Urban Humanitarianism: Accessing informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya

This blogpost is based on the first phase of my PhD fieldwork in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Over the next four years you can follow the developments of the NUPI/PRIO project Armed Violence in Urban Settings: New Challenges, New Humanitarianisms on this site. Our goal is to explore the humanitarian engagement in the field of urban violence.

Access is a critical issue for any humanitarian organization making their entry into a new field. Often, the question of access is purely physical:  During the rainy season, populations in villages connected to rest of the world by a single dirt road can be impossible to reach. The informal settlements of Nairobi do not fall into this category. Huruma can be seen from the Northeastern corner of the UN compound. Resident expats catch an excellent view of the Kibera Slum from the 11th hole at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. Nevertheless, short physical distance is no guarantee of easy access.

Urban access. If access to an informal settlement is not granted by the local residents, there will be no security for staff and no project. Negotiating access to such informal urban settlements can be daunting, as humanitarian actors  must navigate several layers of formal and informal governmental structures. While permission from the central government is required, nothing will happen without the seal of approval from the presidentially appointed chiefs, assistant chiefs and village elders who hold key positions at the local level. The loyalty of these elders is primarily to the community, including at times those engaged in criminal and violent activities.

While the police might have achieved some sway in Mathare, the law is enforced by youth gangs in many of the Kibera villages, where The twelve disciples and Yes we can! are among the groups providing protection.  While  the defeat of the dreaded Mungiki is widely proclaimed in Mathare, the gangs remain a formidable force in this settlement. Financed by “taxation” of the community they ensure that the residents’ property and lives remain safe from external and internal threats. Any organization setting up projects in Mathare will need their tacit approval. Landlords are also important actors. Rents are rapidly adjusted to changing circumstances; a local water and sanitation project can result in increased prices that force the residents into financial exodus. Any structures or renovations in the slums need approval of the de jure owners, who are not known for their philanthropic nature.

The INGOs interviewed for this project have almost exclusively relied on a Community Based Organization (CBO) to negotiate first access. This, however, is not a fail-safe plan. These organizations are often centered around a charismatic leader, whose politics can compromise neutrality. There are also several “suit-case CBOs” with few real ties to the community and no actual projects. Selling projects to the humanitarian and human rights organizations is potentially very good business; a fact that creative entrepreneurs have learned to capitalize on.

Having managed to work with and around these political structures, humanitarian actors still face a real risk of involuntary involvement in the tribal and ethnic conflicts that dominate Kenyan politics.  Tribal suspicions run high, and skewed representation of one tribe among the staff could potentially be enough for the INGO to be seen as a partisan.  Rumors run fast through the settlements and any organization wishing to operate in this area must keep one ear constantly to the ground: Catching and disproving rumors early is of vital importance for staff safety.

Put to the test? While the conflict during the 2007-08 elections was between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, the current political drama is playing out between the Kikuyu and the Luo. Prior to the 2013 election,  the graffiti “No Raila: No Peace” could be found everywhere in Kibera, including at the gates of the MSF Belgium clinic. In 2007-08, the violence spread from the city to the country side – eventually engulfing most of the country. The death toll rose beyond a thousand and estimates of the number of displaced vary between 180 000 and 600 000.

Despite the large number of humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, the humanitarian community was caught off guard. Evaluations of the response indicate that while IDP camps received the necessary aid, the humanitarians were largely incapable of aiding those who settled elsewhere. Those who sought shelter among family and friends in the settlements were hard to identify and support.

At the time of writing, it appears that in 2013, the  humanitarian community has been better prepared. OCHA has initiated a hub-based coordination system that ensures that actors know of each other and the relevant government structures in the areas where they operate. Nairobi has been divided into seven sub-hubs, each of which is led by an organization with solid local knowledge. The responsibility for the life and dignity of Kenyans rests with the Kenyan government. Making government actors aware of the resources they can call upon from the humanitarian community, and making sure that humanitarian response complements the government efforts, has been a cornerstone of the preparation.

The move from a sector-based to an area specific coordination of humanitarian action and the inclusion of the CBOs and Faith Based Organizations in the disaster preparedness plan are approaches which on a general basis could enhance access to urban populations during crisis and   strengthen the humanitarian response.

Update April 2nd: In the end there was no test. The Kenyan Supreme Court decided against the petition fronted by Odinga, confirming the election of Uhurru Kenyatta as the president to succeed Kibaki. Raila Odinga held a speech reaffirming his commitment to the constitution and thereby also the decision of the Supreme Court. There was no outbreak of political violence, though two deaths were reported by Kenya Red Cross in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.