The poor deserve inclusion in mega projects at onset

The sight of a yellow bulldozer moving menacingly in the direction of residential areas is enough to get my stomach churning and my heart palpitating. I have witnessed too many violent, destructive and illegal evictions.

To watch doors, windows, marriage certificates, family photos, schools, spoons, stools, lifetime’s endeavours and thriving communities flattened with one swing of a ‘dozer is a horrific and unforgettable experience. The Booker Prize winner Arundathi Roy writes about these state-of-the-art machines saying ‘They flatten history and stack it up like building material’ in her ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ work. 

Not for the first time, the people of Kibera this week experienced another early morning eviction that destroyed five schools and left 25,000 homeless. Last week an agreement had been reached between the affected parties, civil society organisations and Kenya Urban Roads Authority but that was torn to shreds by the yellow ‘dozers sacrificing the poor to the gods of development.

The destruction was also done in complete disregard to the land laws and guidelines for eviction. The Constitution Article 40 (4) also states that ‘provision may be made for compensation to be paid to those who do not hold title to the land’. But who heeds the constitution anymore? 

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Collateral damage

The whole narrative around eviction, resettlement and development has been so corrupted that there is an air of inevitability about succumbing to the power of the JCB. We are constantly reminded that ample notice has been given, that the landlords are organising the resistance, that the tenants will quickly find another place, that everyone will benefit from the mega projects and that the same happened in Paris, London and Delhi so just let it roll. Avoidable and illegal evictions have become normalised.

Most such narratives are constructed by those at the top. If history were written by those at the bottom we might have a more realistic, humane and just outcome. But there is such resolve and publicity around the big four agenda that the poor may be reduced to collateral damage in programmes promoted as alleviating poverty. We may alleviate poverty by making the poor pay the price. Bizarre logic!

As many as 65 per cent of Nairobi residents live in informal settlements. That figure rises to 72 per cent in Mombasa with its 116 informal settlements where 92 per cent of housing is provided by the private sector. The need for affordable and decent housing cannot be disputed.

Any programme, therefore, that is geared towards building more units deserves encouragement. However, like the new link road through Kibera, we must not be afraid to ask who will benefit most from the housing projects and where do the poorest of the citizens fit in to the grand plans?

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Mombasa County has been promoting an Urban Renewal and Regeneration programme for the past few years. The aim is to upgrade the existing ten housing estates and replace the 3,000 existing units with 31,000 new ones.

The plan looks impressive on paper until you realise that 80 per cent of the units will go to the ‘development partner’ in the Public Private Partnership deal. That leaves a mere 6,000 units for public use and all the public land that the county currently is in possession of will have disappeared in the process. So where will future public or social housing be located? Not only that there is a real risk that the current tenants may not be guaranteed an opportunity to own, lease or rent the new units. 

Driving force

Admittedly, our efforts at Haki Yetu to question the validity of the scheme did not get much of a hearing by the Judiciary. The Governor too dismissed us as ‘enemies of development’ but valid questions remain. Will Mr Joho’s programme make any contribution towards affordable housing as envisioned in the Constitution? Is this an Urban Renewal Programme or is it a gentrification one  – transforming existing run-down estates into middle class ones but excluding the masses in the process? Put another way, is this an urban renewal programme or a social cleansing one? Can we justify a programme that uses public funds to build houses for those who can already afford them anyhow?

In all of this there is an urgent need for clear, values based planning that includes the poor from the outset not as an afterthought. We may have 20 per cent middle class but that leaves 80 per cent who are not. There are other models of housing and development that respects the rights of all but when easy profit becomes the driving force then we end up with more Kibera disasters.

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Gabriel Dolan [email protected] @GabrielDolan1

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