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January 19, 2019

Performing Arts Will Not Uplift Slum Youth

There was an intriguing little piece of writing titled ‘Gangs of Nairobi' published on the British Guardian website, as part of a series called ‘Cities in Development – from the global development professionals network’, and sponsored by DAI, a development consulting firm.

The article is about Nairobi’s Mathare slum. What surprised me – and colour me ignorant here, because I do know very little about slums – was that women reportedly have a relatively stronger position in Mathare.

For one, the author argues, the number of women in Mathare was higher as a result of post-colonional migration patterns that led dispossessed rural women to the slum. And today, many charities focus more on girls and women. There also seems to be a bit of a division of labour that disadvantaged young men who typically end up in gangs. The report says:

"Mathare gang-related economic activities consist primarily in participating in the illegal alcohol brewing business and getting involved in drug peddling, extortion and prostitution. Gang membership excludes these youth from participating in other aspects of Kenyan society, relegating them to the confines of the slum. Women on the other hand have long held the reigns of both the illegal alcohol brewing business and other informal income generating activities and through formal saving groups and associations, have wider networks and stronger security nets on which to fall back in times of need."

An interesting recent trend, however, is that gangs reportedly start registering as youth groups. The article then points out that this ties in quite usefully with efforts by several NGOs to rehabilitate these young men.

To mend relations with the community – who had previously mostly encountered them in the context of being forced to pay ‘protection’ money –, these gang (or now youth group) members often start community development activities like cleaning up the streets.

Ghetto Green, an NGO founded in 2012, also started out with trash collection and then added ‘performing arts to engage in peace initiatives and human rights awareness.’

Perhaps not so surprising, the Ghetto Green chairman points out that ‘It's not easy for these gangs to successfully make the transition. I think the failure rate is quite high because even once they have passed the initial hurdles, they still have to continue making savings groups work and such activities require a lot of discipline.’

I am always a little baffled by this: How NGOs for slum kids focus on performing arts, acrobatics etc. I kinda get the point that it might be useful to distract people from more harmful activities, but the labour market for acrobatics is, I suspect, probably a little limited in Kenya. Or, for that matter, globally. Would it not be more useful to make sure that those kids have, say, some carpentry or electrician training (and maybe do the community theatre for fun later in the day)?

The article was, as I noted above, written for a series sponsored by a development advisory firm, and the whole approach sounds well intended, but NGOish to me.

I suspect that the bottom line will be income. If those guys will not be able to find an income from legitimate activities, then they might neither want nor be able to afford the group and performing arts activities. Crime pays, at least for a while.

Of course it is easy to criticise NGOs as long as the government is mostly notable by its absence in the slums. I am not very convinced that the concept of youth group loans is the best way to go – for one, when you deal with Kenyan government and cash, cash often has a pronounced tendency to go safari.

And secondly, it is just a band aid: what young people would really need to put that money to productive use is some sort of training – and better still, just jobs, as not everybody is cut out to be an entrepreneur. Of course training (in vocational skills rather than acrobatics) would also be useful if they wanted to set up their own company, or just work as independent contractors.

And of course this issue is infinitely more complex than just getting kids to collect trash. Gangs are the bottom layer of organised crime, so law enforcement has a role to play truly an uphill struggle when it has infiltrated the system to the top layers.

Infrastructure development is a government function, and sorely lacking in slums (and elsewhere, too).

I mentioned the vocational training system. There are many more elements to this, and most certainly a far bigger role for government beyond just lobbing some cash at youth groups. Right now, it looks like the government mostly leaves slum development activities in the hands of NGOs, and those NGOs teach performing arts.

Yes, I know I’m simplifying (and exaggerating) here, but ultimately, it is the economy, like Bill Clinton said: if there are no legit jobs, then those young men will stick with the illegal ones.

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