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Sanitation and the Politics of Recognition in Kibera

TamlynMonson6 May 2015

To kick off their field trip to Kenya, students on the MSc Social Development Practice spent much of the day with representatives of Practical Action and Umande Trust, hearing about the ways in which these organisations have worked with local residents to promote productive and liveable settlements in Kenya’s slums.

Part of the day’s programme was a trip to Gatwekera in Kibera, Nairobi, where we visited two of the settlement’s 16 biocentres. The biocentres provide accessible toilets, where – in an awesome reframing – excreta becomes a ‘human investment’ that is collected in a biodigester to produce gas for cooking and slurry that can be put to agricultural use.

Street view from Gatwekera Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access (TOSHA) network biocentre. Image credit:  Tamlyn Monson

Street view from Gatwekera Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access (TOSHA) network biocentre. Image credit: Tamlyn Monson

Our objective was to understand whether and how these infrastructure projects could help us identify avenues through which such projects can be scaled up to more explicitly political claim making around citizenship. However, the reality of the interventions exposed some of our received assumptions about how such claim making should proceed.

For instance, we found that in advocating for the rights of informal settlement residents, NGOs may also face certain informal political dynamics at higher scales within the state, and therefore opt to advocate for change outside of the ‘direct’, formal channels.

According to Peter Murigi of Practical Action, completed infrastructural investments have the potential to legitimise the claims of informal residents to improved living conditions, this is because in permitting these interventions the state has indirectly recognized the need for change. Rather than explicitly lobbying through formal channels for change, advocates can use these achievements as precedents justifying claims for further practical improvements when opportunities to indirectly influence power holders arise.

Multi-level biocentre in a Kenyan informal settlement. Image credit: Umande Trust

Multi-level biocentre in a Kenyan informal settlement. Image credit: Umande Trust

Witnessing the significant achievements of the Gatwekera Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access (TOSHA) Network, both staff and students were struck by the limited role of the state in these achievements: the government’s contribution, according to the TOSHA chairperson Moses Ambasa, is merely to “allow us” to go ahead – with projects realized through donor funding and community labour only.

Ambasa was satisfied with this situation, in which slum dwellers are, so to speak, permitted to solve ‘their own’ problems. Participants felt a tension between the need to give due weight to this community voice, and the need to challenge the idea that residents of slums should shoulder such a disproportionate burden of cost and responsibility in securing basic living conditions.

In an afternoon debrief, students acknowledged various shifts of perception inspired by the visit to Kibera, which exposed many to the complexity and ambiguity of an informal settlement for the first time. This was an exciting and stimulating start to a field trip in which students will soon be entering an unfamiliar field in the secondary city of Kisumu. The reflexive trajectories opened up today will be a valuable asset as students soon begin a practical engagement with the Kisumu Informal Settlements Network (KISN). They will be entering the field well prepared to begin unpacking the various entanglements we always find there.


Tamlyn Monson is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU and a PhD candidate at the LSE. Staff and students on the MSc SDP programme engage in overseas research with Practical Action in Kenya each year – read about the collaboration on the DPU website.

Elections and the homeless: who is heard?

LaurenAsfour30 April 2015

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Image: Courtesy of the Electoral Commission/Flickr via Homeless Link

With the UK elections creeping up on us, on the 7th May, I’d like to grapple with the volatile question of elections for who? Given the general apathy towards voting and politics, and the Guardian asking us, “are you engaged and energised by the election campaign – or can’t wait for it to end?”, I find myself considering: who is being represented in the political sphere, and are those marginalised by society being heard? On the MSc Social Development Practice, we have been exploring the importance of hearing from those who are regarded to be on the margins of society, and how their voice can be articulated to generate new knowledge and approaches to urban development.

IMG_0668The government encounters complex challenges in identifying those experiencing homelessness, particularly with the presence of the ‘Hidden Homeless’, who typically reside in bed and breakfast hotels or sleep on friends’ sofas. As such, there is no distinct voting classification for the homeless as a ‘sector’, but rather these individuals are grouped with those living in social housing.

My personal concern is that government fails to recognise the diversity between those experiencing homelessness and those in social housing – and thus an ignorance of the difference between those who benefit from the state, and those who appear to fall outside the system. Although those experiencing homelessness have a right to vote and exercise their voice in society, figures indicate that while 74% of homeowners turned out to vote at the last UK election, only 55% of those living in social housing (and those experiencing homelessness) voted. Such statistics would indicate that many of these individuals are not articulating their voice.

Democracy for who?

While the government maintains that it is working to ensure homeless people have and can access their rights, organisations such as Homeless Link ask: “are residents of social housing and homelessness services really part of democracy?” The government might argue that rough-sleepers’ right to vote indicates that they can access the ballot along with the rest of society – but are they doing so? Those experiencing homelessness need a declaration form from local authorities to vouch for them – but will such bureaucratic hurdles actually encourage individuals to engage in the system?

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Encouraging homeless voters

The ‘Your Vote Counts’ scheme is an initiative funded by government, aiming to engage rough-sleepers and those in social housing to participate more actively in democratic practices through voting. This is a great encouragement, and I look forward to seeing how such initiatives will materialise in the upcoming election.

