Official launch of ‘Megaslumming’ in Nairobi: transcript of the public debate

01 February 2010

The official launch of the STWR publication ‘Megaslumming’ took place in Nairobi on 20th January 2010 with around 200 people attending a panel discussion and public debate at the National Museum of Kenya. Below is a transcript of the Q&A session of the event. 

Comment 1: Thank you very much. My question goes like this: Generally what we lack is justice. Justice is everything. I'm a freelance writer, and most of the time I talk about formulas and I do research in order to get justice. Formula A is peace, Formula B is respect and Formula C is justice. The problem that we have is that we don't understand all of the formulas, so we need to have the full understanding. We need to have respect and peace and justice. Those three things go together so that we have a complete understanding and in Kibera sometimes there is a lack of respect, and if we have respect, and peace, justice will come automatically.

Comment 2: I'm a freelance writer. I don't believe that people should give respect if they don't deserve it - you have to earn respect it shouldn't just be granted to you. It's been quite an interesting debate about Moi and whether Moi should be criticized in the Star and it's interesting to follow that. But I wanted to read yousomething very brief, because I think there's a problem of leadership, not just in Kenya, but it's very marked in Kenya. This is a review of Michaela Wrong's book which we can't buy here called ‘It's our turn to eat: The story of a Kenyan whistleblower.' It was written by the New York Times correspondent andit shows very shockingly that we have no leadership, and it isn't just a Kenyan problem,

"According to the United Nations the average Kenyan makes $770 a yearyet members of Kenya's parliament are among the highest paid in the world witha compensation package of $145,565, most of it tax free. That is 187 times morethan the country's average income and would be the equivalent of an Americancongressman making 8.5 million a year."

Comment 3: Good evening ladies and gentleman, I will try to be brief. I would like to congratulate Adam Parsons but I would like to challenge you on one thing. In many developing countries we appreciate that the top-down models have not worked so in most of your reviews what you've come up with is more foreign aid, more outside assistance needs to come here, but the more you have, the more you want. All of us here are people who are better off, but there are people who cannot even afford to raise a hand, they cannot even afford to raise their voices. All the resources are in a pyramid of mass, so that the richest people are the fewest, and the poorest people are very many.

So the only thing we cando is that as the few rich people do something, so should the many people dosomething so in the end the aggregate force should make a difference. I thinkis that nobody is thinking about the future of this country, especially thepoliticians; most of them do not even understand what is going on, so I thinkit is up to the professionals to draw up something which will then go round andround Kenya and that I think is the way to go. Thank you.

Adam Parsons: Thank you very much for your comments. About the comment on foreign aid - I talk about aid in a summary of one of the chapters, when I talk about the economic history of Kenya and try to relate it to the bigger development model that's been happening particularly over the past thirty years. I would really agree with you that just to throw more aid to Kenya is not the solution.

The basic perspective I was trying to give in the talk I just gave is that the withdrawal of state support and the problems of national governance are inextricably linked to the problem of international governance. Most national governments in developing countries have become locked in to a paradigm which forces them to prioritize economic growth over public welfare and social needs, and it's impossible for governments to really change that around and have a truly bottom up approach to development without the entire economic model changing internationally, and this would mean not only giving more aid but actually allowing countries like Kenya the policy space they need and the ability to develop in their own way without just relying on more aid in the indeterminate future. I also agree with you that the aggregate force, as you put it, should make the difference; that the majority do need to be mobilized, and that right now the trajectory of development has been to leave behind what has been called this surplus labour force, this 'surplus humanity' without giving them the necessary job opportunities.

The future predictions for slums shows that if we continue along this development model then there will be two billion slum dwellersby 2030. There's already since 2000 a tremendous increase. So I basically agree with you, that the problem, the challenge is how to mobilize the poor, how to create the necessary employment opportunities in cities, and my basic point is that the only way to do this is by actually having a reformed economic model which allows developing countries the space they need to develop in their own way.

Comment 4: My question is around the dynamics of; first and foremost, why Kibera? Not in a bad way, but slums in Kenya I think are highly different, and I think there's a lot of access to Kibera, and I think that has been touched on in the book when you talk about poverty tourism. It's interesting that Kibera has developed its own special kind of economy, and I just want to hear about the dynamics of the choice of Kibera, because even as we talk about Kibera, let's remember that other slums are very very different.

Commen 5: I have been here for thirty years working with different organisations. I think we should stop bashing the Bretton Woods Institutions of the neoliberal model. I think that comes very much from an Anglo-Saxon perspective because if we go back to Kenya of the 80s where we had a controlled economy, we had no growth whatsoever. The last growth we had in Kenya was with the coffee boom in the 1970s but then we got a dreadful decay of stagnation where population growth outgrew any economic growth so I think that to liberalise the economy was not a bad thing because we need growth. The bad thing was to follow the Anglo-Saxon neoliberal model, but if you go to mainland Europe you have other models, like the Nordic countries which combine very strong social security with capitalism if you like or even the German model where you have a very strong social network. So there are other models that have not been used in Kenya.

