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Resisting Participation, Renegotiating Slum Upgrading Through Resistance


Slum upgrading is a policy that has been championed all throughout the global south with little hinderance. Much of the “success” behind slum upgrading is that it has been carried out in participatory manners. Contrary to what many institutions believe, academia has shown how participatory politics often serves to close debate and reduce accountability surrounding the implementation of large scale infrastructure projects. In the case of Nairobi, many of these participatory bodies are coopted by the local “elites”.

As a result, many of the intended beneficiaries of slum upgrading are excluded from the project, especially the tenant category of slum dwellers. However, much of the discontent with slum upgrading is never heard beyond the confines of the local community. This report provides a preliminary look at local forms of resistance and whether or not resistance can offer a viable alternative for many of the slum-dwellers excluded from slum upgrading.


First and foremost, I would like to thank the International Alliance of Inhabitants, especially Cesare Ottolini, for having given me this opportunity to apply much of the work I had done during my Masters. I would also like to thank Jean-Fabien Steck for having guided me through this process. Nonetheless, this report would not have been possible without the ceaseless help and support from Wilfred Olal. Equally, I would like to infinitely thank Kennedy Chindi, Ben Ooko and Martin Ndungu for being available to help and guide throughout the entire process. Without their dedication, advice and encouragement I would not have been able to reach the level of analysis this report has provided. Lastly, I would like to thank David Mwaniki, Humphrey Otieno, Tom Mboya, Brian Inganga, Peter Nyagesera and all the other residents of Nairobi I had the chance to interview.

The R-Existences: lessons from the slums of Nairobi

Cesare Ottolini*

The opposition to small/large projects for building infrastructure, modernization, expanding cities or densifying neighborhoods are, very often, presented by mainstream media as a refusal of progress, the desire to preserve minor privileges or sterile claims of human rights, unable to produce urban and housing policies capable of addressing the immense housing and urban problems affecting more than 1.5 billion people worldwide.

Research that digs deep to grasp the reality of resistance to evictions

This research, carried out as part of the collaboration between Sciences Politiques Paris, the Urban School, Governing the Large Metropolis and the International Alliance of Inhabitants, aimed to dig deep and understand what really happens behind the meta data, who the social and institutional protagonists on the ground are, the nature of the conflicts and what proposals they produce.

Brice Jacquemin spent several months in 2018 in Nairobi, under the supervision of Jean-Fabien Steck and with myself coordinating, looking for real answers in a specific territory, taking for granted neither the official reading nor the superficial interpretation of episodes of resistance, questioning the protagonists on both sides and comparing the answers with the scientific literature on the topic.

Starting with a specific and archetypal case, the idea was to go deeply into the roots of the arguments used by the mainstream media, supported by scientific research, demonstrating that more than half of the world's population now lives now in cities. However, the same media makes an incomprehensible logical leap: that only the implemented policies of the New Urban Agenda are considered, expected and unchangeable. These arguments seem to consider the trend of urbanization of the entire human population as unstoppable, unavoidable, and do not question the role of cities and public-private partnerships in supporting this limitless development.

In so far as the human factor is considered by this dominant approach, inhabitants are often seen by the authorities in charge of development as a dependent variable, i.e. one of the pillars of neoliberal and capitalist policies founded, precisely, on the continuous reproduction of capital: in the case of a road project or a tourist settlement, the inhabitants must be moved if they are in the way, without any possibility of challenging the path of the road or the priority given to hotels or other infrastructure projects compared to pre-existing housing settlements.

In other words, the inhabitants are considered as the dried leaves, covered over by the new seasons, or referred to as illegal and therefore to be swept away, often without any warning or adequate compensation. Even when housing solutions are offered, they are almost always unsustainable economically or socially and very rarely respect human rights as defined by General Comments no. 4[1] , no. 7[2]  and no. 24[3]  of the ICESCR UN Committee.

There are several levels involved in achieving the goal of marginalizing and trivializing the side effects of urban development, particularly evictions.

