Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Slum dwellers of Nairobi want to see real change

Extract from Nation Newspaper Publication Date: 12/3/2007

IN ALMOST EVERY COUNTRY, opposition politics tends to be concentrated in large cities. This is because levels of literacy, awareness and inequality tend to be higher in cities, and therefore it is in cities that levels of dissatisfaction with the status quo are most pronounced.

That is why politicians try so hard to appease their urban poor constituents in an election year. Slums become the sites of rallies and recruitment grounds for voters.

It is the season when idle slum youth find work — as rabble-rousers or disrupters of rallies. Many take on this work because it is the only one they can find.

Many become the main casualties of violence during elections. What they don’t realise is that once the elections are over, and their candidate has won, party manifestos and visions launched during the election period will be forgotten and they will go back to where they came from — slums.

Fortunately, Nairobi’s slum-dwellers — who comprise more than half the city’s population — are fighting back with their own manifesto.

Developed through a series of meetings in eight constituencies in Nairobi, the People’s Manifesto is a synthesis of the aspirations and views of people living in Nairobi’s informal settlements.

The process leading to the development of the manifesto was spearheaded by three community-based organisations — the Nairobi People’s Settlement Network, Muungano wa Wanavijiji, and the Miss Koch Initiative (a youth group in Korogocho).

The demands of the slum communities focus mainly on policy, legislation, and not surprisingly, land, security and infrastructure.

Among other things, the People’s Manifeso calls for the enactment of a new constitution that promotes people’s participation, the reduction of taxes on essential commodities, the provision of people’s participation in the national budgeting process, the establishment of a non-politicised youth fund, the development of a national slum upgrading policy, and the abolition of the shoot-to-kill culture among police,.

They also want the development of infrastructure within slum settlements, and the establishment of a transport system that is free of exploitation.

A visit to a Nairobi slum is not a pleasant experience. Open sewers, filth and “flying toilets” create a stench that is so overwhelming, it lingers in one’s nostrils for days afterwards.

Those of us who do not have the stomach to visit a Nairobi slum should see Slum Survivors, a new film produced by the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs that shows what abject urban poverty does to people.

Slum-dwellers want to see the change that all politicians are promising because their lives literally depend on it. They want free health and education. They want pedestrian pathways, roads and toilets. More importantly, they want the kinds of jobs and salaries that will allow them to move out of the slum.

THERE ARE NON-GOVERNMENTAL initiatives and individuals that are trying to improve living conditions in slums. But while these efforts must be commended, they are a drop in the vast of ocean of challenges facing the average slum-dweller.

The ultimate responsibility of ensuring that slum-dwellers are not condemned to live like animals lies primarily with central and local governments, who have the kind of resources needed to build schools and hospitals on a large scale, not with individuals or with charities.

Central and local governments have the kind of power and resources that few non-governmental organisations have to make significant improvements in the lives of large numbers of people.

One toilet block may improve the lives of people living in a section of a slum, but real improvement in the lives of slum- dwellers will only occur when governments adopt policies and legislation that enable the poor to improve their livelihoods.

Unfortunately, many governments lack the political will to make this happen. In fact, efforts to improve slums are often hampered by none other than politicians.

Some erroneously believe that significant improvements in the living standards of a huge voting bloc could mean loss of votes in the next election (assuming that happier, better-off people tend not to vote). Others have a vested financial interest in slums — as landlords and political patrons.

Perhaps this is why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has decided to bypass governments altogether and give direct support to NGOs working with slum communities

Last week, the foundation pledged $10 million to Slum/Shack Dwellers International, an alliance of NGOs that works with slum federations in several countries, including Kenya.

Funds from the grant will be used to support the activities of informal savings groups within slums to improve slum neighbourhoods.

A press release announcing the Gates foundation’s decision aptly states that one of the reasons for this direct support is because “the urban poor are tired of waiting for governments to meet their needs”.

Ms Warah is currently an editor with the UN. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.



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