Opinion: Respect of human rights key as we develop infrastructure

A section of Thika Road. Photo/Courtesy

Infrastructure development is a key component to Kenya’s goal of attaining a middle-income economy by 2030.

The most visible of these infrastructure initiatives in Nairobi and Mombasa have been the expansion and re-organisation of the road networks. It is however notable that these initiatives have been accompanied with ruthless demolitions.

Earlier this week, the famous Zam Zam and garages near Toi market off Ngong Road in Nairobi were demolished. On February 22, there were reports that Kenya National Highways Authority had demolished stalls for traders around the Mombasa-Mariakani (A 8) formerly (A 109).

These were not isolated incidents since the Kenya Urban Roads Authority had also been accused of demolishing stalls for traders along Langata Road in 2014. 

Nairobi and Mombasa are characterised by skewed and layered land tenure systems, precarious property rights regime, inadequate housing and up to 70 per cent of the population living in informal settlements.

 It is in this context that there is an emergent feeling that the large urban infrastructure projects are displacing and dispossessing the urban poor. The World Bank has long envisaged this challenge and included in its project approval guidelines a framework for incorporating those affected by the infrastructure projects into the property ownership regime as Project Affected Persons.

 Working under the provisions of its Operational Manual 4.12 that focus on indigenous people, the World Bank requires borrowers to engage in a process of “do good,” avoid potentially adverse effects on the indigenous peoples’ and when avoidance is not feasible, minimise, mitigate, or compensate for such effects.

But the current mega-infrastructure projects in Kenya, shall have no guarantee of ‘doing good’ unless anchored in inclusive urban governance.

If these infrastructure projects are to be described as the urban ‘hardware’, the UN-Habitat rightly observes that urban governance is the ‘software’ that enables the urban ‘hardware’ to function.

 In this respect, I tend to agree with the UN-Habitat’s submission that effective urban governance is characterised as democratic and inclusive; long-term and integrated; multi-scale and multilevel; territorial; proficient and conscious of the digital age.

It is apparent that the way the country and urban authorities manage infrastructure and many other development interventions shall influence the extent to which people will benefit from such investments and be protected from negative effects.

For example, more than 20,000 people have been forcibly evicted from neighbourhoods in or around Nairobi since 2000. It is also well known that these cases of evictions have some links to land related corruption.

At any rate, there has been long standing debate and advocacy in Kenya on the need to ensure the so-called development and public investment is not deleterious to human rights and dignity. 

In its transformative spirit, the 2010 Constitution further outlines the importance of human dignity and realisation of socio-economic rights for all. To operationalise this requirement of human dignity in ‘urban hardware,’ civil society organisations have long suggested the need to develop a clear and coherent legislation and national policy framework that would guide processes of involuntary relocation.

Indeed, there was a draft Eviction and Relocation Bill that had been proposed in 2016. This Bill was rejected and in its place the government only agreed to an ambiguous amendment of The Land Laws (Amendment) Act, 2016 (No. 28 of 2016). The limitations in the provisions in this amendment are dual.

On one hand, it envisages the relationship between people pre-existing in the area and the infrastructure investment. On the other hand, the provisions do not provide for possible co-existence between people and infrastructure. 

Thus, the essence of our proposition for social dimensions of urban infrastructure is anchored on the understanding that the cornerstone of adequate and appropriate infrastructure development lies in meeting the demands of all people and respect of their rights, cultural identity and autonomy, dignity and empowerment of the local communities they live in.

While the guidelines from the World Bank and other funders like African Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank have social and environmental safeguards policy in projects that they are involved in, this is one gap that must be filled in Kenya.

Stakeholders under the aegis of the Utafiti Sera House have started conversations led by communities that are displaced or those under the threat of dispossession to develop guidelines for social and environmental safeguards during implementation of infrastructure projects.