On a scientific level, by eliminating the "evictions" indicator from the UN Slum Index, resulting in a lack of collected data and therefore no official quantification of evictions. Another step on the path to officially overlooking evictions was the dissolution of the Advisory Group on Forced Evictions by UN Habitat, which, until 2009, analyzed and offered solutions to cases, often difficult, for the different stakeholders, providing an overview.

This push to ignore reality has led to inhabitants’ resistance being presented as residual, anti-historical, or an expression of partisan and/or criminal interests. On this basis, the resistance movements are easier to isolate, and therefore easier to attack by means of the police and the courts, with bulldozers and fires.

On a more sophisticated level, responding to the apparent standards of the politically correct, resistance movements are disempowered by so-called "participatory slum upgrading", the approach adopted by UN Habitat and the World Bank to promote resilience with most NGOs operating on the ground remaining neutral, if not supportive.

Slum-upgrading alternatives to evictions do exist

Are we sure that this is the reality and that these are the right paths to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 11: making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable?

Or are there alternatives which, respecting human rights and with the participation of inhabitants, even that expressed through resistance, will indicate more just and effective policies in the short, medium and long term?

In 2004, the International Alliance of Inhabitants, together with the popular organizations of Nairobi, in particular the Kutoka Parish Network with the support of the Comboni Missionaries, W Nairobi W![4] , launched one of the most successful Zero Evictions Campaigns to support resistance against the evictions of around 300,000 slum inhabitants.

The stated aims of the evictions, to secure the inhabitants of areas at risk and to redefine the road structure, although understandable, were unacceptable, mainly because the practical application would have led to the eradication of entire communities and pushed the poor even further to the margins, thus creating new slums.

Thanks to incredible local and international mobilization, the battle was won and the evictions were blocked. The next stage of the campaign took on a radically innovative character because it proposed to improve the slums with the participation of the inhabitants and use of financial resources freed by the cancellation of Kenya’s sovereign debt.

The proposal was so innovative that, at the beginning, neither the Kenyan government nor the NGOs operating on the ground agreed with it. But local and international mobilization succeeded in bringing the parties to sign an historic agreement: the total cancellation of Kenya's debt with Italy in exchange of participatory social policies, particularly the improvement of the Korogocho slum, where everything began.

The evictions have recently resumed, this time with more emphasis on building the road infrastructure that the city needs, as in the case of the Kibera-Langata road project that is literally splitting this slum, one of the most populated in the world.

So we wanted to know what had happened in the meantime. On the one hand, we wanted to lend a hand to the popular organizations that were sounding the alarm, particularly Bunge La Mwananchi and People Settlement Network, and help define an effective strategy for resistance actions.

On the other hand, we also wanted to try and draw conclusions of a more general nature, to be included in the training and capacity-building of people’s leaders in conducting Zero Evictions Campaigns in Africa and other regions of the world.

Some useful elements for building concrete, less evident answers: the R-Existences

Based on these premises, together with the author of the research we defined its aims, identified the slums to be investigated (Korogocho, Huruma and Kibera) and the living sources to draw on for information, and agreed on the participatory methodology.

The author has enriched the research by including the scientific literature on the subject, providing a framework of references, including theoretical, relating to the analysis of slums and strategies of resistance in comparison to strategies of resilience.

The author spent several months traveling through various slums, meeting the protagonists of the struggles and the institutional leaders responsible for political choices, taking part in the meetings and the various activities, and enjoying a privileged point of view, internal and external at the same time, indispensable to the analysis.

He draws on this experience to propose a number of useful elements for building concrete, less evident answers.

The research has thus been able to explore, among other things, the reasons why the W Nairobi campaign's victories have been compromised by some political choices, such as the choice of providing individual title deeds rather than collective ownership, which has undermined the social sustainability of the slum-improvement process. He shows how some choices are justified, partly by the social conditions at the outset, i.e. 80% of Korogocho inhabitants were tenants of the owners of the housing, but also because institutions and many NGOs supported resilience policies.

To trace the line leading to the present day, the research has analyzed who is driving resistance to the Kibera Langata Road project and how, as well as what point it could reach under current conditions.

