Jason Corburn

Jason Corburn

Academic partner

From: University of California Berkeley, USA

Interview date & place: 21 July 2016, Nairobi

Interviewed by: Jack Makau, Jane Weru, & Kate Lines

Original language: English

I'm Professor Jason Corburn, from University of California Berkeley. I'm a professor in city planning at the School of Public Health and I direct a centre called the Institute of Urban and Regional Development.

How did you first get involved with Muungano?

We originally got involved with Muungano through a partnership in about 2008. There were pending or there were evictions in Mathare, and Pamoja Trust at that time had been working to prevent evictions. Part of that negotiation with the county, or the city at the time, was to do some planning in Mathare to prevent further evictions and promote upgrading, and a mutual colleague of ours, Mark Hildebrand – who used to be at UN Habitat – reached out to me to support the work of Pamoja that Jane Weru was doing. We came and started to explore a partnership together between Berkeley, Muungano, [and] University of Nairobi, and what that might look like in terms of how academics could support the action work on the ground.

The initial work was really just about one partnership, potentially, in Mathare, and a studio class with the University of Nairobi students, Berkeley students – and Muungano really being the client who we were trying to support. It was an incredibly dynamic process and very interesting. I think the Berkeley side learned so much, and I hope we gave a little bit of contribution to the work on the ground. I know, personally, I was committed to continuing that work and partnership, so, without any funding or resources, we continued to work together with Muungano to support the data collection, enumerations, mapping, and most importantly the planning on the ground in Mathare. Through that first studio and first report we continued to do the work, and I think just new challenges emerged every few months, and new opportunities to be a supportive partner to the work on the ground. And so we kept going, starting at the village – small scale – building up to multiple villages and eventually, four or five years later, to the [Mathare] zonal plan, which was a big effort but I think had great impact. And so I think the partnership, and continuing that partnership, has been both a personal commitment, but also the rewards that both we have gotten through the partnership, in terms of learning and understanding, and hopefully the value that we've added to Muungano, in some small way, to the important work of changing lives and living conditions on the ground.

How has this interaction led to learning for a US university?

The Muungano partnership has been incredibly important to rethink the role of universities and how they work with communities. The traditional model of academics and research is to go in and do some data collection, extract that information, publish it, and leave – and hopefully someone else would listen to it at some point in the future. And our partnership with Muungano has really enabled us to turn that on its head. What we try to do is to sustain the data collection and the partnership over multiple years; not worry so much about publishing and getting the credit for the work, but really building a partnership that provides information for action on the ground. I think that's another difference. Sustaining the partnership has been rethinking the role of academics in action – not just research, but action research: collecting information for policy, for planning, for interventions.

So I think those things have really changed the way the university sees its role as a partner, and not as an institution that just shows up, provides some data collection and takes that away, and doesn't give back to the community.

I think most importantly, what we've committed to do as a partner over the years is to also train and build capacity of local students and members of Muungano and Pamoja, MuST, SDI [Kenya] etc. So, I think, how we've been able to do that in multiple ways, through traditional learning and sharing, but also the exchanges that we've had, where we've had our Kenyan partners come to Berkeley and really become lecturers and professors and instructors for us to learn about these changing dynamics in cities, particularly here in Nairobi.

I think, unfortunately, the kind of partnership that we have and that we've developed is not valued that explicitly by most universities. The expectation in my role as a professor is to extract data from you, publish it, and move on; and, in fact, not invest in long term partnerships, particularly with community organizations, NGOs, civil society (maybe with others who may be more prominent or seen as more prestigious). So I'm continually having to justify why am I doing this, particularly doing it often with little or no resources to the university. I'm not getting millions of dollars in grant money so that the university takes some indirect or overhead cost, which is also what they want me to do ­– research that's big, abstracted research that raises lots of money for the university. So, again, something that isn't necessarily part of what we do, although we could use those big pots of money, of course.

