FILM PREVIEW: What price 'development'?

Posted: 16 February 2010

Next month London will see the screening of Good Fortune, a film about the way in which international efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa may be undermining the very communities they aim to benefit. In one case it has left Kenyans battling to save their homes from a large-scale development project in Nairobi's huge Kibera shantytown. In the other an American investor is planning to alleviate hunger by building a multi-million dollar rice farm which will flood the land of local farmers. This commentary on the film is by Daniel Nelson

Development in Kibera is difficult because "what they [the authorities] want is different from what the community wants," says a resident as her neighbours' shacks come crashing down to make way for a government-UN improvement project.

There you have it - one of the central dilemmas of the development industry. Do you give people what they want, or what you are sure will benefit them?

Behind the dilemma lurk three other rarely acknowledged questions: what is the cost of development, who pays, and is it worth it?

This new documentary, Good Fortune , tries to draw up a balance sheet by looking at two individuals affected by unrelated development projects in Kenya - midwife Silva Adhiambo, whose Kibera home is threatened by development bulldozers, and Jackson Omondi, a wetland farmer in Yala, in the west of the country.

Jackson Omondi
Jackson Omondi
Jackson Omondi on his flooded homeland in the Nyanza Province of western Kenya. Dominion Farms, an American company, is flooding his home as part of a massive development project in the region.
Omondi's livelihood - and that of several hundred other farmers - is at risk from the modernising, high-tech approach of a US-based company. The Americans are in no doubt that their $26 million rice-growing scheme represents a future path for Africa and will transform people's lives for the better: "People have grown accustomed to their poverty... we want these people's lives to change to the same standard as what the rest of the world has... It's a transformation that's underway... And with a lot of hard work and God's help this thing's going to be a Garden of Eden some day."

The executive's certainty is shared by the UN officials implementing the Kibera project, though the international bureaucrats have a little more awareness - or at least the jargon - of the need to "consult". Underlying assumptions are revealed only through the odd word and phrase: there's talk of effecting a transformation of Kibera "from an eyesore to a model project" and of "slum infrastructure". People, however, live in huts and houses, not "projects" and "infrastructures".

Listening or telling?

It also becomes clear that "involving the community" in Kibera, as with the rice business in the west, is not involvement as normally understood, is not even listening, but means telling people what's going to happen. As a man in a UN meeting says in the film: "They [Kibera residents] should follow what we are advising them, because we are the experts in development."

Silva Adhiambo
Silva Adhiambo
Silva Adhiambo watching the beginning of the demolitions in Kibera, Africa's largest slum. The UN and Kenyan government are working to "upgrade" Kibera.
His words took me back 30 years to a UN Development Programme meeting in Bangladesh, at which the local UN chief told staff: "We are from rich Western countries and have no knowledge about eradicating poverty in a country like this. Technical know-how, yes. I can help with that. I can help modernise the airport. But eliminating poverty? None of us knows how to do that."

Good development intentions in Kibera and Yala are further thwarted by the lack of joined-up government. People living in Kibera are promised that they will be re-housed. But will they? And will the homes be suitable and affordable? Residents don't believe the government's promises, and they are right to be doubtful: the number of people around the world who have been promised re-housing and compensation as they are pushed off land in order to clear the way for dams, plantations, power stations and other large-scale developments must run into hundreds of millions.

The UN completely dismisses Kibera ("There is nothing") and Adhiambo says she would like a better home and to be surrounded by less trash, but she's not unhappy: she makes a better living in Kibera than on the farm, which is why she migrated, and her rent is low. Similarly, Omondi is not opposed to the rice fields: it's the fallout - the use of chemicals, the changes in water levels on the surrounding land - that's the problem.

And, in both cases, grievances are magnified by a sense that, in Adhiambo's words, "They are dealing with us like animals, not human beings." Neither she nor Omondi see themselves as the helpless, impoverished victims that the businessmen and officials see.

Instead of the promised consultation and compromise, for many the reality of development in Kibera, Yala and often elsewhere is of disappointment and destruction. Omondi talks of a "war" that, if necessary, his son will continue. Adhiambo talks of "defeat". The rice-growers' backers proclaim at a launch party: "I say here and in broad daylight that anybody that will try to resist this project will be met with the resistance and full force that it deserves." This is the language of dictatorship, not of development.

Good Fortune, a Transient Pictures film, will be screened at The Ritzy, Brixton Oval, London on 20 March and at ICA, The Mall, SW1 on 21 March 21 as part of the Human Rights Watch film festival. See more at www.transientpictures.com

Daniel Nelson is a freelance journalist specialising in developing country issues. He is Editor of OneWorld UK where this comment first appeared.