Thursday, June 3, 2010

What is community based development? Part I: Thoughts

At dinner with friends in Kisumu a few weeks ago, the conversation turned, as it often does, to development. Friend A, currently doing a Masters at University of Nairobi was rolling his eyes about the idea of community based development. Since I couldn’t really see a problem with the idea, I asked what he meant by community based development. Friend B answered that community based development is when an NGO comes in with an idea and then makes the community contribute to the project for free so that they are committed to its success. No, no, no, Friend A said, that’s not what community based development is. He continued, Ok, maybe that is what it is, but that’s not supposed to be what it is. It’s supposed to be when the development community supports things that are going on in the local community.

Well, that sounds great. So why the eye roll? Well, because the reality is closer to what Friend B’s definition than the textbook definition. Why is it so hard to make sure that the priorities of the development community are in line with the priorities of the beneficiaries of the program?

Ok, so in this blog I’m going to think about this abstractly, then in part two I’ll think about it using examples of community based development that I’ve seen in action to illustrate this further—I hope to look at community development gone wrong, and community development gone right (that’s us!).

There’re two ways to look at this abstractly—one is to think about development theory and one about the practical realities of operating an NGO.

Theory: Development had long been understood as economic development, even more specifically as the transition into an industrial economy. The idea that development should be based on something else—maybe on improving people’s lives, maybe on expanding people’s rights or choices—has gained credence in the past few decades, and most NGOs are dedicated to these types of outcomes rather than industrial development.

However, in any of these approaches, development is fundamentally about changing people’s traditional relationships and networks—either their relationship to labor, as in economic development, or to each other and their political system, in a rights- based approach. If this is the case, if development is about promoting widespread transition into a modern economy, political system, or even social relations, then it would seem a community-based development system is actually antithetical to the goal.

Of course, in most communities there will be community leaders who are actively engaged in promoting these same goals. Is community-based development, then, finding those individuals with whom you share ideals to work with? That’s largely how we started in Busia. Neither Ariel nor I were looking for a development project to support, but Maria inspired us, and we love libraries, so we decided to help and it grew from there. But let’s be honest: Had Maria been passionate about, I don’t know, promoting respect of ancestors (providing for ancestors came up a lot in the 1990s Voices of the Poor report, in which the World Bank tried to ascertain the priorities of those they had been trying to help), I doubt we would have been involved.

In one line, the point is this: When international actors are involved, real community based development occurs when there is a convergence of interests between the development practitioner and the local partners.

Practically (but still abstractly!):
Who are the main actors in these international projects? Well, ok, this is extremely simplified, but for most NGOs, it looks something like this:

Funders—International NGO team—Beneficiaries

In community-based development, the international NGO should sort of be considered an intermediary between the beneficiaries and the funders. Not only should the NGO interests and the beneficiaries’ interest align, they have to align with the funders, who are most likely private foundations or wealthy individuals in the Western countries. But how is that practically possible? In Busia, Maria’s Libraries has the advantage that I lived there for over a year before starting this project. If we want to move outside Busia, how can we recreate that?

I’ll revisit that tomorrow, but for now, let’s assume that the International NGO can’t be merely an intermediary between the beneficiaries and the funders—they have to be more proactive than that. They have to introduce themselves into a community and find the community members that they are interested in their idea—be it an income-generating activity, a cultural activity, a health intervention, or something like a library.

They further have to convince the international donors that the project is something they should be interested in. If the NGO is lucky, they’ll have a donor that is open to persuasion. More likely than not, though, they will have to convince the donor that the project is in line with the goals of the funder—for example, the goals have to be something that the Rockefeller family is already interested in, or priorities that Carnegie, long dead, had when he was alive. Not only do they have to convince the donor that it’s within their goals, but with the emphasis on community based development, the NGO has to convince the donor that the beneficiaries are committed to the idea. Thus, in essence, the NGO has to convince the donor that the community’s interests are in line with the donor interests. But, practically speaking, they have to do this in a context where they don’t necessarily know the community that well. If you wish to work in a lot of areas, or at a national level like Maria’s Libraries, you simply can’t know each area that well.

