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January 17, 2012

How can development NGOs go urban?

January 17, 2012
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Just spent a fascinating week in Nairobi, taking part in a review of our three-year- old urban programme there. Like many large kibera streets 3development NGOs, Oxfam’s traditional remit is deeply rural – goats, irrigation, drought, that kind of thing – but the world has gone urban, and so in a few countries, we are dipping our organizational toes in the water. Some impressions on the challenges of urban work:

Perhaps most striking are the multiple centres of power and association compared to the rural world. Tier upon tier of government, dense networks of clubs, traditional and tribal structures and militia, social and community organizations, churches, ‘merry-go-round’ savings and loans groups, youth groups, sports clubs, cultural groups – the list is endless. Power is dispersed and often hard to map or even detect. How to chart a way through the forest of organizations and identify potential partners and targets for influence?

A lot of official aid goes to the ‘capacity building’ of officials and promotes legal reforms to improve the ‘enabling environment’ for business. The assumption is that the state wants to help, and just needs more support. But what if the disabling environment matters more? Street traders say that when you try to start a business, a previously absent state appears, and not in a good way: ‘suddenly, all the officials arrive, asking for bribes’. Every bylaw is an excuse for graft. ‘You need a lot of blessings to open a kiosk, our elders need to be smiled at’- Kenya is full of euphemisms for graft.

Once you set up your market stall, you face arrests, confiscations, fines and sexual harassment. The key seems to be organization, so Oxfam is funding an ‘access to justice’ programme that builds small trader associations, and works to improve relations between them and the local authorities and police. Experiments like may also be worth trying, although no Kenyan activists I spoke to had heard of it.

There is a wider point here. When the authorities are seen as a threat ( ‘I can’t remember a time when they came and said ‘we want to help you’’) there is a temptation for donors, NGOs and community organizations to seek to build movements that bypass the state, emphasising self-regulation and ‘popular justice’. But that is probably short sighted – state-building will eventually have to take place, and there is a window of opportunity for that in Kenya right now. Following the appalling violence that took 1,500 lives after the 2007 elections, a new constitution was overwhelmingly approved in August 2010. According to one optimistic community organizer in the Mukuru slum this is a turning point ‘before it was all ‘once I’m elected, I’m the boss – I don’t have to listen to anyone’. Now that’s changing, knowledge of rights scares the people in power. The rule of law is getting better.’

DSC00605But patronage is deeply rooted in Kenya, where every conversation rapidly morphs from challenges to policies to politics to personalities – who you know, who’s doing what to whom, who controls which fund. Gossip, scandal and politics are inseparable. More concretely, getting policies implemented, or changing them, is all about working connections and building alliances. Grassroots leaders rapidly enter that world if they want to deliver any progress for their supporters.

After 2007, few think overtly confrontational approaches such as street protests will bring anything but disaster, and any idea of building up an autonomous change movement outside this system seems very implausible, so how can the new constitution be used to create space for citizens (especially marginalized groups such as women and youth) to organize around collective issues? How far can they go before the system discerns a threat and cooption, corruption and repression ensue? These are legitimate worries, but for the moment, changing the system from within to build something approaching an effective state seems both more promising than a more outsider approach and less fraught with danger. So it seems likely that over the coming years, we will devote more of our limited resources to seizing the opportunities presented by the new constitution. If that fails, then I guess we’ll have to rethink.

Finally, people seem confident that the upcoming elections (scheduled for March 2012), won’t lead to a repeat of the post election violence (often referred to simply as PEV) that took place in 2007/8. They trust that a ‘never again’ sentiment and the optimism surrounding the new constitution will prevail. I hope they’re right. A kind of semi-spontaneous segregation has taken place in many slums, as people have chosen to move to areas where they feel more secure because their own tribe is in the majority. There has even been a revival in ethnic identity, as shown by the increased prominence of vernacular radio stations. People seem uncertain whether this makes conflict more or less likely – much will depend on whether the presidential candidates stoke up ethnic tensions to improve their prospects in the run up to the elections. The role of the media, which inflamed tensions last time around, is also important – maybe worth doing some advocacy, perhaps get them to sign up to a code of conduct in advance?

Several other country programmes in Oxfam are developing urban work. Based on this visit, the key to success seems to lie in developing an acute awareness of the multiple locations of power, political agility in seeing where and how to intervene, and a readiness to constantly re-examine our work in response to the constant political and social turbulence of the urban world. Exciting stuff.

A shorter version of this post also appears on the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog


  1. Exciting, thanks. We’re starting to explore similar in Tanzania on our active citizenship programme, exploring working with faith groups as a place where there is a sense of community in an urban setting, and particularly faith leaders to influence them to talk about accountability and transparency issues. We’re also keen to work with out of school youth though still mapping the best entry point. Any links on successful approaches would be appreciated.
    Look forward to hearing more.

  2. Heaps of thanks for this wonderful write.Its insightful and quite pertinent to the kenyan situation and indeed we would like to see more

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