for now at least. The lack of an institutionalized strategy to tap the knowledge and potential in the slums is a big issue, which some of the NGOs may consider focusing on. Whereas an institute for barefoot experts would have served this purpose, the civil society is yet to develop such in Kenya. The reason is obvious; there is no common agenda in slum upgrading. With the flood of NGOs, some of these grassroots experts have been turned to the community elites; owing to nature of approaches employed by the NGOs as they engineer community participation. Some NGOs rally the loyalties of these elites, who act as preferred organizers and local coordinators of their projects. The phenomenon also extends to another type of elites who can be referred to as career workshop goers. It is not peculiar to get lists of workshop attendance from different NGOs (running different projects), with a corresponding attendance. Does it mean that it is only a select constituency in these slums that is interested in upgrading? It is likely that these NGOs take no note of this or even it is their own orchestration of participation? A substantive budget of the NGOs is spent in these so called workshops and in most cases hosted in hotels other than in slums. And more importantly, is this a progressive or regressive move for the barefoot professionals? Only time will tell, if at all anyone thinks of making an evaluation of this!

The real stakeholders are in most cases never represented or their voice is ignored since the participation is engineered by the elites in these communities and the NGOs reinforce this through their abundant allowances. The majority that is busy toiling to make ends meet is often assumed in these projects. This could be one of the reasons that implementation of upgrading projects has always been met with resistance from the local community despite numerous stakeholders meetings. The whole essence of participation beats logic, since it is possibly driven by the allowances which stems from the nature of selecting the attendance.

Can the civil society in Kenya tackle slum upgrading with its one-man army approach? Despite the resonation of the popular gospel of slum upgrading, rarely will you get an invitation for a grand workshop hosting all the stakeholders-NGOs, Communities and Government agencies. This is because NGOs are propagating their vested specific agenda while the government agencies still have their conservative bureaucratic approach and neither side seem to be yielding towards a structured approach (only scanty efforts exist). Where such meetings happen, only ‘friendly’ NGOs meet and a few progressive government officials attend.

The question to ask is if the work of the civil society in slum upgrading is civil, just like the name. Strategy is the rule of the game. Most literature echoes the loss of trust in public sector by the disenfranchised urbanites, but is the same effort being driven to research on the level of trust currently being upheld to the civil society by the same constituency? It is no doubt that the urban poor and the disenfranchised continue to suffer, while their plight is used as the bait to attract donor funding, which ends up benefiting just a few.

As hard as it may sound, both the government and civil society in Kenya need to engage in collaborative strategic planning for slum upgrading. Coordinating both government and civil society spending on upgrading is likely to limit duplication of roles and projects, increase accountability and most importantly form a platform for planning and evaluating impacts. NGOs need to revisit their design of participation and as well develop a platform for coordination to optimize strategic spending of every penny channeled to slum upgrading. And we are not advocating for a new government institution on coordination, we all know what that would mean!

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