So, with this practical consideration, what is community based development? In a line, it is this: Community based development is getting beneficiaries to be committed to the project, in visible or measurable ways. This is fundamentally different from basing development on ideas that are generated from the community. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but how that measureable commitment is garnered needs to be designed well. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ode to Nairobi Part II: Development vs. Standard of Living?

In Nairobi about a week ago, I had wine with a group of professional women, primarily expats. They were wonderful, interesting, dynamic women. There was a rule at the event, no complaining about Kenya. Of course, everyone complained about Kenya anyway.

These ladies all lived in Nairobi, some of them had been here for decades, others were new or had been here in the 70s and recently returned. The complaints about Nairobi echoed my own in an earlier blog—traffic problems, mostly. Crime featured prominently as well. Those who had been living here for long noted that things were relatively safer, while those who were here in the 70s reminisced about days when Nairobi was more like Kampala or Dar in terms of safety. The declining quality of the train service since 1977 was also a recurrent theme.

The real issue, though, was traffic. And these ladies, who had much longer histories with the city than I have, told me something interesting. Namely, that traffic in Nairobi had increased drastically in the past 5 years. This was the crux of the complaint—that the standard of living in Nairobi had decreased alongside the increase in traffic. Everybody in Kenya—expat or citizen, blames everything on corruption. So the poor infrastructure in Nairobi, its inability to handle its traffic, is blamed on corruption, just like everything else is blamed on corruption.

However, I think that’s not quite right. The increase in traffic in Nairobi is not a sign of underdevelopment, actually, it’s a sign of development. And apparently of rapid development. If traffic was not this bad 5 years ago, it’s because fewer people had cars. So I’ll amend my earlier rant a bit with two caveats.

First, in subsequent conversations about the possibility of a subway in Nairobi, I realized that the New York City subway system is older than the city of Nairobi. Ok, so the point there is that Nairobi is a rapidly urbanizing place and keeping up with rapid urbanization is a problem anywhere in the world.

Second, these infrastructure problems should not be blamed on corruption. Sure, corruption doesn’t help, but if we expected countries to develop without corruption, no country anywhere would ever develop. Rather, these infrastructure problems are a problem of transition. The same problem exists in all rapidly developing or urbanizing places—Mexico City, Bangalore, Jakarta, and on and on. Countries with weak institutions always have trouble keeping up with quickly changing scenarios—that Nairobi is no exception should not be surprising.

Now on to crime. Well, crime is so complicated. My leap of faith in doing development has always been that I believe that gross inequality is wrong, so I’m going to point the finger at that—slums in Nairobi are not very far from some of the city’s riches areas (see Raila Odinga’s Langata constituency for one)—however, rising inequality does not necessarily mean that a country is stagnating; in fact it could mean that it is growing—although it may mean that growth is being mismanaged (maybe by government corruption, maybe by a rampant private sector, maybe both).

Ok, so if we posit that these problems are a sign of development rather than of underdevelopment, this leads me to a question that all those in the development world must tackle at some point: Can development be inimical to the quality of people’s lives? Of course, the obvious follow-up question is, whose life are you talking about? Is the headache of increased traffic for those who used to enjoy clear roads offset by the convenience for the new car owners?

At my last job at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, we framed our research around the question that encapsulates many of these paradoxes well: How can we promote the positive aspects of development while minimizing the negative impacts? That, of course, is the right question, but unpacking it may be impossible. Whose negative impacts and whose positive impacts? I certainly don’t know the answer.

In any case, I’m still going to be based in Kisumu and avoid Nairobi. But now I’ll have to give a proper thought for why I like it—personally, do I want it to develop and grow, to take full advantage of the opening up of the East African Community and get some industry and trade going across Lake Victoria with Uganda and Tanzania? Or do I want it to remain as is, so that I can ride my bike across town in 20 minutes, or walk to the shores of the lake to watch the sunset surrounded by greenery and flanked by exotic birds. What if they replace hippo point with a new ferry terminal? Or build a fish processing plant at Dunga Beach? Will that increase people’s standards of living? And whose standard of living will it increase?

