From February – June 2013, the MSc Social Development Practice (SDP) partnered with the international NGO Practical Action to pursue an ‘action-learning’ project entitled “Participatory Informal Settlement Upgrading and Well-Being”, focusing on the city of Kisumu, Kenya. The research process consisted of three months of desktop research and policy analysis in London, and two and a half weeks of primary field research in Kisumu in late April. In Kisumu, SDP students were joined by colleagues from Maseno University and the Great Lakes University of Kisumu, to collaboratively undertake the fieldwork research.
The Participatory Informal Settlement Upgrading and Well-Being partnership opened in early February 2013, when fourteen SDP masters students were introduced to the project. Students were asked to examine four different water and sanitation interventions within three unplanned settlements in Kisumu. Three of the projects were implemented with the support of Practical Action as a part of their People’s Plans into Practice (PPP) programme—a participatory planning initiative that works through the local Neighborhood Planning Associations to identify and address settlement upgrading priorities. The final project was implemented under the Kenyan Government’s Local Authority Service Delivery Action Plan (LASDAP), a participatory planning process with devolved funding, chosen to serve as a point of comparison with the NGO models.
Each selected case represented a different model of service delivery, including a waste pickers social enterprise, a water spring / eco-sanitation toilet community facility, a water kiosk run through the delegated management model, and the LASDAP community toilet run as a pro-poor public-private partnership. The focus of the action-learning platform was two-fold. Students were firstly asked to assess the well-being impacts of their particular model of service delivery, exploring dimensions including dignity, health, empowerment, security, recognition, accessibility, and equity in relation to diverse identities within the settlements. Secondly, students were asked to explore the wider institutional environment and urban context in which the models were embedded, to comment upon the potential for scaling up and sustaining the positive participatory processes underlying each model.
This SDP collaboration with Practical Action emerged out of the mutual interest in exploring ‘human well-being’ as the objective of development. For Practical Action, this is reflected in their new vision that examines the concept of ‘technology justice’ through the lens of well-being. This recently established narrative seeks to elucidate the linkages between the material impacts of Practical Action’s small-scale technologies and ‘relational well-being’, which refers to people’s abilities to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Drawing from Sen’s (1989) Capability Approach, for the SDP team this offered a useful entry point to start exploring the operationalization of well-being theories in development practice.
Throughout the course of the research project, the SDP students highlighted a number of key findings and experimented with a series of methodologies to stimulate discussions on well-being. Here, the analytical focus on material and relational well-being proved critical in highlighting the different processes and impacts underlying each intervention. Notably, while all the projects facilitated greater access to basic services such as water and sanitation, and supported resident associations to manage the provision of these goods—each still faced certain structural barriers to scaling-up these institutional relationships to generate wider relational gains. What emerged from the research was that that such institutional change required challenging the predominant vision of the ‘citizen as consumer’ embedded in key policy documents and in the rhetoric of the Kisumu municipal council.
The market-oriented approach to the provision of water and sanitation services was problematic for particularly vulnerable residents that might have to prioritize amongst a set of financial demands, the individualized approach to service delivery was not sufficient to address collective challenges such as waste collection in public spaces, and public-private partnerships often represented gains for the public sector in the form of increased efficiency and reduced expenditures, while leaving small private operators or the managing community groups with a greater share of risk and responsibility. Thus while students found that Practical Action played a key role in the development and support of networked residents—taking advantage of devolved spaces of governance as stipulated in the recent reforms of the Kenyan Constitution in 2010—the potential of these spaces were not fully unlocked when implemented within this wider market-based narrative.
Here, the added-value of a well-being approach was in allowing for a subjective interpretation of the quality and inclusivity of the relationships established through the Practical Action and LASDAP interventions. This allowed for an analysis that unfolded how different identities, including men, women, children, tenants, landlords or elected community representatives, experienced each service delivery model, and helped to qualify the (sometimes fuzzy) concept of community participation in planning processes. As the SDP-Practical Action partnership moves forward, a key area of interest will be in the examination of these subjective and relational dimensions, looking to explore both methodologically and conceptually how this focus on well-being can continue to inform Practical Action interventions, and wider development discourse.