We met a committee and made the assumption we met a community: Researchers’ language and practice in poor urban neighbourhoods

By Joseph Kimani, Helen Elsey and Linda Waldman

You ask me to open my heart in a meeting where I see my oppressor, these guys are the ones controlling water, electricity, and harassing our daughters.  Then you want us to talk. If you are interested in my views, come to my house and I will tell you.”

This is a quote from a woman attending a community meeting designed to ensure inclusivity and participatory decision-making in an urban settlement in Kenya.  It was used as a prompt to encourage researchers at our recent annual meeting to be conscious of who we listen to and the language we use. When researchers enter a community, their first point of call is often the community committee; but whose views are more important, is it the people you meet on the street or in the community meeting hall? If we restrict our conversation to those who sit on committees and focus only on their proposed actions, are these really community actions?

With many hundreds of thousands of people living in poor urban settlements, how can researchers go to the homes of everyone to hear their views and make these count in participatory planning processes?

SDI’s approach of consultation with smaller units of ten households is a powerful way to ground the issues raised and the actions identified in the realities of the lives of all community members, not just the ‘same old voices’ that dominate community committees. This approach also requires knowing where everyone lives and, in poor urban communities, it is often first necessary to develop procedures for doing this.

The first thing SDI does is to train community volunteers in doing settlement maps. The training is for them to number each structure and, in the process of numbering each structure, they allocate each structure a physical address. Often physical addresses mean a lot to the community. It builds the esteem and the confidence of the tenants, to be able to say: “we are counted, do you know my address?  Do you know, this is where I live?” Following community meetings, which build on household maps, SDI go back to these smaller units of ten households to gain their views on proposed actions.

As researchers we must learn from these approaches and find ways to challenge standard practice. We need to look beyond the formal structures so that the voices of all slum dwellers, including those that are rarely heard, can inform the prioritisation of issues and actions.

SDI facilitates a collaborative approach and challenges the notion that social movements always have to be confrontational. SDI works with communities and governments building collaboration, showing the government ‘how to’, not just demanding services.  This collaboration is built on a recognition of the resources within communities; that community members themselves are the solution to the challenges in informal settlements and that governments’ benefit from inclusive, participatory approaches.

The words that we, as researchers, use to describe this process of identification, participation and planning with community members are vitally important. Even with the best will in the world, academic jargon can mystify what we are trying to do, undermining our ideals of having a positive effect on communities and on accountability. Words are a source of power, and a ‘big’ word can be a way of saying: “I know more than you do”. We must consider this as we pepper our documents and speech with concepts such as ‘inclusivity, transferability and accountability’.

What do words like inclusivity, disenfranchised, marginalised, vulnerable really mean in the contexts of urban informal settlements?  The reason we are doing this work goes beyond just the delivery of services, it is about allowing people to have a sense of space and entitlement, to enjoy rights like everyone else, to feel free like everyone else. Not feeling left out gives residents a sense of control and power.  It’s about recognising that, for the woman quoted at the beginning of this piece, the power to participate is part of the process of claiming ownership of space, it is about having, and being acknowledged to have, an address with corresponding rights and responsibilities.