Monday, March 29, 2010

What is it about libraries? Part II

Why are people so generous with their time and resources to help us out? As I mentioned, I’ve never had a response to a project that I’ve been working on like the one we are having with this library. A friend joked that it was because librarians are naturally helpful, and asking them for advice about libraries is something they’ve been waiting for their whole lives. But actually this is something a bit different—it’s not just librarians who are interested in this project, it’s everyone we tell about it.

Ariel and I like to quote Benjamin Franklin in our fundraising spiels. Franklin started the first library in America, saying it was essential for a democracy. We also like to quote Robert Putnam’s work on social capital, and the importance of public spaces. I think all of that is right, but I don’t think that people have primarily reacted to this project on an intellectual level. It’s been personal. So here is my hypothesis about why this project has been so universally appealing (and why so many people are putting themselves out for us!).

I’m going to posit a couple of answers. First, in the States, everyone understands the importance of libraries. We all have used them, and there are famous examples of writers who really developed their literary selves (and escaped poverty!) at public libraries—for me Jack Kerouac and Jack London stand out. We also probably all have some sort of personal connection to someone for whom access to libraries was or is life changing. For me, that person is my mother. She grew up in rural Louisiana and often got in trouble for reading in school during class—a joke among her siblings is to scream at each other “Quit reading!” DeQuincy, Louisiana was, and is, a typical American lower-class town where people were expected to end up not far from where they were. The library for my mother was a haven from her chaotic household, and a window to the outside world. My mother still considers the DeQuincy Public Library a sacred haven, a space that was actually home to her in her childhood. So this theory is safe public space cum gateway to another world.

I think stories like that resonate well with Americans, in a sense we have these stories in our blood. We may not explicitly realize it, but in America libraries are everywhere. I looked up the number of public libraries some time back to see how many libraries we would have to build in Kenya to equal the number per capita in the US. Taking into account the 54 Kenya National Library Services libraries, we would need to build over 2,000 libraries.

Given this dirth, I’m not sure if Kenyans have the same association with libraries that Americans who have universally had experiences with them have. However, the support here has at least matched the support we’ve had back at home. So there’s got to be something there. What is it?

Ok, so partially the public space thing is relevant. When we visit libraries here, they are full of people studying and reading newspapers. When I say full, I mean these libraries are clearly not big enough—they are chock full of people. These people may not be using the library to it’s full potential—I am told users are primarily studying for exams. But it’s a place to sit and read, and people need that.

But I think primarily the button that this pushes in both the US and Kenya is the same, and again it’s something different. This project inspires people’s imaginations—here, I’m not talking about any particular book. I’m talking about the idea of thousands of books, on all different topics, available to people for free. The possibilities are endless and you don’t have to think about any one thing to be inspired. That is the point, you think of millions of things, things you don’t even know to think about.

Whatever the reason that we’ve had so much positive response for this project, I love being a part of it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

What is it about libraries? Part I

I have worked on a lot of projects that I’ve been extremely enthusiastic about, and that other people have been excited about too. But I’ve never worked on something where the response has been quite so positive and overwhelming as this library project. People get excited about public libraries. In this blog, I’ll do a quick review of that excitement, from the experience that Ariel and I have had since founding Maria’s Libraries. In the next blog I’ll hypothesize about why.

In 2006 when I was living in Busia, I sent a note to some friends that there was a library that I wanted to help get books for. I clearly didn’t anticipate the response I was going to get, because when all the books came in, we had no idea how to get them over. In the end, my mother donated the inheritance money she got from my grandmother to ship them over.

In 2008 Ariel and I “launched” the idea of Maria’s Libraries as an organization at a dinner party at my apartment in Brooklyn. We invited a group of people we knew, socially conscious smart friends mostly, to ask them what, how and if we should start an organization. From that dinner party, we got a name, a website, two pro bono lawyers, two fundraising events, and more advice than I can easily describe.

