Just spent a fascinating week in Nairobi, taking part in a review of our three-year- old urban programme there. Like many large development NGOs, Oxfam  is deeply rural – goats, irrigation, drought, that kind of thing - but the world has gone urban, and so in a few countries, we are dipping our organizational toes in the water. Some impressions on the challenges of urban work:
Perhaps most striking are the multiple centres of power and association compared to the rural world. Tier upon tier of government, dense networks of clubs, traditional and tribal structures and militia, social and community organizations, churches, ‘merry-go-round’ savings and loans groups, youth groups, sports clubs, cultural groups – the list is endless. Power is dispersed and often hard to map or even detect. How to chart a way through the forest of organizations and identify potential partners and targets for influence?
A lot of official aid goes to the ‘capacity building’ of officials and promotes legal reforms to improve the ‘enabling environment’ for business. The assumption is that the state wants to help, and just needs more support. But what if the disabling environment matters more? Street traders say that when you try to start a business, a previously absent state appears, and not in a good way: ‘suddenly, all the officials arrive, asking for bribes’. Every bylaw is an excuse for graft. ‘You need a lot of blessings to open a kiosk, our elders need to be smiled at’- Kenya is full of euphemisms for graft.
Once you set up your market stall, you face arrests, confiscations, fines and sexual harassment. The key seems to be organization, so Oxfam is funding an ‘access to justice’ programme that builds small trader associations, and works to improve relations between them and the local authorities and police. Experiments like ipaidabribe.com  may also be worth trying, although no Kenyan activists I spoke to had heard of it.
There is a wider point here. When the authorities are seen as a threat ( ‘I can’t remember a time when they came and said ‘we want to help you’’) there is a temptation for donors, NGOs and community organizations to seek to build movements that bypass the state, emphasising self-regulation and ‘popular justice’. But that is probably short sighted – state-building will eventually have to take place, and there is a window of opportunity for that in Kenya right now. Following the appalling violence  that took 1,500 lives after the 2007 elections, a new constitution  was overwhelmingly approved in August 2010. According to one optimistic community organizer in the Mukuru slum this is a turning point ‘before it was all ‘once I’m elected, I’m the boss – I don’t have to listen to anyone’. Now that’s changing, knowledge of rights scares the people in power. The rule of law is getting better.’
But patronage is deeply rooted in Kenya, where every conversation rapidly morphs from challenges to policies to politics to personalities – who you know, who’s doing what to whom, who controls which fund. Gossip, scandal and politics are inseparable. More concretely, getting policies implemented, or changing them, is all about working connections and building alliances. Grassroots leaders rapidly enter that world if they want to deliver any progress for their supporters.
After 2007, few think overtly confrontational approaches such as street protests will bring anything but disaster, and any idea of building up an autonomous change movement outside this system seems very implausible, so how can the new constitution be used to create space for citizens (especially marginalized groups such as women and youth) to organize around collective issues? How far can they go before the system discerns a threat and cooption, corruption and repression ensue? These are legitimate worries, but for the moment, changing the system from within to build something approaching an effective state seems both more promising than a more outsider approach and less fraught with danger. So it seems likely that over the coming years, we will devote more of our limited resources to seizing the opportunities presented by the new constitution. If that fails, then I guess we’ll have to rethink.
This is a shorter version of a post appearing on Duncan’s From Poverty to Power blog .
Picture credit: Duncan Green, Oxfam