The International Reporting Project took us to the Kibera slum today, everyone here says it's the largest slum in the world (though Wikipedia says it's third), and we heard presentations from youth groups, Doctors Without Borders, and others. We also broke into small groups and interviewed families -- we were free to ask anything we wanted -- about half of which were HIV positive.
It's hard to understand how many of them make it at all. Rent for a dirt-walled shack is 1500 shillings per month (the exchange rate is approximately 80 to 1 so this is around $18.75 per month). All of the people we talked to were casual laborers, and they found work when they could doing things such as knocking on doors and asking if people needed their clothes washed. But the income they bring home, at least as far as I could tell, was hardly enough to pay the rent, let alone buy food (many ate once per day, one woman said she waited until just before bedtime to feed her kids since they didn't sleep well if they were fed earlier).
As for infrastructure, they get water from the government twice per week, maybe (Tuesdays and Sundays). At other times they have to buy it. If they want to use anything but a hole in the ground to go to the bathroom, they must pay 10 shillings (only 6 toilets are plumbed for 1 million people, the sewage dumps into trenches running along the roads -- even the outhouses, a generous term for what they actually are -- were shared by 50 or more families).
Nevertheless, the economy was more vibrant than I expected. There is the small economy inside of the slum as they trade with each other, but more importantly there is a huge daily flow of people out of the slums to do work in the industrial and service sectors (mostly by foot, and they walk long ditances daily).
The money from working, when they can, comes back to the slums, but there are all sorts of corrupt institutions that take it right back out. Because of this, e.g. making slum residents pay exorbitant amounts for water and charging rent on land that is supposed to be free, the money they bring home (and money from aid programs, etc.) flows back out of the slum, and guess who loses on the exchange due to the unequal power relationships in every transaction they face? (When asked, they say the rent is for the structures, not the land, but one of the reporters on the trip made a good point -- how did the landlord get control of the land in the slum so that they could put these shacks on it? What power enforced and allowed them to control land that is supposed to be free? What corruption allows this?)
Another disappointment is that they seem to understand that schooling is one way out. I asked lots of kids this question in the home visits, and without prompting they all said school was their best hope (one 8 year old boy wanted to be a pilot). But school is not free, they must pay, so the kids only get spotty lessons here and there, if at all (there was some confusion here, some said elementary school was free, but most don't go in any case). There are a few schools run by NGOs, but the kids must perform well enough to be accepted and the need far outweighs the opportunity. Nevertheless, for those who do get in you could see that they looked healthier and happier, perhaps due in no small part to the fact that they are fed once a day at school (for one child we talked to, and surely more, that was pretty much it for the day).
One final observation. At first I thought the key to helping these people would be to create more jobs in the industrial sector -- to bring them regular, dependable incomes from this low-skill employment. There are also huge infrastructure needs that go unmet. For example, when asked why they only get water from the government twice per week, they answer that there's not enough water to serve all the slums every day, so the government must ration. But from what I understand, there's plenty of water, it's the infrastructure to supply it that is missing (a lot of water is diverted into flower production). So jobs and basic social services are a first priority.
But I'm starting to understand how corruption interferes with the development process. There are, for example, many phantom schools -- schools on the books that were paid for by government money, but the schools don't actually exist. The same is true for health clinics, and for other money intended to help the poor. So its easy to call for more social services, and the government sometimes answers, but how much of it reaches its intended destination? I don't know the exact figure, but it's nowhere near what's allocated from what I heard today (no politician has ever been jailed for corruption, there was one removed from office over corruption in school construction, he admitted the problem and repaid donors to compensate for what had been stolen, but the president reappointed him the next day so there was no real penalty even in this case).
It's been a long first day, and I haven't really had time to digest all of this -- it was a bit surreal and it never really hit me that I was in a slum in Kenya -- so these are just a few observations from the first day. Hopefully, the picture and the economics, cultural, and social forces driving all of this will clear up a bit over the next nine days.