Second, we solicited advice from other library NGOs working in resource poor settings, funders and US libraries. Everyone was perfectly happy to go over and above what we were requesting to help us—none of that competition that often plagues NGOs. We spent hours on the phone with Africa Soma, Friends of African Village Libraries, librarians from Columbia University, the American Library Association and the public library systems in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Rookaya Bawa from the Carnegie Corporation hosted us for breakfast at Carnegie. A whole team of librarians at Columbia University spent several hours filling my head with information and ideas. Students at Columbia’s Earth Institute talked to us about sustainable building. There was only one disappointing response, from a pretty major player in the world of developing libraries internationally, but we learned from their non- willingness to chat as well.

Through later conversations, a friend designed our logo, another friend re-did our website, a pediatrician is doing book collections at this office, we have books stored at friends’ tiny apartments all over New York City, as well as Texas, Maine and Philadelphia. Publishers have sent us books. The woman who runs the Library of Congress Nairobi office lets us stay with her when we are in Nairobi. An architect came over to coordinate the design process. We did spend a lot of time soliciting advice and assistance among our compatriots, but a great deal of what we’ve gotten has been people approaching us, wanting to offer their skills to their project.

And we have gotten all of this for astonishingly close to free.

So that’s in the US. In Kenya the response has also been overwhelming. We’ve been on the National News and the radio. Local publishers are excited to host us on their website, and community members in Busia are working very hard with no renumeration. When we sent out a notice to architects for tender, one of the responses was simply someone thanking us for the work we are doing—he was not interested in the tender. Perhaps most significantly is the telecommunications engineer has offered to hook up all the libraries that we work with for free, and when I was talking to him about the project, he got so excited that he offered to procure the funds for an entire new library in his home village of Ahero, which we are currently working with the Ahero town council to develop. I approached an organization called Kenya Book Foundation to tell him about the library, and he let me know that they sell books (and they're not that cheap, either), so I walked away disappointed. A few weeks, later, the man I talked to called me back, asking me when the Harambe in Busia was and berating me for not demanding donations (which, I am now led to believe, they will give). So the donation tracked me down. . .

I am forcing myself to stop—the list could go on and on, but I’m sensing it might get boring. All in all, the only real challenge that people throw at us about this project is the refrain that there is not a reading culture in Kenya. That discussion is always circular: why would you supply books when people don't read/ why would people read when there are no books. But even in the context of that discussion, people are enthusiastic about the project.

All that is a long way to lead up to the question: What is it about libraries? Why does it galvanize people in such positive ways? Your thoughts welcome!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Karibu Ellie and The Great Book Migration

We are very pleased to announce the arrival of Eleanor Kebabian to our lovely Busia-based team. Ellie is a Boston-based architect who has kindly offered to come and help coordinate get the plans drawn for the library in Busia. She will be working with Nairobi-based architects, the community members who have been active in the library project in Busia, and the Busia district and town planners to come up with a design that can be a source of pride for the Busia community (and which follows all Kenyan regulations!).

Ellie also joins the ranks of those who have lugged books half way across the world for us to the library. However, I think she single handedly doubled the contribution we had made to date by convincing Delta to allow her to bring 500 lbs of books on the plane with her for free! There’s a long list of people we have to thank for this, so let’s go in order:

Thanks to the many individuals, churches, and publishers who donated so many books.

Thanks to Ellie’s family for helping her pack the books and get them to the airport.

A HUGE thanks to Delta for agreeing to let her bring 300lbs on the airplane, and then not blinking when she showed up with 500lbs.

Thanks to the dudes at the airports in Boston and Nairobi for helping her lug them to/from baggage.

Thanks to the director of the Library of Congress’s Nairobi office for helping us arrange transport for the books once in Nairobi and for letting us crash at her house with all that luggage!

Thanks to Maria Wafula who used her wile to get them sent to Busia via Akamba bus for a ridiculously low cost.

Thanks to the boda bodas who loaded up their bikes to bring them from the bus station in Busia to the library (see photograph!).

And of course, thanks especially to Ellie for organizing all of this. The books are of unbelievable quality and range, any community anywhere would be lucky to have them.

Let’s review—for the well over 1,000 books (we are still catelogueing/counting them) Ellie brought to the library, we paid 700 Ksh (less than 10$) to ship them from Nairobi to Busia on Akamba bus and about 300 Ksh (less than 5$) to get them to the library once they were in Busia. An international team effort!

