The Kenyan- urban Poor Debate

By Shadrack Mbaka

Kenyans Catching a glimpse of the debate on TV

Kenyans Catching a glimpse of the debate on TV

NAIROBI-Kenya held its first ever presidential debate on Monday, 11.2013 an historic event.

Eight Presidential candidates gathered in Nairobi on one platform, to debate the most pressing issues in the first of two televised debates, the next debate will be held on February 25, 2013. The debate was all inclusive with candidates from minority parties with no chance of making an impact on March 4th stood side by side with the big political names in Kenyan Politics.

An efficient team of moderators, NTV’s Linus Kaikai and Citizen TV’s Julie Gichuru, moved the conversation along, kept the candidates to their time limits, interrupted them when the question asked was not properly answered and provided immediate follow-ups whenever it was necessary.

Some of the main issues debated included; education, jobs, economic development, land development and security. There’s also the issue of the new constitution and how that will be proactively implemented, in terms of socio political inclusion.

Kenya is the largest economy in East Africa with a GDP of about $34 billion, unfortunately most citizens live in poverty(less than a dollar a day) and unemployment is around 40 percent. The economy relies heavily on agriculture. The Kenyan populace is young, exports are diversifying, and political progress since 2008 is apparent. On the other hand, vices such as corruption remains one of the most endemic problems in Kenya’s’ capital Nairobi.

But March 4 is a day of peace, a fresh new chapter for Kenyan politics. A year of incredible growth and sustainability.

However, this article takes issue with the economic development and land development question tackled by the Presidential hopefuls. Unfortunately all the candidates had no clear cut strategies to stimulate economic growth. What first comes to mind is the nurtured environment to tackle urban poverty. The candidates were skeptical on how best this can be achieved, but in any normal case its simple; working with the most affected to address poverty and not over dependence on foreign aid and sheer disregard of the poor, especially those living in urban and Peri-urban areas makes the situation worse than how it currently is.

Therefore, those eying the Presidency and gubernatorial positions need to understand the basic concept that before seeking to treat the symptoms of the troubles facing Kenya, we need to first fix the underlying causes of poverty, illiteracy, lack of city/town planning, affordable, low-cost housing and historical injustices normally compounded by politics of exclusion.



Slum growth takes precedent in a city's riparian locations. For example along industrial belts, rivers, road and rail reserves, public spaces, so often these environments leave residents vulnerable to disease and natural disasters. The other antagonizing factor is the cost of premiums that city residents (especially the urban poor), pay for basic services.

An open sewer in Mathare Valley

An open sewer in Mathare Valley

According to a research analysis provided by The African Population and Health Research, shows that Nairobi's slum dwellers pay more than residents of wealthy housing estates for water-and, as a result, use less than is adequate to meet health needs.Slum settlements that lack adequate access to water and sanitation, are breeding grounds for diseases often leading to a health scare in major cities and towns experiencing slum growth. Nairobi is home to more than 2.5 million people who live in slums, squeezed into just less than 10 percent of the city's land area. This statistic describes the gory form of inequality that exists between the poor, the middle class and the elite communities.

The planning discourse in slum settlements has been left to the order of the jungle, where government planning apparatus have ignored the need of planning and servicing these areas. Landlords with “property” in slums can easily gouge their tenants without fear of legal recourse. And the proportion of renters in slums is higher than commonly thought, as vacant land close to employment opportunities tends to be quickly developed by enterprising landlords. In fact, four out of five slum residents in Nairobi are renters, according to a study done by the Kenyan government and UN-HABITAT.

The spread of slums in an era of unprecedented economic prosperity has to some extent contributed to ethnic         tensions that threaten national security. Un planned urban poor settlements are indeed breeding grounds for disease and crime. Crime being caused by lack of equitable resource distribution, poor education system and lack of adequate employment opportunities.

The lack of basic of city services, some communities have been able to close in on the existing gaps themselves. One of the most respected Pakistani Urban development expert, Arif Hasan begun working together with self mobilised communities in Orangi, a small town in Pakistan the largest squatter settlement in Karachi, Pakistan. He is one of the founder members of Orangi Pilot Project that helps residents organize and build a sewer system. Each block collected money and began construction of their own sewers, which served some 90 percent of Orangi's residents by the late 1990s. Between 1982 and 1991, infant mortality rates in the settlement dropped from 130 per thousand to 37 per thousand.

In the slums of Nairobi and other major cities such as Mombasa, Nakuru and Thika, communities long neglected by the government are beginning to gain some level of political confidence and effectiveness. In Mibuyu Saba settlement, for instance, residents negotiated for secure tenure and have organized on their own. “We have self mobilised around issues of land, livelihoods and housing,” says Rafael Menza, "we have been also provided by certificate of residency, a document recognizing more than 381 community members of Mibuyu Saba, we are also saving towards house improvement.”

Community Led Planning in Mibuyu Saba

Community Led Planning in Mibuyu Saba

With the help of Muungano Support Trust, Mibuyu Saba settlement has started a savings scheme and opened a bank account to pool funds. They hope to save up enough to pay off a surveyor’s fee and save towards better housing and basic service infrastructure.

Mibuyu Saba

Mibuyu Saba

The residents of Nairobi's sprawling city slums are now flexing political muscle, bolstered by a city-wide federation, Muungano wa Wanavijiji. "Unity is strength," says Ben Osumba, the national chairperson of the federation of slum dwellers in Kenya, which has a national membership of 63,000 slum dwellers. Muungano members are setting up savings groups, which help build trust and can be turned into revolving loan funds. They are also collecting data on their neighborhoods and sharing experiences to help build coalitions that will help sway government policies in their favor.

The call of slum dwellers to leaders who are vying for Presidency, Governor, Mp, Senator, and Women Representatives is simple, as once said by Jockin Arputham the president of Slum Dwellers International, "We are not coming here to beg, we can sit together with you-national governments, city authorities, and bilateral aid agencies-to plan the city".

A key criterion that the government may use to address poverty especially in slum settlements is to ensure;

1) Secure Tenure

Land is the key to implement any project for development, communities find it difficult to convince themselves and well-wishers to invest in water, toilets, or any sort of improvement. Why bother if the neighborhood could be bulldozed the next day? If the Kenyan government were to grant people in informal settlements legal recognition or titles to the property where they live, it could open up new opportunities for development, and even credit.

2) Employment

The mass exodus of Kenyans to major cities is to seek jobs and sources of livelihood. At little cost, municipal authorities could employ slum dwellers to build sewers, collect trash, compost organic waste, or otherwise improve their communities.

3) Government Equity

A number of factors can contribute to silencing the voices of the poor and limiting public scrutiny of key decisions about how resources are allocated: collusion between politicians and real estate developers; government influence over or control of the press; or a weak civil society, for example. The wealthy, even if a small minority, simply have greater political power.  Land and housing situation is characterized by forced evictions, misallocation of public land, and rampant land grabbing through bureaucratic and political corruption. Abject poverty cannot be eradicated when corruption is thriving.

It is simple the, solutions for slums lie with the good citizens living in the slums let not all those gunning for political power try to innovate working models for slum upgrading without the political will of the people. Both Central and County governments must learn to trust each, through greater strengthened relationships. However, for this to be successful it is essential that these partnerships be all inclusive, where slum dwellers are involved from the planning stages through implementation and finally into evaluation. Without community participation throughout the process, the presidential debate and promises will remain just as that, dreams and promises.