The study draws a conclusion that is not straightforward, but the research effectively provides elements for analysis and reflection which need to be shared to help bring together the struggles of individual organizations, an essential spur to enhancing joint strategies, and to present the resistance movements’ proposals as credible alternatives, capable of mobilizing and having an impact.

Instead of the "efficient dictatorship" of practiced, no-limits developmentalism, resistance should therefore be considered as a valuable tool, provided by popular organizations for real "participatory slum upgrading".

By viewing it in this way, we could try to reconcile, through alternative and appropriate policies, the top-down approach and the bottom-up mechanism.

It is now up to popular organizations to study this research carefully, to help others in their own territory to understand what is really happening, the weaknesses and the potential. In this way, the claims of resistance can be supported, including the underlying struggle of an ideal and political nature, including with the support of scientific evidence.

We can thus work on the unity and impact of resistance struggles.

We can also make it clear to decision-makers that the resistance movements should be seen as offering added value and merit priority attention in all the slum-upgrading processes, not to be crushed or rendered impotent, but to make a substantial contribution to the resolution of the systemic problems inherent in participation, defeating the lack of transparency, frustration, and unsustainability.

In other words, resistance should be recognized as an effective driving force because it is an expression of living beings, therefore promoting not only human rights and the environment but also the progress and responsibility of inhabitants as co-governors of the settlements in which they live and contribute to building.

The R-Existences: Resistance to destruction to affirm the right of people and communities to Exist.

*  IAI Global Coordinator, November 2018

[1] CESCR General comment No. 4 (1991) The right to adequate housing (Art.11 (1).

[2]  CESCR General comment No. 7 (1997) The right to adequate housing (Art.11.1): forced evictions.

[3]  CESCR General comment No. 24 (2017) on State obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the context of business activities. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E/C.12/GC/24&Lang=en

[4]  https://www.habitants.org/zero_evictions_campaign/campaign_w_nairobi_w


Table of Contents

Table of Contents...3

List of Acronyms..5

The R-Existences: lessons from the slums of Nairobi, Cesare Ottolini...6



Chapter 1: Literature Review and Conceptual Framework ...16

1. Implementing large scale projects: a story of top-down versus bottom up...16

1.1 Attempts at reconciling top-down and bottom-up...16

2. Participation as a reconciling mechanism...18

2.1 Setting up failure in participation...21

2.2 Elite capture in slum upgrading...23

3. Understanding resistance...25

3.1 State power and urban rebellion...25

3.2 The contraptions of resilience and limited space for resistance...26

3.3 The tools that remain...28

4. Treating community with caution...30

4.1 Mobilizing community...31

Chapter 2: Contextualizing slum upgrading in Kenya ...34

1. Contextualizing the three case studies...35

1.1 Overview of the Korogocho slum upgrading project...36

1.2 Overview of the Huruma slum upgrading project...40

1.3 Overview of the Kibera-Langata roads project...46

Chapter 3: Who are the resistant groups? ...50

1. Resistance groups in Korogocho...50

1.1 Organization of resistance bodies in Korogocho...50

1.2 Timeline of the resistance in Korogocho...52

1.3 Resisters’ relation to participatory bodies...53

1.4 The strategies used by resisters in Korogocho...53

2 Resistance groups in Huruma...55

2.1 Organization of resistance bodies in Huruma...55

2.2 Timeline of the resistance in Huruma...57

2.3 Resisters’ relation to participatory bodies...58

2.4 The strategies used by resisters in Huruma...59

3. Resistance groups in Kibera...60

3.1 organization of resistance bodies in Kibera...60

3.2 Timeline of the resistance in Kibera...62

3.3 Resisters’ relation to participatory bodies...63

3.4 The strategies used by resisters in Kibera...63

4. Concluding remarks...66

Chapter 4: Evaluating Resistance ...67

1. Resistance and the buying of time...67

2. Redistributing project benefits...71

3. Resistance: open defiance and democratizing slum upgrading...76

4. Not everyone wants to resist...80

5. Participatory structure versus non participatory structure...82

Chapter 5: Sustaining and Supporting Resistance ...84

1. First, learn and understand...85

2. Organizing...86

3. Action...87






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