Livelihoods and the Kibera Economy – Part 1

by: January 29th, 2011 comments: 0

By far the most striking thing for me about Kibera – the most unexpected and most challenging – has been working in what I consider to be an artificially-constructed economy.

That is to say, there are no simple volunteer projects in Kibera. At least, none founded by outsiders.

This has been an evolving thread through our work and has upended some of our original thinking on open-source or simply, development projects. You might say we were merely naive. Why on earth would anyone living in dirt-poor conditions want to “volunteer” just for the good of their community? Have you met a lot of jobless people in America or Europe who can barely feed their children, wear threadbare clothes and shoes, and have to pay to use a dirty latrine piping up to volunteer on raising awareness on HIV?

It’s an unfair comparison, I know. The fact of the matter is that in the slums one might volunteer to clean up the latrines or build a new one, simply because no one else is going to do it for them. And someone with HIV or whose family members are affected might well wish to spread the word about prevention. And certainly there are many, many true volunteers – they just tend to be starting things themselves from within Kibera, and hoping things will turn around soon.

We hoped that the value of the trainings we were offering would be in and of themselves enough. We also hoped that motivation would come from a desire to improve Kibera, the kind of community motivation that would be a matter of pride and would perhaps stem from a sense of the systemic injustice represented by a slum. Personally, I probably had thoughts of working in Latin America, where indigenous communities have often self-organized and pushed very hard on social justice issues, where poverty itself is seen as a justice and human rights issue, and there is a long legacy of social thought and philosophy underpinning most community-based organizations.

What we found, instead, is a community so influenced economically by years of “interventions” by various international development organizations that a full shadow economy has developed. It’s not the black market – it’s the shadow aid market. Ask any Kibera resident about jobs they’ve held in the past and most will mention some volunteering with aid agencies or small NGOs in the community. And by “volunteering” they mean getting paid to do a job. It’s evidence of the perversion of donor dollar influx that the very term Volunteer connotes something completely different here than it does anywhere else. What has happened is that well-meaning organizations have set up projects in Kibera (thousands of them) and thereby actually created a “market” for participants in those programs. There are so many NGOs here that the demand is actually for Kiberans to take part, rather than the other way around. Of course, we felt that our project was different, and perhaps it is – a kind of meta-project created to make public all of the information that these hundreds of organizations were collecting, to allow direct self-mediation (non-mediation?) of information, news and stories, to hopefully drill a hole through the cacaphony of aid-speak about Kibera and allow a few actual people to speak through and tell the truth.

This was – and still is – our vision. But the economic conundrum remains. Kibera residents have learned that these NGOs need them – that they’re getting paid and raising a great deal of funds in order to develop programs and fill their presentations, events, workshops, and trainings with bodies. Kiberans have wised up to the fact that sometimes they’re being “sold” by agencies to donors even if the project hasn’t really made them better off – after all, who asked them? – and there have even been a few oft-repeated tales of random small children being photographed in Kibera with a white person who then used the photos to raise funds for their own pocket. (Of course, this is why we’re trying to create platforms of transparency – ways for people to disclose what’s happening in the community and expose the gaps). Kiberans whisper about ending up on billboards in America without a penny to show for it. Whether true or not – it’s probably happened, and then rumor made it sound like the norm – this shows the distrust that has developed under the welcoming Kibera surface. We’ve had arguments with participants to convince them that no, most white people don’t come to Kibera to get rich! This also explains why tourists shouldn’t simply wander through with their big cameras and photograph people, as they so often do. It hints at a much deeper recognition of the complicated, often contradictory relationship between the thousands of well-meaning white people who find their way to Kibera and those who live there every day, and the lack of any meaningful way for Kiberans to guide those relationships – coupled with their frequent dependency on them. There is an unwillingness to challenge openly a system that might one day prove to supply one of the few real jobs that are at hand – the coveted NGO position. (For me, this was frustrating since we set out to co-develop a project not fill it with employees – see part 2).

Eventually, there emerged an expectation of a “sitting fee” to attend someone’s meeting – yes, organizations paying people just to fill the seats in their events. This complicated our initial attempts to hold community meetings around the issue-based maps. The first one was organized by Regynnah, a mapper, on the topic of health. It was held in Raila, her own village. There were a good 30 people and it was a great success. However, we only gave out sodas to participants, no money or phone airtime. Regynnah came to us afterward and said now her contacts were mad at her because they expected to be paid for this 1-2 hour discussion of health – even though most of them were health practitioners and ostensibly interested in the topic. We hoped instead they’d be able to make use of the information – not demand a sitting fee.

We tackled this by making sure people knew in advance that no one would be paid for such discussions – meaning they might attract fewer people, but ones who are more intrinsically motivated to participate – and in fact, sometimes only 4 or 5 people showed up.

It was a challenge to us as well. We had to make these activities really worth their while, and create a working relationship based on trust that could lead to improvements in the sector in question. A lot more thinking went in to producing projects that would really engage communities and be driven by them as well as for them. We continue to unravel the idea of how to support people to share information in such a way that it changes the status quo in Kibera – how to complete the feedback loop and help people use technology to achieve their goals. The shadow economy, though, pulls people in different directions and in some cases fosters splintering of organizations and groups.

I do believe strongly that there needs to be a more equal exchange between any outsider and the Kibera people. This has informed a lot of our work trying to consolidate information in an open system rather than constantly requesting Kibera residents to answer surveys and participate in focus groups that will never have visible benefits to them (much less reports back on the findings). I’ve been appalled by many NGOs’ and  researchers’ total disregard for the worth of each person’s time and energy – perhaps a sitting fee should apply when research is done in this traditional, extractive way. One problem is that too often Kiberans profess excitement over any new project and pin their livelihood (and other) hopes on it, encouraging absolutely everyone that whatever hair-brained idea they came to Kibera is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Not to say this happened to us ;)

More on livelihoods and working with our Trust team in Part 2…

This post is part of a series exploring the ideas and issues that have emerged in our research project with Institute of Development Studies, supported by DFID. All posts from the Map Kibera team, the researchers from IDS, our trainers and colleagues are collected here. As always, we are eager to discuss this work, so we hope to hear your comments.

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