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.