So I'm continually having to justify it. So how do we do that? We do that in ways that the students – both the Berkeley students and the University of Nairobi students – tell the stories of the impact that the partnership has had in their lives. People have come and radically changed their ideas of what they want to do with their life, having participated in the studio. People have decided, ‘hey I want to go on to go to medical school’, or ‘I want to be a lawyer’, or ‘I want to do community organizing and advocacy, because I've been so inspired by working with Muungano’, or ‘I see the inequalities that they're working on, and I either want to go back and partner in a place like Kenya, or go to my home community where I'm from (wherever that is in the world) and also work at the community level for change’ – and recognising that they could be a partner in that. So we've tried to document the impacts on students, the impact on some of our faculty who have joined this partnership along the years. And we do the traditional things, like still have to publish and write up some of our work collaboratively, but it's also about writing and documenting the processes that we've used together, not just the outcome or the data. So those have been ways that I've tried to tell my university president this is of value to us.

But the most important story that I always tell and come back to is how we can try to add value to the work on the ground and, most importantly, the lives and living conditions of slum dwellers in Nairobi and in Kenya. So that's the impact that we're committed to, and that's the story we always try to come back to ­– and how do we document that, and say this is what a university community partnership that really tries to be equitable, and fair, and have an ongoing commitment can achieve.

How does the 'studio' methodology vary from traditional planning? What has been achieved?

I think the studios have been quite interesting, but, importantly, they're a piece of a larger partnership that's about action, advocacy, research, intervention, and hopefully some more evaluation and reflection on the impact of the work. Traditionally, a studio could be a one off event; it could be a few months of a partnership, maybe a year. I think what we've designed together, the studio acts as an anchor point in an ongoing action–research partnership, so even between the studio courses, where students do exchanges or Muungano representatives come to Berkeley, we've committed to come to Kenya to work with you to do data analysis, mapping, advocacy, work with community residents – but also work at the multiple scales of decision makers, help in fundraising, multiple ways of being a partner. So I think again the studio is a piece of a larger partnership that has evolved over the years to really be about action research and interventions.

So it started with the planning in Kosovo and in Mathare, and there was a lot of learning there about how an upgrade plan can enter in a very complex social/political/physical environment. One outcome was a water reticulation plan for Kosovo, which, my understanding, was eventually financed by the Athi Water Board and became a model that they published as their 'Kosovo Mathare water model'. And importantly, it was about how to deliver piped water service with meters to homes – in homes – which was quite different than what many were trying to do for upgrading, which was ensure that there were communal taps, yard taps, things like that, as opposed to the commitment to really provide the infrastructure that any middle class community would expect. That was difficult, but we proved together that that's possible. The urban poor deserve the quality of service of infrastructure that anyone else in the city might expect who lived in a middle class situation.

I think it was both a physical plan – it had a management component that Muungano implemented – but it was also a social [plan], or policy, that showed that partnerships with slum dwellers could provide a new model of infrastructure and investment that provided services at a level that most didn't try to pursue for the urban poor. So that was an accomplishment of that studio.

We went and designed and did the planning and data collection and upgrading for the zonal plan in Mathare, which I think was another big accomplishment. It was really a multi-year effort that resulted in what I understand is the first ever zonal plan – so the entire Mathare settlement – thinking about how things relate: infrastructure, transport, mobility, social and economic issues, as well as environmental, that Mathare residents faced. And that plan also had a first draft of indicators to track the impacts of any upgrading strategies or interventions. So I think that plan had a lot of components to it, that was quite an accomplishment, that really started to change the conversation in Nairobi and around different upgrade partners, about the scale. Everyone's always talking about how do you scale up slum upgrading, and we showed with the Mathare zonal plan that if you're going to scale up, you need a plan that shows you where you could possibly go in the future, how to integrate informal settlements into the larger fabric of the city. So it was both a physical plan with roads and trunk infrastructure, but it also provided kind of a political roadmap, that this could be done at a particular scale and that it could change conversations.