I hope Ellie will start to grace this blog with her thoughts, so keep an eye out for that!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Can local philanthropy work?

Libraries are not income generating. I remember as a child thinking that money generated by late fines were what sustained my local library. The idea amazed me and for good reason—ensuring library use is truly public means that there’s no way that fees from users can sustain the library. Any publicly funded enterprise requires a tricky balance between sustainability and access. This has been something we have come up against time and time again when trying to figure out a sustainability plan. Of course, public funding and attaching something to the library plot like an office complex or a row of shops can go a long way to fund the library’s activities. But for it to truly be able to grow, we suspect that the library services in Kenya can take a page out of the book of library networks in other parts of the world: they need a philanthropic network. Of course, in essence Maria’s Libraries is a philanthropic network, funneling international funding into these projects. But does Kenya really have to rely solely on the notoriously fickle flow of funding from abroad? Is it possible to raise funds locally?

We think that a philanthropic network is possible in Kenya. A sustained effort at funding an ongoing project might be a bit foreign to Kenya outside its churches, but there certainly is a tradition for raising money. Usually, fundraisers are organized in parties called Harambe. People pledge money to help an individual put up a house, help a church buy a motorbike, send a child to school in Kenya or even in America, and quite often to pay for funerals. What we are trying to do is somewhat different—we want funds to build the library, but we also want people to consider contributing every year to help sustain the library. This is not a one-off enterprise, it requires a commitment for as long as the library is in existence.

So we’re going to try it. We have several plans. First, we are having a Harambe on April 3 in Busia. Maria and co are asking Busia-ites to buy bricks (which go for 10 Kenyan shillings, or about 14 cents each) for the building and to bring books to the Harambe to donate to the library. They’re asking individuals but we’re also approaching small self-help and micro finance groups that may have trouble contributing individually but as a group can make a contribution. Second, we’re going to do something similar in Nairobi, organized by the Friends of the Busia Community Library in Nairobi, a group of professionals who live in Nairobi but are from Busia. Finally, we hope to get the Kenyan diaspora involved if we can.

I do sometimes wonder if there are ethical issues involved here. Busia is a poor community—according to government statistics, 65% of the population is in absolute poverty, defined as less than a dollar a day. Do we really need their money? I have trouble with projects that require a certain amount of labor from the local community to “prove” their commitment and create a sense of ownership over the project. I don’t feel the community has anything to prove—the support from Kenyans all over the country has been overwhelming. I know they want libraries, especially in Busia where dozens of people attend our planning meetings, the local politicians make speeches on our behalf, and a team of volunteers had kept the library open with regular hours for 7 months and counting with no renumeration. I do agree that a sense of ownership over the library will make people value it more, and I hope they honestly feel it’s their library (the slogan for our fundraiser in Busia is: It’s your Library!). But actually, we probably could raise the money entirely outside the country with less difficulty than a fundraiser here is causing us. And, although there are relatively wealthy people in Busia, for the most part the donors in America would feel it much less than here.

But we hope that people get used to donating to the library. Of course they understand that funding needs to come from somewhere, but we hope that they connect it to themselves. And who knows, maybe we will raise a truly significant amount of money for the library. Watch this space, will report back!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What should we think of the Kenyan government? Part III

Yesterday, I went to Busia’s District Development Committee meeting with Maria and a few others from the library. We presented our project to the Committee, which consists of all relevant government and civil society bodies in the region. Maria was nervous for the day, saying that it was the forum for securing local political support for the project.

The District Commissioner opened the meeting with a prayer, saying he hoped that the group could leave Busia better than they found it. In his opening remarks, he noted that an NGO was present. He thanked us for being there, saying that Busia is completely saturated with NGOs but they rarely tell the Committee or even just him, the District Commissioner, what they were doing. It makes it difficult, he said, to manage development in the region, since local government initiatives might be overlapping or even contradicting what the NGOs were doing. What better anecdote to start a consideration of how we should interact with government at all levels that to consider that thought.

