Changing the Rules of the Game

Water point, Kosovo Village, Mathare, Nairobi Kenya

Water Kiosk, Kosovo Village, Mathare, Nairobi Kenya

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

Cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, so often exclude the poor from the political decision-making and financial flows that affect their lives. A meeting of slum dweller federations, local government officials, and academics in Nairobi, Kenya, explored the role of the poor in the growing cities of Africa, and the need to break down the false assumptions of government bureaucracies and professional expertise.

Pakistani architect, activist, and writer Arif Hasan had a simple reflection after a visit last week to the bustling informal neighborhoods of the Mathare Valley in Nairobi, Kenya: “Laws are as good as the rules, regulations and procedures that accompany them. They are as good as the institutions that implement them.”

Slum dwellers in cities throughout the South currently achieve very little through the laws that supposedly govern their lives. Access to water, toilets, electricity, and security of tenure is but a dream for the vast majority of the billion informal residents of cities. The current rules of this life and death “game” of urban development are not only not working, but often actively exclude the poor. So what will it take to build the constituencies with the influence and desire to change these rules?

Such was the underlying charge of a meeting of officials from local government and utility companies, academics, and city/nation-wide slum dweller community organizations, known as “federations,” from Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. The encounter, hosted by Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), was ostensibly about identifying “emerging trends in urban cities in Africa.” But the need for a new governing order that includes the poor emerged consistently through interactions in Nairobi’s slum neighborhoods, as well as in the air-conditioned hotel conference room appointed to bring these actors together.

Kosovo, one of 13 “villages” in Mathare, is the site of a new approach to inclusion of the urban poor in water delivery to informal areas. For years, the Kenya Water Company had complained that they were not receiving revenue from the 6,000 Kosovo residents who were using informal water connections. The SDI-affiliated federation in Kenya, known as Muungano wa wanavijiji (Muungano for short), included many of the residents. They began to organize the community to negotiate with the Water Company to achieve greater access to water, and formalize the connections, so that the Company would receive revenue. As Kosovo resident and Muungano secretary Jason Waweru described it to last year, “We said that both us have rights. So who is to say who has a more important right? So we opened a dialogue.”

Collaboration and contestation have gone hand-in-hand, as both Muungano and the Water Company negotiate the tricky terrain of partnership between “informal” and “formal” actors. At one point, community members began digging individual trenches for water pipes without approval from the Company, in order to speed along the process. Eventually, everyone agreed to something called a “delegated management model,” whereby the Company provides bulk infrastructure, while the community members build and manage street-level piping, as well as collection of fees.

 Rules for the Kosovo Water Kiosk

It is a model that went beyond the rules and regulations of a utility company that had not previously been willing to cede control of its authority to distribute water in such a way. And now it is a model that is taking hold in informal settlements not only throughout the Mathare valley and elsewhere in Nairobi, but also in the city of Kisumu.

So how do we actually change the rules of the game? Hasan argues that, in part, the professions associated with development tend to be a major impediment rather than enabler of change: “I worked as an architect and I can say that we are perhaps the most retrogressive of professions because we are so wedded to standards,” he said last week. “We need to break this passion for small ideal solutions and move to large-scale, non-ideal solutions.”

The interactions between communities, professionals, and government officials are beginning to produce the kinds of breakthroughs that can go to scale. This is precisely because they move beyond the regulations and rules that Hasan describes as rooted in “the ruins of collapsed [colonial] empires … even though those empires no longer exist.” In fact, many planning and architecture standards throughout cities in Africa are unchanged from the original codes established by colonial authorities.

One strategy popular amongst SDI federations to build relationships that break down such walls is community-led information collection, sometimes known as “enumeration.” In Stellenbosch, a small municipality outside of Cape Town, South Africa, an informal community called Langrug is home to approximately 1,800 households. After residents conducted their own enumeration, both the municipality and community found space to engage whereas previously the relationship had been full of protest, unmet expectations, and little change on the ground.

David Carolissen, municipal head of the Informal Settlements Unit, says that space made all the difference. “The data has on the one hand connected us to the slums. But it has also allowed the community to reflect themselves to us.” Now, the municipality and community are talking and planning together as they install more toilets, water points, clean up drains, build a new multi-purpose community hall, and prioritize 300 new employment opportunities for women-headed households.

Sometimes achieving this kind of change, which is often small at first, means creating “a spirit of trust among all the actors in this drama,” Hasan argues. “Trust will lead to better laws, less laws, and less bureaucracy.”

This means that both communities and professional actors need to prepare to act in new ways to move from the relationships of exclusion and conflict that characterize the urbanization of poverty in our cities. Tools for community organization such as enumeration and women-led daily savings, are working for groups like SDI federations to build political voice that can strike advantageous deals with formal actors to upgrade informal settlements. Settlements from every country represented at the Nairobi meeting could attest to real physical and social improvements that had come about through these initial steps of self-organization.

But for professionals in the “formal” sector — government officials, NGO professionals, and academics — there are few, if any, guiding principles for how they can act to achieve real change. Changing the rules of the game is anything but a technocractic exercise. A set of professional ethics for those working in development makes a lot of sense to create a sense of professional judgment that can approach challenges of urban growth. These are challenges for which no clear formula for technical action exists.

Hasan proposes one set of ethics that could, in fact, be useful for all actors, both “formal” and “informal”:

1.    Planning and projects should respect the ecology of the region in which the city/town is located.

2.    Land use should be determined on the basis of social and environmental considerations and not on the basis of land value alone.

