International outlook – Kenya

International outlook – local democracy in Kenya

Mistra Urban Futures is an international program with platforms in seven cities. One of the pilot project’s goals has been to seek knowledge through cross-fertilization with platforms outside Gothenburg. Kenya turned out to be a very interesting country to learn from as regards capacity-building processes that involve residents. Upon visiting three slums in Kenya’s third largest city, Kisumu, we found that, at the most local level, there was a well-established and well-functioning system for local democracy in which residents have real influence over developments in the area. The history of this was said to be the following: A few decades ago, the Ministry of the Environment was very concerned about the fact that people were burning too much vegetation, like wood, to cook with. Together with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of the Environment institutionalized local systems of decision-making. The purpose was to have someone to discuss these issues with at the local level.

Because Kenya is poor, the national and local governments invest very little in the physical environment in the slums. Funds for such investments, which primarily concern drinking water and household sewage, are instead provided by major NGOs. Given the local decision-making systems that function well even in the slums (at least in those we visited in Kisumu), many of the local-level contact with the NGOs does not go through the local and national governments. In the slums we visited, resident representatives met regularly to discuss what had happened since their last meeting in the approximately ten groups responsible for, e.g., health, water, hygiene. There, members talked about the problems and opportunities that had emerged. These groups had great influence over, e.g., how water and hygiene projects were implemented in the area. In some cases, they actually did the work themselves, for example by digging and laying the pipes, so it would be less expensive for residents to buy water.

Moreover, they took responsibility for administration of water distribution and fee collection. Those of us from the pilot project thought it was very interesting to compare these experiences with our own in Hammarkullen, where the new regulations have just recently been put in place to help residents begin to participate in work with shaping the physical environment. Why haven’t these residents been trusted to make decisions about the physical environment in the past? On what view of knowledge is the previous approach based?