One of the conversations I think it began to change was around policy. The studio that happened after the zonal plan was a policy studio. We thought after the constitution there are many opportunities to draft policies at the national or local level that could influence and guarantee the rights that were articulated in the constitution, so, for example, we worked on a national slum upgrading and prevention policy with our partners, to try to articulate what would be the characteristics of that, and what set of partners – civil society partners in particular – ought to be the lead authors and bring their local knowledge and expertise into the policy process. So I think being a partner in that studio helped contribute the learning from on-the-ground planning in places like Mathare to policymaking. And I think that's also another piece that our partnership has, and the Berkeley side has, helped contribute to – not just doing small boutique projects, but thinking, how do we bring this to scale, and how do we use our data and our evidence to influence policy making?

The water and sanitation program of the World Bank used the Mathare water model – copied it, basically – for their own programme for the city of Nairobi. We also got a call – a number of calls – from UN Habitat, for example, and they wanted to do an open space plan for Mathare, and they said, ‘hey, can we use your data, can we use the zonal plan?’ The zonal plan had kind of these cascading, unintended impacts. Maybe they were intended all along, but they weren't at first apparent from the completion of the plan itself. It took some time before people started to recognize the value of it. And maybe that's a learning also in our partnership: even when we do plans or research and we have a target or strategy for change, and we may not reach it at our initial goal, that it's important to continue the partnership and the work, because the changing dynamics or needs or opportunities come up where the information can be used and implemented in new ways – in ways that we might not have even expected when we first started.

Planning, health, and climate change

Traditionally, upgrading work has focused on housing, land, services, and maybe not as much on issues of health and – now, particularly – issues of climate change. I think those – the health and climate change issues – are two issues that we try to support the work [of Muungano] today and moving forward. So even in the work in Mathare – and definitely in Mukuru – making the linkage between inadequate services, between social inequalities, between gender inequalities that are exacerbated by physical and social dynamics in the informal settlements, and human health has been something that we've tried to bring as evidence of data, as a set of arguments for advocacy and upgrading, to add to the work that's already happening.

Our experience is that when you approach someone in power – a decision maker or a politician, someone with resources – and you say, ‘hey, people need to be housed, they need a house, it's fair, it's the just, it's the right thing to do’, you get a particular response from that person in power. When you can go to that same person and say, ‘people are dying; women and children are going to die and are going to be sick’, you get a very different response. And the power of making a health – and a life and death – argument, linking it back to the same issues of housing, of quality services, of land rights, of inclusion, has been something that we've tried to offer to the movement. And now, with climate change, we have another opportunity to continue to do that. Climate change is also a health issue; it's an infrastructure issue; it's an economic inclusion issue; there's a gender dimension, of course, to climate issues. So, ensuring that the world's response, Kenya's response, Nairobi's response, to climate change and climate adaptation prioritizes the issues of the urban poor means that they prioritize housing, services, infrastructure, health, and inclusion in the benefits of the city, in some of the same ways [Muungano have] been talking about for years. But adding that this is a climate issue, a climate justice issue, is going to help push the argument and attract maybe resources or other partners in ways that just talking about the issues again as housing and land rights may not. So those climate and health frames really are just to add to the advocacy and work that's been going on for two decades.

How has Berkeley’s work with Muungano changed over the years?

The work has evolved in ways, some expected, some unexpected. As any partnership, we had to show that we were committed and willing to stick with the hard work. And I think it's evolved [from] just seeing us as maybe technical partners to also partners in strategic discussions: discussions around policy; around strategic choices for the organization, and where to put limited resources and have the most impact; and how to be partners in approaching institutions of power – the World Bank, or donors, or bilaterals, or whoever that might be. So that's evolved, and that's been, again, not a traditional role that academic institutions have played. They may want to say, ‘hey, we're just researchers, don't involve us in any of the messy politics or strategic discussions’. But we've been committed and continue to be committed to helping [the Muungano alliance] think through strategic choices and how we can support you in that, including how you build and change the organization.