With growing inequality in the UK, the voices of the marginalised are vital if we are to develop our society into one which safeguards all members of our community. Organisations such as Homeless Link are working diligently to encourage such engagement, with a recent article endeavouring to break down the barriers for those experiencing homelessness and provide clarity on themes such as:

  1. Have a say on important issues
  2. Make sure decision makers don’t ignore your views
  3. Improve your credit rating
  4. No fixed address? No problem
  5. Keep your information private
  6. Register online in minutes
  7. You don’t have to go to a polling station
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Photo taken at Webber Street Day Centre (or All Souls Clubhouse) courtesy of ASLAN, the ministry for homeless and vulnerably housed people of All Souls, Langham Place. Volunteer for ASLAN: http://volunteer.aslan.org.uk

Individualism or Dependence?

My question to all (and to myself), is how can we engage those experiencing homelessness – and others who have become marginalised by social structures – to contribute in the political sphere? How can we encourage such individuals into invited spaces for participation, to learn from their experiences and create substantive change for our society? [1]

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http://volunteer.aslan.org.uk

No matter who comes into government, whether you believe in the power of the welfare state or not – it is important that we don’t forget our individual duty to care, outside of the model propelled by the state. At the third annual conference on Homelessness, Social Exclusion and Health Inequalities, Dr Lynne Friedli, author of Mental Health, Resilience and Inequalities, highlighted that dependency is not failure, but rather a feature of being human.

As a sense of community is eroding, particularly amidst a growing individualism in London, how are we recognising our natural dependency on one another? And thus, if the vulnerable aren’t being heard, what is our role in advocating for their needs? Whilst inequality continues and homelessness remains prevalent in our society, how do we avoid silencing the most vulnerable – the very people who will depend most on the social system that all of our votes shape?

[1] See Gaventa, J. (2006), Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis. IDS bulletin. 37 (6).


Lauren Asfour is currently studying the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU. She has been part of research in London on Regeneration Aspirations for Euston: Local Perspectives on the High Speed Two Rail Link and is a volunteer at ASLAN.

Participatory Photography: a background

Laura JHirst20 January 2015

Image: Laura Hirst, 2014

While there exists a broad history of ‘participation’ in visual research methods, participatory photography or ‘photo voice’ has evolved as a specific participatory action research method for development, which involves providing (often marginalized groups of) people with cameras to record their realities and perspectives.

The process of taking photographs and subsequent group discussion amongst participants and researchers (which can take the form of storytelling, coding, explaining choices taken in making images) can provide new spaces for dialogue, exchange and knowledge production about personal and community issues. The following anecdote illustrates some of the potential of the method as a way of prompting reflexive discussions:

In 1973, while conducting a literacy project in a barrio in Lima, Peru, Paulo Freire and his colleagues asked people questions in Spanish, but distributed cameras and requested the answers in photographs. When the question ‘What is exploitation?’ was asked, some people took photos of a landlord, grocer, or a policeman. One child took a photo of a nail on a wall. Freire & Boal interpreted it as an abstract metaphor of the hard lives of children who worked long hours as shoe shiners, and had to walk long distances between home and the city.

The ensuing discussions revealed that as their shoe-shine boxes were too heavy for them to carry, these boys rented a nail on a wall, usually in a shop, where they could hang their boxes for the night. For them, that nail on the wall symbolised exploitation within their community. The photograph spurred widespread discussions in the Peruvian barrio about other forms of institutionalised exploitation, including ways to overcome them. [1]

In some cases the resulting photographs are themselves used as a powerful advocacy tool, attempting to inspire change through bringing stories and experiences to the attention of decision-makers and the wider public through campaigns and exhibitions.

As well as having roots in Freirean theories of conscientisation (where a critical awareness of one’s social reality is developed through both reflection and action), the method also draws from feminist theory which advocates research participants as actors rather than objects of study, and identifying the empowering potential of knowledge production for participants. [2]

In 2014, participatory photography was used as one of several research methods during fieldwork examining neighbourhood planning and urban governance in the city of Kisumu, Kenya, conducted as part of the MSc Social Development Practice fieldwork. Keep an eye out for future blog posts elaborating on how this was used in practice and reflections on its potential as a tool for empowerment and change in communities.

 

[1] From: Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper, ‘Photovoice Research’ in Participatory Visual and Digital Methods (Left Coast Press Inc, 2013): 69-89 and Singhal, A., L.M. Harter, K. Chitnis, and D. Sharma, 2007, Participatory Photography as Theory, Method and Praxis: Analyzing an Entertainment-Education Project in India. Critical Arts 21 (1): 212-227.

[2] Caroline Wang, ‘Photovoice: A Participatory Action Research Strategy Applied to Women’s Health’, Journal of Women’s Health, vol. 8, no. 2 (1999), 185-92.

 

Laura Hirst has been working as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice. She has recently left the DPU to join the DPU-ACHR-CAN intership programme in the Philippines where she will be working with community groups in Davao for the next 4-6 months.