The truth is, parts of the government are corrupt and inept, for a variety of reasons, not all of them in the control of any particular individual. But that doesn’t matter. Non governmental organization may exist to supplement what governments are able to do. But they are not supposed to replace or exclude government—by including them, problems and all, NGOs can support the development of political systems in addition to their primary work. For example, governments can consider how their programs can be more effective based on how they can positively interact with NGOs. In my small experience in Busia, they are happy to do so.

At the same time, however, we want our project to run as smoothly as possible, without lengthy delays that might result from relying on government. So how do we marry these two?

First, there are different arms of government. Kenya National Library Services is a parastatal, which has the capacity to manage the library and a proven effectiveness at doing so. We are thrilled to be working with them, and hope that the local communities concerns can be successfully integrated with KNLS guidelines (more on that in future blogs!).

With local government, Maria has faced many disappointments, some of which I’ve outlined in the past few blogs. Promised Community Development Funds have never materialized, land politics have abounded and seemingly arbitrary boundaries have complicated the “public” nature of the library. However, at the same time the mayor, town council members, and other local politicians have all pledged their support and we see no reason to keep them out. How we will integrate them, though, will be critical to our timeline. We’ve decided that we do want community development funds—this type of project is exactly what they were created to fund. However, we’re not going to wait for them to start building. Instead, we’ll ask for something that could greatly enhance the library’s functionality, but won’t hold us back if it doesn’t come through in a timely manner. In particular, we’re asking members of parliament from both sides of Busia’s road for a vehicle for a mobile library. We could run several programs for communities in areas that have trouble travelling to Busia, like computer training classes, writing contests, programs to develop research skills, and book loans. But if it takes 3 years to go through, we can carry on with our other activities without worrying. This way, we both make this a government project and avoid many of the fall-backs that working with government can entail.

I don’t see any reason to try to avoid working with government, though at times it can be frustrating. Over time, we can build successful relationships and hopefully strengthen the capacity of those who are charged with leaving Busia a better place than they found it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What should we think of Kenyan government part II: Tribalism and politics

In my last blog, I offered our land dilemma in Busia as an example of the complicated relationship between corruption and good governance. Today’s example is somewhat different. It’s less clearly a case of corruption as in the land example, and more a case of political patronage or tribalism. It’s also probably a story that’s not quite over yet.

Kenya is governed in administrative districts, and there are smaller units within those districts called divisions. There is one Member of Parliament per district, and the number and boundaries of districts are therefore a subject of contentious political debate. The districts were recently redrawn, and may once again be redrawn in the new constitution that is currently being developed in Kenyan parliament.

The town of Busia is somewhat unhelpfully located between two districts. Busia township lies along a road that runs from the coast into Uganda and Congo. That road is the only paved road in Busia, and the town has largely developed on either side of the road. However, the road is also the district boundary. One side of that road is Nambale District (largely inhabited by the Luhya people) and the other side of that road is Teso District (largely inhabited by the Teso people). This means there are two Members of Parliament who represent Busia. One might think that is a good thing, but it introduces a great deal of politics into the way the town develops. Many Busia-ites think of the town as one entity, but since public resources are allocated according to that boundary, for some crucial purposes many think of it according to the political boundary. For example, the Nambale district headquarters are located on the Teso district side of the road—they were built in a time when there were different boundaries. The MP from Teso only half-jokingly told me that the entire Nambale District administration was squatting in his district.

How does this relate to the library? Another piece of Kenya- specific administration is necessary here. Some years back, the national government created a decentralized fund in order to promote local development called the Community Development Funds (CDF funds). These funds are administered at the district level. They have been subject to charges of rampant corruption and all of that—this will be the incorporated into my next blog, so for now I’ll leave a fuller discussion of CDF funds aside. The MP from Teso is very approachable and comes to Busia every weekend to meet with his constituents. The MP from Nambale is less so, and despite our efforts we have not been able to meet with him.

