In these times of financial turmoil, it is natural to question government spending and examine how our limited resources can be best put to use. Overseas aid budgets have come under intense scrutiny from citizens of countries the world over, with some people preferring that we cease all aid in favor of spending on domestic projects during this cash-strapped period—the “charity begins at home” outlook.
Many others recognize the importance of aid to the world’s poorest, whether for reasons of social justice, compassion, or diplomacy. Amidst all the voices and opinions, I have noted the growing unease and at times, cynicism, that people have about aid and its efficacy. “We give and give, but nothing ever changes” is a phrase I have often heard.
Implicit in this unease is the notion that the world’s poor are simply recipients, simply needy, waiting to be led out of poverty. What we do not see represented as often is the tireless commitment and dogged determination of communities and of average community members to improve their lives, to increase their opportunities, their access to jobs, healthcare, and education.
On a recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya, I was fortunate to see the very real and powerful will of local people to solve problems and escape poverty. The Mukuru slum in the eastern part of Nairobi is home to over 100,000 people. Off several roads, row after row of corrugated iron and wooden shacks are crisscrossed with winding dirt lanes no more than a few feet wide. My colleagues from Concern Worldwide and our local partner organization, the Mukuru Slum Development Project, and I walked through the maze of paths, hopping over open, murky trenches filled with waste water and sewage until we reached a shed about the size of a classroom.
We were going to meet a group of residents from the Hazina and Kisii neighborhoods of Mukuru who had gathered to form the Haki Community Conversation. Inside the muggy, dimly lit room squeezed 40 men and women, old and young, many with young children sitting on their laps. Everyone was meeting for one reason: to address local issues with local ingenuity. Used in many countries and contexts, Community Conversations are just that—meetings where people can talk about, and work to solve, the immediate challenges in their community.
The meeting started with announcements from various attendees, addressing issues that had come to light since the last meeting, such as fire safety and domestic violence. The floor then opened for anyone to raise topics that were of interest to them. One woman stood, swaddling a child in a brightly colored shawl, and asked where she could access maternity services. Thankfully, the Haki Community Conversation already has a working solution in place. It identifies pregnant women and informs them of where and how to get maternity treatment vouchers, enabling them to access free medical care during their pregnancy.
An old woman, wiry and sharp, rose next. She talked about the children who are not attending school and asked what could be done. This is an area where the Community Conversation has already seen great success. Together with other Community Conversations in the slum, they lobby local schools to take children who are not in school at a lower fee. Whether the child is not in school because they are an orphan, their parents can’t afford school fees, or is simply not encouraged to pursue an education, the Community Conversation can pool the resources they have to help with the fee and can work with schools and parents to develop sustainable payment plans. Outside of ensuring school fees are met, the Community Conversation also follows up later to ensure the child is regularly attending class.
I also learned that, when the Haki Community Conversation first came together, some of the most pressing problems they identified were unemployment and access to toilets. Utilizing a small grant and the accumulation of group member “dues” of 20 Kenyan shillings (less than $0.25) at each meeting, they bought materials to construct latrines and hired skilled members of the community to build them, creating both jobs and toilets at the same time.
A similarly elegant solution was employed in their collective response to the lack of waste disposal. The group linked with a local youth project, and enlisted young people to do weekly collections for the community. Families paid 10 shillings ($0.10) per collection, businesses paid 20 shillings (less than $0.25), and the money was put back into youth activities in the area.
Increasingly, the Community Conversations approach is being used as part of the wider approach to development due to its efficacy in tackling the root causes of poverty on a local level. Concern Worldwide, working through local partners, was the first to support and develop this approach in Mukuru, and others are following suit in light of the clear results they are achieving.
In thinking about aid, it’s often easier to envision large-scale efforts, to the thousands, even millions, of people who benefit from development and humanitarian programs. I was delighted to see that the flow of aid from donor to individual is actually much more direct and that one can see, in very real ways, how a person in need is benefitting. The groups are run by three facilitators who are paid less than $3 per month, and there are around 20 Community Conversations in Mukuru, each fulfilling a similar role. These groups provide massive returns for very little investment.
But the real advantage is the power they give to the community, which has great ideas but otherwise no channel to push for change. We think of slums as dank, hopeless places, but standing in the midst of the Community Conversation I found enough wisdom, passion, humor, intelligence, and self-determination to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.
This is development in action, facilitated by donors, but led by the poorest people. I found myself thinking of those at home who rightly lament our diminishing healthcare, education, and employment opportunities, but see the solution as closing ranks and cutting out our aid spend. Instead, I would love to see those same people taking inspiration from the Nairobi slums and come together to tackle the problems in our own communities with equal grace and energy.