The other piece that has been really important is that we've been able to bring you and to bring other partners – University of Nairobi and Muungano partners – to Berkeley, and that has been a wonderful aspect of our partnership for us and I hope for you. And that's something that we're committed to continuing to do, so that it's really a two-way exchange, in ways that we can learn from and with one another.

How can the Kenyan state be influenced to address informality and inequality?

For us and in our partnership, ensuring that we approach the work with a historical perspective – so not seeing informality just for what it is today, but trying to understand the historic forces and factors that contributed to it – helps us to understand the role the state can have in change and has had in a vested interest for some to keep the status quo. So understanding, for example, the role of colonial policies – segregation, land segregation – that have limited development to certain areas, and limited the state from seeing the opportunity to open up new land for development for the poor and for inclusion; the infrastructure that's been developed really to not serve everyone, and the original old colonial infrastructure being built to extract resources from the region, rather than serve the people to move around and to access services. So, trying to understand the historical precedents to today's informality and the role that the state has had, or colonial powers have had, in shaping that, and the role of the state or the lack of response today, helps us see where are the gaps or where are the opportunities to weigh in.

For me, anywhere in the world, including Kenya and Nairobi, where we've worked and been partners, at the foundation of any change has to be community mobilization and community organizing ­– and bringing community members together to share their stories, to hear their voice, and to acknowledge their expertise and their local knowledge. I think that's a key resource to bring to political circles and the state. Without that, you can have all the technical data you want, but it's not going to move the state to act – without the social mobilization. So that's at the heart, and a key piece of Muungano – the way I understand it – as a movement. So how we can support that work, through information, data collection, collaborative research, thinking about capturing people's stories and narratives in ways that can be used in advocacy and in collaborating or confronting state power – is something that, moving forward, needs to happen.

Something that we are interested in partnering with you more on is thinking through how you capture your success, and the gaps; evaluation, how to do that in a participatory way that feeds back an ongoing conversation to the social movement. Not the kind of evaluation that academics would traditionally do, which is 'okay, we've worked together for three years, let's do a report and tell you what you should have done three years ago' – that really doesn't help anybody too much, but if we can find ways of doing formative or participatory evaluation, tracking what's working or not working as we go, that could be a role that our partnership could do together as we move forward.

Can we track Muungano’s influence on the debate around informal settlements in Kenya?

Many times, when I talk about our work or present about our studios and our partnership, somebody inevitably asks me, ‘Well, where has this partnership, what villages or informal settlements have you done upgrading? What does it look like, what's the impact been?’ And so I can answer that, often, sort of qualitatively or descriptively – I say, well, in this place, or in that place. I think what we can do to track better, is to actually try to document where are you organizing, where do you have savings groups, how many and how long, and what ­– either physical or social – changes have happened in those places. And you should take credit for that, and you should be able to be able to document that. We do a lot of things visually or spatially, so can we show a map year-to-year about the impact Muungano has had in different places across Kenya? Whether it's the economic status of residents through savings, or physical changes, social programs… There seems to be a lot of ways to track that, and I know you probably do, but we haven't turned that into data that we can tell a visual story in the same way sometimes we can say, well, here are the water points in a community.

What are your hopes for Muungano’s next 20 years?

What's next is what we're doing now. I think we're still perfecting and working together to build an effective partnership, to be strategic, to have an impact, and I feel like we haven't quite accomplished all that we can potentially and ought to be able to do together, and that I'm committed to working together with you to do. So for me, the next 20 years, hopefully, is continuing on the path that we've begun to build together, and deepening it, and having that much larger of an impact year-to-year. I'm not sure I know how to say exactly how Muungano should change, or if it should, but I would hope that it would continue to want to support and engage in the kind of partnership that we've built together, and the values and principles that we've come to work together around.