When we talked to the MP from Teso, he was excited about the library. He was full of ideas and was thinking about plots of land in his district that he could set aside for the library. When we told him that we were trying to get the title deed for the KNLS plot of land, which is on the Nambale side of the road, his attitude changed completely. “Oh,” he said, slowly shaking his head, “I can’t help you if you build there.” Maria reminded him that this is a community library, it’s not for any particular group and Teso will benefit just as much as all other parts of the larger Busia community. The MP was apologetic, but, he said, it doesn’t matter. If he allocates one single shilling to that side of the road, his Teso constituency won’t elect him again--why should "they" (the Luhya) benefit? He was quite frank about it and I respected his candid comments. He said he’d help us in other ways, using his political influence to push the land issue (before we had it settled) or think about ways to work with the MP for Nambale. But he could not openly support a community library located 50 meters from the Teso District boundary.

Again, we face a paradox. Clearly the MP's refusal to openly support anything on the wrong side of the street is anti-development. Is this an example of patronage, even a sort of tribalism since the Teso people are technically different than the largely Luhya Nambale? Or is this political reality? The administrative units are poorly drawn, yet this sort of democracy is really set up to be a patronage or tribalist system—and it’s based largely on the US system, with a legal code largely inherited from the UK. I have no reason to doubt that the MP from Teso is committed to the idea of the library. But what can he do to help? His incentive is to be re-elected, and a certain form of tribalism is necessary for that. I guess it’s not so different than Iowa Senators who advocate for agribusiness or Virginia Senators who can’t get over coal.

Can this be related to the 2007 stolen election and resulting violence that exploded largely on tribal lines? Of course there's no easy parallels, but at the same time how can it not be related? If political boundaries are drawn around tribal lines, than the politically disenfranchised will also be drawn around tribal lines.

As I said, the story of the MPs and the library in Busia is probably not over yet. I still hope to meet the MP from the other side of the street, and I still hope that we are able to work with both of them. Watch this space.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What should we think of Kenyan government part I: Land and corruption

The other day I wrote about how Nairobi’s bad rep. Now on to the Kenyan government’s bad rep.

There is definitely corruption in the Kenyan government. Aside from the very dramatic election scandals in 2007, the corruption here is in many ways out of control. The Anglo Leasing case in the 1990s, in which the government poured millions if not billions of shillings into a company that did not exist, is a particularly key example. John Githongo, the government minister in charge of investigating corruption, was rewarded with exile for his integrity.

However, I would like to submit that all that, true as it may be, does not equate to a government that is not invested in making things better for its people. On paper it may certainly look that way, but through this project I’ve had the opportunity to work with government and quasi-governmental organizations at local and national levels. It’s a hard thing to get one’s head around— that being corrupt and working for the betterment of your people are not mutually exclusive. But the truth is, in my experience, government officials care about improving the lot of their constituencies and of Kenya as a whole and, further, they are interested in doing a good job in their positions.

I could wax on about my experiences with Kenyan government, but I will illustrate with two installments of examples, one now and one in tomorrrow’s blog post.

First, land. Oh, land. Land is contentious in many African countries, and title deeds to the same piece of property are on occasion held by more than one party. When Ariel and I were here in July, almost 7 months ago, we met with the town planner, city council, mayor and all relevant city government officials. We were promised land, a big plot out by the hospital, and we were over the moon. This meant that we had two parcels of land to choose from, the KNLS-owned plot in town, and a bigger plot a bit outside of town. When I arrived in January, I accidentally ran into many of these same politicians when I was visiting the Member of Parliament for one of the Busia Districts. We decided to have lunch together, and when we sat down, I asked them about the land. In the nearly 7 months since we had been gone, nothing had happened to further the process. The town planner, the mayor and their ilk had an almost identical discussion about land that they had had when we were here in July. They were excited about the library, they were excited about it being built while they were in office and sending their children there to read and all of that. But ultimately I didn't know what to think. Were they stringing us along or were they going to commit a piece of land? If they committed a piece of land, how would we know if it had previously been committed to someone else?

Also at lunch, the plot of land that was held by Kenya National Library Services was discussed. Er, the local politicians said, there may be problems with that land as well. The title deed in the Busia files had “disappeared” and another government agency, the Agro-forestry Unit, had paid all fees on the land up to now.

I was furious, I almost got up and left the lunch. They were telling us that they had re-sold KNLS’s land without letting KNLS know. I held it in through lunch, though, and devised a scheme with Maria whereby Maria’s Libraries would play “bad cop” and threaten to build the library in another community if they didn’t get their act together.

