Field Notes

Why We Can't Impose Development

by: Meredith Maines
July 23, 2013

It’s touted as the largest slum in Africa. The sea of rusty tin roofs, interspersed with piles of garbage and gullies of free-flowing sewage, is an icon of global poverty—a location featured in the film The Constant Gardener and the scene of countless celebrity photo ops.

The first time Jonathan Wiles, Living Water's VP for Program Excellence, saw Kibera was more than 10 years ago. Today it looks exactly the same. Here's how he accounts for the stalemate:

"Estimates of the Kibera’s population vary wildly (from 200,000 to 1.5M), but it’s anyone’s guess how many hundreds of NGOs have worked here over the past few decades. It’s a classic example, in most cases, of Westerners showing up with predetermined solutions and timetables, assuming they can 'fix' in a three-year program what has taken generations to devolve.

"A few years ago, a housing project was started on the edge of Kibera, with the goal of providing alternative dwellings for those who were motivated to move out of the informal dwellings (shacks) that make up the bulk of the slum. Rent for the newly constructed homes was set at 7,000 Kenyan shillings (about $80 US)—higher than the average slum dweller’s rent of 2,000, but still affordable to many. Applications were sent in, and tenants were selected. It was only discovered later that most of the new renters stayed in their slum “homes" and sub-let their shiny new housing for a cool 5,000 Ksh a month net profit. Rather than shrinking the slum by a few hundred, the project had grown it.

"When I visited Kibera earlier this week with a co-worker of mine who lives a literal stone's throw away, sharing stories like this one, I was reminded how hard development work is, and how fruitless it can be when we don’t take the time to know people, to understand what motivates them, and to see them with the dignity they have as beings made in the image of the living God."

Reblogged courtesy of Jonathan Wiles.