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Battle For Kibera Taken to New York

Story by John Mbaria In New York
Publication Date: 04/25/2004

For the second day running, Kenya continued to attract global attention over its contradictory approach at addressing the plight of its urban poor.

On one side, delegates attending the 12th Session of Commission on Sustainable Development have repeatedly praised the unique partnership between the government of Finland and Kenya which saw the former forgive a $1.5 million (Ksh107 million) debt Kenya owed it on condition that the government availed a 100-acre piece of land to temporarily house Kibera residents as the slum was being upgraded. 

The first revelation of the swap, which took place close to a year ago, was made by the Director of Housing, Mrs Grace Wanyonyi, who told delegates that the government of Finland had agreed to forgive Kenya the debt after the latter identified the said land in Athi river. The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Natural Resources later reiterated this, Mrs Rachael Arunga who is heading the Kenyan delegation here.

But what the Kenyan delegation did not reveal here was that the swap became controversial after Kibera residents refused to be relocated fearing that they would lose the proximity they currently have to main employment areas in Nairobi - the Central Business District and Industrial area.

However, the swap has repeatedly received numerous praises by delegates who say it is a unique financing mechanism would go a long way in alleviating the sufferings slum dwellers go through. 

Many delegates have called for similar arrangements between developing countries and donors.

But hardly had the official Kenyan delegation settled to bask in the apparent limelight than the global audience was told of the sufferings that the recently shelved evictions and demolitions had caused to residents in a number of slums in Nairobi. 

The Director of Pamoja Trust, Ms Jane Weru, fired the first salvo.

In a moving speech, that received widespread ovation from the highly attentive audience, Ms Weru narrated how the Kenya Railways Corporation had decided, and gone ahead, to evict people living and doing business close to the rail line three months ago. 

"This was ostensibly done to improve Kenya’s infrastructure, but you cannot do this before improving the lives of the people" she said on Thursday afternoon. 

In what was seen here as a face-saving rejoinder, the government took to the floor today (i.e. Friday) to defend itself against Ms Weru’s criticism.

"The Kenya government gave the relevant residents notices and, even after doing this, we temporarily halted the evictions in order to reduce the effect on the residents" said Mrs Arunga.

The government’s plan of constructing 150,000 housing units in urban areas and improving an additional 300,000 units in rural areas each year, which Mrs Arunga had said was embedded in a Sessional Paper on National Housing Policy, has also been criticized by Kenyan-based Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) attending the conference. 

"Although the government has taken every opportunity to talk about this project, I am not aware of any budgetary allocation for it" said a housing policy expert, Mr Nicky Nzioki.

On her part, Ms Weru said; "it is not the role of government to build houses for Kenyans. In the contrary, the government must make the conditions right by addressing itself to what prevents the poor from building houses." As a starting point, Ms Weru said, the government must enable poor slum dwellers have access to land and to affordable credit.

But despite stating obvious weaknesses and contradictions in housing policy, the official Kenya government delegation has, over the last four days, made an impressive performance as a number of its statements have, on a number of occasions, been hailed as show cases by other delegations including the United States.

The two weeks global conference entered its fifth day today (i.e Friday) with calls been made on governments and NGOs to allow grassroots organizations of the poor to drive the process of uplifting their lives. 

A representative of the Indian-based Slum Dwellers International, Mr Joakin Apurtham, narrated to an attentive audience how the over 5 million slum and ‘pavement’ people of Mumbai city have, over the last decade, been involved in improving sanitation in the city. "As a result, slum dwellers themselves have so far designed and constructed over 8,000 public toilets."

Dubbed the 12th Session of Commission on Sustainable Development, the conference is meant to have delegates discuss the progress the world has made in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on water, sanitation and human settlements. 

The MDGs on the three issues were set following the adoption of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Among other things, MDGs target easing the suffering of at least 100 million slum residents by 2020 and on reducing the number of people experiencing absolute poverty by half before 2015.

However, the Conference was told that the world has not made much headway. For instance, the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, Mrs Anna Tibaijuka, said that the current population of 930 million people living in slums world wide will rise to more than 2 billion by the target year if the world does not act now to stem rising poverty.

Much of the discussions this week has seen technical teams from all the countries in the world make presentations on the performance of their countries in meeting MDGs and engage in lengthy discussions on what has hindered progress. 

Next week, the discussions will go to a higher level with ministers taking official proclamation and positions on the issues that were discussed by technical teams. 

Kenya’s Environment Minister, Dr Newton Kulundu, his Water Development counterpart, Ms Martha Karua and the Minister for Roads, Public Works and Housing, Mr Raila Odinga, are expected to represent Kenya.