How does one marginalise the vulnerable?

Hillside view of the community of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya

Last summer I spent several weeks working in the community of Kibera, a large “slum” or informal settlement in the city of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. I’ve been following local news on the community since then and trying to raise the profile of issues that affect the local people. Most of this time this relates to water and sanitation but I am also interested in issues of access to health care, education, and jobs. A frequent source for me is the Kibera News Network, a grassroots television station using youtube as a platform to get the word out. I like it because it is run by Kibera residents and they share the view of the local residents. One of the stories I’ve been following is the construction of a large road through the community.

The road, known as the Southern Bypass, is being built and largely financed by the Chinese, and is part of a broader plan for road investment to ease major traffic congestion in the city. Traffic tie-ups are a major hassle for those who live there. Transport of course is an important priority for any city or country and there is no question that Nairobi needed to invest. Great that the Chinese are contributing their expertise here and while their increasingly prominent role in the development of African economies has been subject to some criticism, in general I encourage it.

The plans for construction have affected a variety of stakeholders, including the Nairobi National Park, which has received compensation for losing a part of its land. Kibera residents have also been affected. A few weeks ago, people here learned which of them will be forced to move to make way for the road construction project, a development which was reported on by Kibera News Network. It’s not clear whether those people were provided compensation or temporary shelter as they looked for a new place to live. This article suggests that is not happening.

This week, Kibera News Network reported on demonstrations by the residents of Kibera for preferential access to construction jobs on the road development that is cutting through their community. “If our homes are being taken away, then at least we should have an opportunity for employment and income“, they say. In fact, according to the video, they were promised jobs from theĀ  contractor but those employment opportunities have apparently failed to appear. You can watch it yourself:

Is this fair? Of course the construction company should hire only the most qualified people for the job, so that the job gets done well and efficiently. The video by KNN does a good job of interviewing community members. However I am left wondering about the extent to which the contractor has tried to source local labour, what training initiatives could they undertake to build up the skill base, and give back to the community from which they are taking. I would also like to know what is the next step for these people. Is there a local NGO that can amplify their voices?

What’s fair? The people of Kibera are by anyone’s definition considered a vulnerable group of society. Imagine you live in a setting where the average daily per capita income is one US dollar. Every night, you sleep in a 3m x 3m shack (10 ft 10 ft) with as many as eight or nine other people. You may eat once a day if you’re lucky and the menu has only the most basic of items, and almost never includes meat, fruit, or milk. Every day, you have to hunt around for a toilet that’s clean, not overflowing, and that works. You fetch water from a local vendor, paying about 5 cents (USD) for 20 L (about what goes down the drain in 60 seconds in the shower). During the dry season, this may rise to as high as 25 cents. And the water may still be dirty and make your infant children sick from diarrhea, reducing the absorption of that precious little food you managed to buy with your meagre income. Unemployment is chronic. When people do work, it’s usually day labour, so their income is sporadic. That dollar a day figure is an average. Some days they may make nothing.

Kibera is one of the largest “slum” or informal settlement communities in the world. In terms of land area it is a bit smaller than New York City’s Central Park, and anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million people live there. Estimates vary widely – it’s difficult to measure because of the high density of housing and transience of the local population. Nearly everyone in Kibera rents their home and shares accommodation to lower the expense as much as possible. Then you find out one day that the shack you’ve been living in will be torn down to make way for a new highway

This is just an average picture. Not all your neighbours live like this. Some have it worse. Some have it better. But in general, the people of Kibera are poor, have little to no education, and few job prospects. In such a situation, your voice becomes small in the cry against large corporate interests and political agendas. The problems seem so big and insurmountable. What can you hope to do about it? This is how one becomes marginalised – pushed to the edge of society. Maybe the question should be – how does one de-marginalise the vulnerable?

In the medium-term and the long-term the people of Nairobi will benefit from a large road that passes through their community. Most residents of the city may only feel the impact of construction work on their transit times. It will probably generate road-side businesses and other indirect local jobs and reduce traffic congestion in the city. But what about the short-term impact? Ever wonder what sustainable development really means? For me, partly at least, it means not forgetting about the vulnerable and the marginalised and giving them a voice in the affairs that will affect them. At least we have the Kibera News Network to count on to help in making this happen.

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