3.    Development should cater to the needs of the majority population, which is usually low and lower-middle income.

4.    Planning and projects should respect and promote the tangible and intangible heritage of the communities that live in urban settlements.

Of course, as he notes, given the current paradigm of development, few, if any, projects would be enacted if they had to fill all four of these criteria. But a shift in professional mindset, as well as a shift in the formal strictures of bureaucracy and governance, is a prerequisite for new pathways to more equitable cities.

What is incrementalism, part 2: Community-managed utilities in an informal settlement in Nairobi

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

Beyond informal militias and formal bureaucracies — bringing water to Kosovo

The divide between the “informal” and “formal” is commonly understood as that between risk and a sure thing. The “informal” is seen as messy and dangerous. But the story of Kosovo informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, shows that neither side of the divide can bridge the gap working alone.

We have written on this blog before about the need to understand incrementalism as a value for building inclusive cities and developing informal settlements in situ. The story of Kosovo shows how — step-by-step — informal communities and formal utility companies can work together to come up with innovative solutions to the provision of water, sewerage, and electricity.

Kosovo is one of 13 settlements that make up the informal Mathare region of the city. There are approximately 6,000 households in Kosovo.

Here, the Kenya slum dwellers federation, known as Muungano wa wanavijiji, has pioneered a solution that marries the ingenuity of the informal with the advantages of formalization. Provision of water in Kosovo had long been controlled by militia groups. In fact, says Irene Karanja, director of the Muungano Support Trust (MuST), “the militias had formed their bases around the services.”

For years, the Kenya Water Company had complained that they were not receiving revenue from Kosovo residents who had set up informal water connections. As Kosovo resident and Muungano secretary Jason Waweru describes it, “We said that both us have rights. So who is to say who has a more important right. So we opened a dialogue.”

Eventually, Muunagno and Water Company decided  on a system for reticulating the water to the community, facilitated by Muungano. “It wasn’t easy to come up with a consensus,” Waweru says. This “delegated management model” meant that the community in Kosovo would control all the issues surrounding distribution of the water, including communal collection of fees.

Yet doubts remained. “Everyone was scared,” Waweru says. “If we approved the delegated management model would it just allow more militias and gangs to step in?”

So Muungano and the Water Company agreed to first build a model kiosk in one lane of the community. This was a tough negotiation. The Water Company only wanted to install water points on the bulk pipes, and did not want to work with individual connections that hooked up to the bulk infrastructure. “We lobbied that every household should have its own connection,” says Waweru. “We were thinking of the old mamas that have to walk to get water.”

Without waiting for the Water Company, the community started to dig trenches to lay pipes for the individual connections. In doing so, they developed community structures dedicated to managing and maintaining the water supply. After the Water Company saw this work, it indicated its willingness to come on board.

In late May 2010, the community disconnected its informal water supply and installed the formal connections. 180 households now have individual connections, while the rest of Kosovo’s 6,000 households fetch water from kiosks, which serve community-determined clusters within the settlements.

For Waweru, this community-managed system was a big breakthrough for both the community and the water company in understanding how to deal with the gap between the way the two sides work. “When we were doing this project, it created its own community structure. You can see it working,” he says. “We broke the formal structure of administration, and the informal structure of the militia groups. Now we can see the community owning the process.”

A bridge yet to be built — formalizing electrical connections

When I spoke with Waweru in early March 2011, he pointed out that the achievements of the community of Kosovo to achieve sustainable access to services were only partial. “Currently the utility company has been arresting people for illegal electricity connections,” he says. “We are asking why people have illegal connections when there is a good electricity supply in the area.”

At present, the utility company has been uninterested in developing a system for formalizing the connections because the amount used per individual household is perceived to be too little to make the investment worthwhile. Yet, seen from the settlement level, the amount of electricity that the community uses is enough for the company to initiate raids by the police on a regular basis.

Muungano has worked with the community to do a survey of the way that electricity is used at the household level throughout the settlement. This has helped the community to begin negotiating with the electricity company to get enough supply into the settlement legally. The prices are not so high, only KSh 1700 per month (approximately USD 20).

So if the company would be willing to supply more amperes of electricity, community leaders believe larger informal businesses could grow in the settlement. Currently, there are only small business, says Waweru. When businesses want to expand they know that they have to go elsewhere in the city in order to grow.

The example of Muungano’s work regarding the water connections is serving as a powerful model for building trust between the community and utility companies, which is helping the ongoing negotiations. Before, “whenever the utility company would come to the settlement, people would run away, afraid of being arrested,” says Waweru. “Now people run up and ask how they can help.”

The challenge of going to scale

Muungano has been surveying the entire zone of Mathare at the rate of 10,000 households every 3 months. This is intended to contribute to a zonal plan, which is a joint exercise between the federation, MuST, and the planning department of the University of Nairobi. This will help figure out how to reticulate services through the whole Mathare valley, explains Karanja.

Although it is making significant breakthroughs in its work with the Kosovo community, the Water Company is realizing that it is not structured to respond to the scale of demand for formal services in informal settlements. Waweru explains that Muungano is employing GIS technology in its ongoing surveys in order to propose an alternative billing system that addresses the needs of both the communities and the Company.

The zonal plan will allow for a more holistic view of the challenges that exist in this populous region of the city. Step-by-step, the formal and informal worlds are letting go of their preconceived notions, and beginning to implement real, sustainable solutions. When informal settlement communities like that in Kosovo organize around concrete developmental objectives, they show the way forward for a formal world that is too often hoping for top-down silver bullets that never appear.  Together they are changing what informal settlements can mean to the development of cities.