The other thing is that you have examples, even in Africa, where leaders have resisted the Bretton Woods Institutions; lately Malawi who introduced agricultural subsidies against the explicit wishes of these institutions and within three years, Malawi became a food exporting country rather than a hungry country so it is not that difficult to step up against these institutions. You see also the Asian Tigers, they did not give a damn about the recipes from those institutions. To me the biggest culprit is really the Kenyan leadership and I have rarely seen such a disgusting kleptocratic leadership in my life. If they took a different attitude and didn't hate so much their own poor, I think Kenya would turn around within ten to fifteen years.

Comment 6: Thankyou. I am a political activist. I want to salute the Chair and the organisationfor your work and for trying to make us march together - I salute you for yourbook. Now my point is this of the poverty in Kenya and the world. In Kenyaslums are formed by the elites so that they can have slaves to work in theirgardens but the population has risen; we are more than they need. We need tohave a social democracy where we share the resources together because if wedon't share we are going to sink together. Thank you.  

Rasna Warah: I just want to respond to the first speaker, and I think that I need to underscore what he said about respect. I recently moved to the coast. Having been born andraised in Nairobi I felt that I needed to get away from this highly unequal and in many ways abnormal city. I have found that the people on the coast are very sensitive to when you treat them with disrespect - they would rather not haveyour money than be treated with disrespect so it's a very sensitive line youhave to walk when you're dealing with people that you want to give work to,because they have a strong sense of, ‘if you don't respect me, I don't wantyour money.'

What I feel is happening in Kenya is that Kenyan people do notfeel respected by their leaders and last week when the politicians again gavethemselves the raise in the face of starvation and drought, it was an act ofdisrespect, a slap in the face of Kenyan people who elected them. I am notagainst wealth, I believe that we need wealth in order to distribute, youcannot distribute air or poverty and that's what we're doing at the moment, isdistributing poverty. I agree with Speaker 5, I am not for zero growth either,I believe that it is premature for African countries to develop a model thatmay hurt them in the end, but I do believe that there are models such as theSwedish, Norwegian, German and even British to some extent where the basicneeds of the most vulnerable are taken care of, and health and education isuniversal and free.

So if we do want to move to the next level of development,and escape this never-ending cycle of poverty then there has to be a mechanismand policy in place which makes distribution of wealth very explicit and verymuch in the constitution if you will, so that there is a kind of naturaldistributive mechanism built into the system. I do agree that slums provide theworkforce that work in our factories and our homes and quite often even thoughthey are essential to the running of this economy, they are very oftenneglected which is stupid because you don't want your factory workers to diefrom HIV or malaria; you have to create conditions where they can actuallycome to work and be productive.

Adam Parsons: The point about the Bretton Woods Institutions: I totally understand the point about mixed economies in Europe and what I would say is perhaps a counter-perspective; I think there is still very much the need to blame the Bretton Woods Institutions because the policies that they have prescribed are still continuing; even though Structural Adjustment Policies may have been denigrated, the poverty eradication policies are still promoting the same trade liberalisation conditions.

The point that I would like to make is that what the International Financial Institutions serve to do is to maintain the basic inequality of the current world distribution of wealth, and of course countries like Sweden have the privilege of having a welfare state, in many respects because the resources of the world are concentrated in the developed countries, and 80% of the world are left to make do with the 20% of remaining resources. And until this fundamental inequality is addressed, the question of continuing with growth doesn't really make sense. And also there's the question of environmental limits. If we continue to prioritise development in countries with the goal of maximum economic growth, and if four fifths of humanity that are currently deprived of a consumerist lifestyle suddenly have it, then it is a question of whether the environment can sustain this.

So why Kibera? Well the current book was actually meant to be one third of a much longer book, I was also going to go to Mexico City and Los Angeles and to compare some of the different situations of poverty between countries, what with Los Angeles being the capital of First World homelessness and Mexico city having the biggest slum in the world; La Paz. I mentioned in the introductory talk that Kibera is the biggest and most notorious slum in sub-Saharan Africa, and it also expresses many ofthe problems of inequality that you see in probably any other slum. I visited various other slums in India and South East Asia, and of course Kibera is very different, and all the slums across Nairobi are extremely different; there's also Mathare which is technically a megaslum with 0.5 million residents with similar problems of social violence and disruption and slum clearance and so on. So the reason I came to Nairobi to focus on Kibera was just to use i tas a microcosmic example of what is happening throughout the developing world, whilst trying to acknowledge the difference in its cultural diversity and community vibrancy and so on.

Comment 7: Okay, I would like to ask this question; Adam, when you were touring Kibera did you notice how man ypublic schools for every thousand people? Did you notice?

Adam Parsons: Yes.