A story about connecting

One of the community meetings that we had at one of the first studios in Mathare – I think it was Saint Teresa's church or something – we had a bunch of Berkeley students, Nairobi students, community members, maybe a hundred or more people in that church. We had developed a beautiful PowerPoint presentation. And, of course, because we were just understanding the dynamics, we didn't plan as well for when the power would be shut off in the city of Nairobi. So the power was not on, and so we had to figure out a backup plan, with maps and other things, some of which we had brought, and that kind of freaked out our students in the beginning. As we were presenting, some youths started to come into the back of the room. They started engaging in some discussion, which sounded like an argument but it was in Swahili so I didn't fully understand what was happening – at the back of the room, quite loud. And then they took it outside. And all along our students are up in the front co-presenting with Muungano members about this strategy and upgrading. And I would later learn that this was young folks from the community, who had been paid by elders, or structure owners, or somebody – I'm not sure – to come and disrupt the meeting. But the story that I heard was, once they saw who we were and heard about what we were up to, they said, hey man, maybe these guys are so bad, maybe this isn't such a bad thing for us. And the argument was that the older guys wanted them to disrupt the meeting because they had paid them to do that. And it was telling, for me.

But what really struck me was, after the meeting, we were all kind of hanging out outside, and you guys who had understood what was happening were translating and explaining to us and trying not to freak out our Berkeley students. One of the young guys, the youth from the community, came up to me and said, ‘hey Prof’. I said, ‘hey’ – you know I wasn't sure if he was going to be confrontational or what. He came over and gave me a business card. And I can't remember exactly what it was, but I was really blown away: this guy wanted to engage, this young guy from Mathare wanted to engage with us and he was like, ‘call me or text me or something’. And it just had his name and his phone number on there. And I said, ‘okay’. This was the breakthrough moment for us: we had connected with youth in the community that obviously distrusted outsiders, and for some reason, and for some small moment, they said, these guys aren't so bad, maybe we want to continue the conversation. And for me that was enough to say, we've arrived a little bit, but we've got to show and prove, as we say – we've got to keep showing up and proving that we're committed.

Data is a political process

I remember that first dataset from Mathare and Kosovo. You had enumerated 3,000 or 4,000 households and said: ‘here – geocode it and make sense of it’. And I think something like 30-something per cent we could look at – still a good number, from a data point [of view], but it was kind of a lost opportunity. It was all these little things around data entry: people would ask a question like, ‘how much water do you use?’ And some people would say two jerrycans, some people would say 20 litres, so just things like putting units on the question.

From our side, it was understanding that data is a political process, wherever it happens, and mapping is also very political. So that for our students to recognize that it’s not just a neutral dataset, that it has a social and political purpose behind it – and that sometimes imperfect data that mobilizes communities is better than ‘perfect data’ that nobody sees themselves in, or doesn't relate to. So I think the learning has gone both ways, but here we are, eight, nine years later, and you're still using paper maps and paper forms for data collection; and in some ways that's great, but now we've got iPhones and GPS, things we didn't have when we first started. So I think there's still room to figure out how to systematize and continue the social aspects of data collection, but also in some ways make it more efficient for you, so you don't lose the 60 per cent of all that rich information because of some small errors.

Community residents are the experts. They know more about their everyday living conditions than any survey, any data collection instrument will ever tell us. Because data is really a simplification of a complex reality – that's it's definition. And it's a strategic snapshot in time: it can't ever tell the full story of the life and living conditions that people are facing. Too often, we still train people in academia, particularly at a place like Berkeley, to think somehow you're better or smarter or know more than somebody else, particularly in a community. So if they have that attitude or sensibility, I don't want them on our side of the research team, because we really believe that, even with the best data, it is still an incomplete story, and that the real experts are people living in communities. And they have a lot to share and we, as outsiders in particular, have to learn from them and what they go through on a daily basis.