The ‘biggest slum on earth’ show

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“The labelling of Kibera as “the biggest slum in Africa” is a slogan much used by the thousands of NGOs active in the area, with population figures quoted of around 1 million inhabitants. Whilst the Kibera Law Centre, the Kibera Foundation and “Kibera UK” all mention figures of around 1 million,  “Shining Hope for Communities” NGO thinks it is 1 million and a half. The fact of so many poor people vindicates the NGO activities and the projects and programmes: The more beneficiaries, the better.

“But it is inappropriate to say that it is a reality” say Amelie Desgroppes and Sophie Taupin in their report, Kibera: The Biggest Slum in Africa? They ascribe the high numbers as “legitimised by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the media and politicians,” but recognise that they are, actually, fiction.

A former official of the NGO WorldWatch, quoted in the Daily Nation was even more blunt: “The inflated (population) figures were not challenged perhaps because they were (…) useful to NGOs, which used them to shock charities and other do-gooders into donating more money to their projects in Kibera”.

Whilst there are in fact no reliable figures, some estimates seem to be based on some measure of reality. Kenya’s 2009 Census revealed 170,070 people residing in Kibera in that year. The French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA) and Keyobs, a Belgian company, used GIS technology and grand survey to place the figure at 200,000 in 2011.

The number of NGOs operating in the area is largely a matter of guesswork, too, but some reports indicate that Kibera has almost the highest NGO/population ratio in Africa. Karen Rothmeyer, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2011 claimed, “6,000 or more local and international NGOs were working there in 2011.” With a population of 200 000, that would be one NGO per 30 people.

“Obtaining donor funds is commonly the main reason behind the selling of poverty”, says Sophia Hernandez Reyna, of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, who researched the situation in Kibera.  She adds that the NGOs are almost like a parallel state: “Due to absence of a local government, international and national NGOs have taken over the place”.

Tragically, instead of delivering services that the Kenyan state neglects to deliver, the NGOs so far seem to do little more than sell Kibera’s poverty for their own good, in which sense they behave exactly like those Kenyan politicians who benefit from the upgrading projects. Reyna says, “Although there is a high per capita presence of well-funded NGOs in Kibera, there are no commensurate tangible developments on the ground.”

There was a bit of an outrage when an article, two years back, headlined that “Some NGOs in (Kibera) Nairobi had to pay locals to attend meetings,” and that these locals demanded “sitting allowances” of Sh100-Sh300 per house. It added that 4 out of 5 NGOs pay this, too.

And maybe there is a point in just giving money to the poor. Former Kenyan government permanent secretary for Information and Communication, Bitange Ndemo, once said that “If every shilling raised to alleviate poverty in Kibera were to be used for its intended purpose, every one of the close to 400,000 residents will be on a comfortable monthly salary for at least five years.”^

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