Comment 7: When you cross over to the other side in Mathare you find that there are very few public schools. And you can go to some other places and find that there are so many public schools in one location. I think that the political class is using the ignorance of the people so that they cannot know their rights so they are using the slums for their own selfish ends; I think the slums have been denied so much educationally. Thank you.

Comment 8: Thank you. I am a social activist and I noticed that most of you are talking about the seventies and eighties and I have the privilege of being born here in the early fifties before many of the other slums existed, although Kibera did. I want to put it on record that the other slums, apart from Kibera, only the expansion of Kibera is because the politicians wanted to have new boundaries on the basis of which they could go to parliament. So people were invited to come and grab land whichwas privately owned in Mathare so that they could work for various politiciansand they were promised that when they come they would own that land and theywould be given it. It would be a land of milk and honey. So all those peoplethat came from up country came and put up mud houses to put people intoparliaments and that is how these slums came into existence. I have walkedthese places when they were just forests or gardens. Kibera was allowed toexpand and expand for political reasons, so our governments from independenceto today,  are to blame for letting thissituation get worse and worse.

Now I am asking the two gentlemen from Kibera; Ihave some suggestions and I want to know if they think that this could help.The first thing is on a population basis and the way our funds are divided fordevelopment. I am talking about the CDF money. I believe that each slum shouldhave exclusively a member of parliament and exclusive funds available. Secondly,I believe that our government should have an incentive for the lowest paidpeople that if you're working and you're on minimum wage then the government should add to it and give you money for basic food, so that your money can be used for your transport or clothes or whatever.

I want to add one more thing.I am involved in a lot of social development, and I believe that the youth inthe slums can work and be paid by the chief and all the local office bearers toclean and to repair the slums; to have better roads; to manually do this workbecause it could employ a lot of people even if just at minimum wage you couldjust be maintaining your own residences and the roads and the gutters and thealleys and the sewers and everything, and even if everyone has just one smallarea, how many people can be employed like that. Thank you. 

Joseph Djemba: Okay I would like to saythat there are a lot of youth in Kibera, and there are a lot of things likethat that are happening in Kibera, but there is trouble when it comes topayment and people are not receiving the money. When the city gives money toKibera it passes through a lot of people and does not help the youth. The PrimeMinister gives money but it doesn't reach us and he is not helping us at all.Many people blame the government but we also blame the people who are workingwith them. This is why the youths do what they have to do to survive in Kibera.Now in Kibera what we lack most is a hospital; we have only one, and the othershave no medicines and we cannot use them. There are also no vehicles in Kiberato take you to the hospital, and you need to pay, you need to have money tosurvive in Kibera that is the most important thing. About cleaning theenvironments and everything; we can do that but you cannot do that when youdon't have anything in your stomach.

Comment 9: Firstly I want to appreciatethe work done by Adam. Secondly I want to share an incident that happened inKibera about two weeks ago; over the holidays the bus companies increased theirfares; by January the fares had increased by about 60%. About two weeks ago agroup of youths in Kibera went to the offices of the bus company and said ‘youare not going to charge us more, and if you do you will be closed.' The policewere called, and in the end the fares were reduced by 400 shillings. So I thinkthat the people of Kibera have power. Thank you.

Comment 10: Thankyou for this opportunity. While we complain about all that the government hasnot done, let's ask what we have done ourselves. I also head an informalorganisation working in the slums for ten years now. In the slums we don't needany help, what we need is support, not help, and there is a difference. Helpwill create a donor-recipient relationship where the donor is the boss and therecipient the slave. The help that comes from abroad is squandered by thegovernment and makes us poorer. The solution to the problem of the slums liesin the people living in the slums because they are the people who know theproblems and who can show the way to solve them. The situation of the slumswill only change when there is a revolution, but not a bloody revolution, wewant a bloodless revolution. My organisation is not formal because I do notbelieve in this government - we have worked to find homes for children and forthem to go to school, we produce youth groups, get funds for them and use themfor the right purposes. As longs as we sit down and complain we do not getanywhere.

Comment 11: Ivolunteer in an organisation and cherish the opportunity to share my ownresources. I am so happy when people like Adam come in to really supportdevelopment through the skills that you have. As the last 2 speakers said, theanswers are in ourselves, because many times we blame the politicians and thegovernment. I contested the last election; the money is what makes thegovernment we have today, they are there because they bought us. They don'tfeel they have responsibility because they feel that they bought what theyhave. The responsibility lies with us to change ourselves and the society.

Anyone who wants Kibera todevelop must involve the people there to decide what they want and how theywant to develop. Thank you so much Adam, I cherish what you have done.

Arthur Waweru: About the people beinginvolved in Kibera - if you come and you want to make an organisation and youwant to help Kibera, you cannot help without knowing the problems. You have toask the people who are living there how life is and how they survive, and what theycan do to change their lives and that of coming generations.