I stand by that scheme. However, I began to think about Mushtaq Khan, a British scholar who makes a distinction between good corruption and bad corruption. He attempts to show the function of some type of corruption, so I start to wonder if this form of corruption served any purpose.

Well, in way it does. Kenya National Library Services had owned that land since 1994 and they have never made any indication that they were going to use it. Fifteen years after they acquired it, a foreign donor (us) randomly showed up wanting to build. Unused land in such a prime location is a public bad. In many countries, there are ways of dealing with unused land. In London, squatting is legal, and if the owner of the property doesn’t do anything with it for 7 years, the squatters legally own it. In many countries, there is an unused land tax. Imagine what would happen to an abandoned lot in, for example, Manhattan! It would not last long, but there would be mechanisms in place to legally extract it from the owner. In Kenya those mechanisms don’t exist so the local politicians did the same thing, illegally.

Ok, so I can be sympathetic to what the local politicians have done. But that doesn’t mean we should give up that land. Legally, KNLS owns it. The local town council could make it up to us by giving us another plot of land, but what if that was legally owned by someone else that hadn’t figured out what to do with it? Much as I might think Kenyan laws might want to have a mechanism to deal with unused land, the only way for us to operate that will not ultimately get us into trouble later on is to operate to the letter of the law, inconvenient as it might be. Richard Atuti, the new director of KNLS, told me he would fight for the land. He seemed to have read the skepticism on my face when he unequivocally told me that in Kenya, if you can trace your right to the land, the deed will only go to you.

And he was right. I told him we would of course need copies of all the documentation that KNLS owned the land before we could start to plan building the library. A week later, Richard called me and said he was sending a package for me via Akamba bus to be picked up in Kisumu that included all of the necessary documents. That was yesterday, and I will be bringing it to Busia tomorrow.

Score one for the rule of law.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ode to Nairobi

Nairobi largely gets a bad rep. I remember the first time I arrived in Nairobi, my head filled with knowledge of its violent reputation, I was increasingly terrified with every step I took off the plane. A woman who worked in the airport must have seen my fear, because she got me a taxi and actually took it with me into town, pointing out all the hotels and nice, modern things that Nairobi has to offer. She walked me into the hotel, told me not to leave until morning, but then during the day, she added, feel free to walk around the city, and went back to the airport. Now I know that even in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, it’s ok to walk around during the day. There is considerable risk at night and of course during occasional violent rallies, for both Kenyans and visitors, but during the day you are probably safer in Nairobi than you are in, say, some parts of New Orleans.

So although this is still a dangerous city, the days of “Nairobbery” are largely over. That said, it’s not exactly a pleasant city either. One day it will be—with all those glorious trees and huge forests and parks interspersed throughout the city, it must be one of the greenest cities on earth. If only you could breathe to enjoy it! The pollution, mostly from unregulated exhaust fumes, makes walking around the city literally a sickening affair. Also, in my week here, there's only one day where I've scheduled more than one meeting in a day and I worry I won’t make them both, even though they are pretty close to each other. Traffic. A large part of each day in Nairobi is spent on matatus, 14-seater Nissan vans that constitute the public transportation system. A 7 mile drive takes at least an hour, more likely an hour and a half. Sitting in traffic at the best of times is a pain, but in the midst of the horrible exhaust from Matatus, huge lorries, cars and the occasional tractor, I think it constitutes a public health problem.

One little subway, Nairobi, that’s what you need, one little subway. Kenya could probably find the money in its own government coffers if it wanted. It also would be a great project for a foreign donor, even if the project is rife with potential for corruption. It makes me sympathetic to all those politicians in Western Kenya who think all this funding for human rights is crazy and a little hilarious-- they don't understand what it means to fund human rights, but they understand what it means to have poor road systems and a shortage in medications. C'mon World Bank, or newly arrived masses of Chinese donors, build a subway in Nairobi!

I explained to a taxi driver the subway system in New York and he was very thoughtful about it for a minute and then said slowly, “The problem is, that would require planning.” Well, ok, until then I’ll stay in Kisumu.