Slum Upgrading: The Experiences of the National Youth Service Youth Empowerment programme

By Kate Wanjiru, Mathare

NYS youth project volunteers.

NYS youth project volunteers.

The Kenyan government, through the Ministry of Devolution, and Planning in partnership with National Youth Service (NYS), developed an ambitious slum improvement concept. The strategy was to help improve the general and environmental living conditions in low income settlements. In Nairobi, the slum improvement programme targeted Kibera, Mathare, and Korogocho and Mukuru slums.

Poor living standards, high population densities, unemployment and lack of basic services and infrastructures are major challenges in the slums. And as these remain undocumented territories, upgrading plans, both by the Nairobi City County government and the central government, are either lacking or addressed though a “quick fix” formula.

In 2010, the community in the settlement of Mathare partnered with the University of Nairobi and the federation of the urban poor–Muungano wa Wanavijiji—to produce a community driven upgrading plan: The Mathare Zonal Plan. The cooperation of all these players allowed for an inclusive and rigorous process that enabled the community to draw up a priority planning map. This plan was later adopted by the Kenyan Ministry of Lands in 2013, but remains unimplemented.

Similarly, the NYS, together with local communities, mapped five settlements to identify needs and places that require upgrading—these varied from places where garbage piles were uncollected to blocked drainage, etc. These maps paved the way for collective clean-ups, construction of dispensaries, police posts, markets, maize mills and urban farming areas. This project resulted in the creation of 42,000 jobs for the youths in Nairobi alone.

However, despite this initial success, the NYS project has stalled and all the expectation created turned quickly into disappointment. Among the unfinished structures scattered in the settlement, crime rates increased and sanitation systems started to fail.

Jason Waweru, a resident in Mathare has a clear vision of the  initiative, “The concept is a beautiful idea, but the challenge is that there has been uncoordinated government efforts in project implementation, and communities are often left out of the process. My fellow youth worked hard to clear garbage, clean trenches, and open up drains, but it just dawned on us that we lack spaces for 12 police posts and 12 dispensaries. These facilities will require space, which is currently occupied.”

It would be tragic if projects aimed at improving the conditions of Nairobi’s poor neighborhoods were to fail due to lack of coordination between government and communities.

This “quick patches” approach is similarly evident when the Nairobi City Council gave to 600 Mathare residents notice to vacate their homes to build a market. This development was put in place to mitigate the disappointment of the NYS, who were tasked to carry out the job. This approach does take into consideration neither the questions of land tenure nor those of infrastructure in the settlements causing a void that could have dramatic consequences for the city’s development.

Slum or informal settlement upgrading is a complex and time-consuming process. It positive that the government is in a hurry to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods, but it should go beyond the “quick fix” mentality and have a long term vision. The risk otherwise is to exacerbate the challenges faced by the poorest who, at least in theory, are the part of population these policies mean to benefit.