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Why the Poorest Places Often Run the Most Modern Campaigns

ThoughtWorks in NYC invites passionate individuals working to make the world a better into our space at 99 Madison Ave to confide, create and code. We call these organizations 'Friends of ThoughtWorks', which have included many progressive thought leaders changing the game in areas that address issues of environmental, economic, or social injustice. In this post, our friend Bessie Schwarz lends knowledge in experience of the Slum Tech Revolution.

I recently drove north in Nairobi down the Thika Superhighway, veered right off a nice city street, and found myself crowded in by shoddy metal shacks, people, and piles of trash. This is Mathare, one of the world’s biggest slums, where approximately half a million people live in extreme poverty in the middle of one of Africa’s biggest cities. Electricity, garbage pick-up, and running water do not reach many of the houses or storefronts in Mathare, but text messages here are building a peace movement that crosses violent tribal lines. Tagged Facebook photos are holding local politicians accountable and mobile maps are revealing environmental violations. 

New communication technologies are upending the traditional model of change (think the Obama campaign or the Arab Spring). However, the model is transformed not because of the advanced machinery, but because of the novel things people do with it. While Silicon Valley pumps out telecommunication technologies at a mind-blowing pace, the poorest and most politically oppressed are using new devices and applications in unimaginable ways to challenge norms and shift power everywhere from city squares to rural villages.

A warning – this is not a silver bullet story. It’s just a new way of doing what political and humanitarian movements always try to do - a new way developed by people who have to do things differently.

I wound up in Mathare while visiting Nairobi for a technology conference, The International Conference for Crisis Mappers. As a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and research affiliated at the Data Pop Alliance, I built a web application that predicts physical and social vulnerability to imminent flooding across the globe. Having never been to Kenya, my co-researchers and I came a day early when a few local developers and organizers invited us to see where they work and to exchange ideas. The first surprise was Felix. When we arrived at the center of the busy slum, a boisterous young man strode up and vigorously shook my hand. “Hey, I am Felix. I am a youth leader", he said. Together we set off weaving between unfinished concrete buildings and tilted shacks, through muddy alleyways and piles of trash. As I tried to keep up, I glanced down at my iPhone; I had two bars.

Felix has been organizing local youth groups like Blessed Youth (find them on Facebook - here.) for years, but his community organizing changed one night seven years ago around 4 am. On the eve of the 2007 national Kenyan elections, Felix woke up to the text message: “While you are sleeping, votes are being stolen.” In the darkness, he could already hear mobs gathering on the streets outside his small apartment in the slum. By daybreak, the dirty streets were jammed with angry mobs carrying machetes, swords, and guns. When the unexpected presidential winner was announced, he watched as “people turned into animals.”

One thousand three hundred people were killed in the post-election riots that raged throughout Kenya in 2007. Many of Felix’s friends and family died, some murdered in front of his eyes. Elections can be a dangerous time for young countries still divided by ethnic tribes. During the riots, Felix hid in his apartment, feeling powerless.

Today Felix is fighting back against senseless violence using a set of weapons that he sees as being more powerful than a machete - social media, an old Nokia 3310, and a list of his neighbors’ contacts.

According to sociological scholars and locals alike, the election violence was driven by rumors, largely spread by text messages. Kenyans will tell you that their country essentially skipped the landline because the cellular infrastructure was easier for the country to establish, and mobile phones were cheaper for individuals. In 1999, just three percent of Kenyans owned a phone of any sort, according to a World Bank report; by 2012 the figure was 93 percent and this number primarily represents cell phones.

Through a volunteer garbage collection operation he organized, Felix had amassed a sizable list of local cell phone numbers and Facebook connections. So after 2007, Felix started working with the NGO Sisi Ni Amani to do more with his network. The idea was simple: get messages dispelling rumors into the phones in people’s pockets. If angry mobs in the 2007 riots were spurred on by texts about stolen votes, perhaps a trusted source could explain events on the ground. Maybe a text from that reliable authority could also talk people out of violence as they considered taking to the streets.

Soon after the election riots, the Sisi Ni Amani approached Kenyan mobile service providers Airtel and Safaricom to ask for the companies’ lists of phone numbers; they were turned down, but because of not-for-private-property concerns. The companies reported that they tried to text their customers with messages about peace, but said such efforts had failed. Imagine if you got a text from your provider - Verizon, AT&T or whomever - asking you to avoid addictive drugs or help build a community garden. Safaricom said few people replied to their mass messages - whether the messages advertised a new data plan or called for peace. Leaving empty handed, Sisi Ni Amani realized that they would have to build their own list from scratch. So Caleb Gichuhi, the group’s new outreach director, started hanging out in the communities and slums where violence hits the hardest. He was looking for natural leaders already organizing their community who might have a network of contacts. He found Felix doing his garbage collection.

Five years later, in the tarp-covered Blessed Youth HQ in Mathare, Felix explained to me how the system works today. He and others involved with Sisi Ni Amani keep their ears to the ground. When they hear of a rumor, they figure out what happened, and send out texts over their extensive local network. He told us that just recently, a nearby building caught fire and a rumor started – ‘the fire was arson committed by one of the area’s tribes as an aggressive act against another.’ So the organization sent a message to everyone in the nearby area confirming that the event was an accident and not a motivated attack. No violence ensued. 

“The technology has really changed so many live[s] in Mathare by [bringing] peace,” Felix chatted with me on Facebook a few weeks ago; evidently writing fast and leaving some bits for me to fill in.  Of course not everyone has a cell phone or Internet access in Mathare, but nearly everyone has a friend who does. The technologies are integrated into the social networks and information systems of a corner of the world that does not receive regular newspaper delivery. Social media is how they get news. 

Ironically, Blessed Youth can do what Airtel and Safaricom could not - they can get people to respond to messages. A garbage collector in the slum has a power that the biggest companies in the country do not.

What the phone companies and Sisi Ni Amani had not realized is something Felix knew intuitively from living and working in the community he organizes. People have to trust you if you are going to persuade them to join you. This is true whether you are messaging your neighbor or a stranger in your digital community halfway across the world. “Your message has to reach people in several ways and from at least one person they already trust,” Felix explained as we stepped gingerly over a stream of raw sewage that steadily flowed through the street. “That’s how we  get them to sign up for the list and make sure they listen when you text them in a few weeks.”

Felix’s group recruited people to join Sisi Ni Amani by contacting connections in his existing community network and expanding upon it. They reached out to neighbors through community events, casual interaction, or Facebook. In the years since they began, the group has built an impressive list of hard to reach people who trust them. These people want more than trash pickup: they believe in peace and want to be a part of the effort. In between violent incidents, Blessed Youth uses this list to recruit people for garbage pickup or rebuilding a road.

The more Felix and I talked shop about strategies for reaching people, the more the hot and dimly-lit metal shacks of Mathare began to feel oddly like so many activists meeting halls or campaign offices I had been in on the eve of a big vote in Congress. Cheap mass communication through Twitter, text messaging, and other technologies allows individuals to reach and mobilize more people more quickly, whether a vote is coming up in D.C. or violence is breaking out in the streets of Mathare.

Today, Felix and Sisi Ni Amani are turning their attention to work that MoveOn.org and the NRA try to do: holding elected officials accountable. Fed up with providing basic social needs and services themselves, Blessed Youth wanted to demand that their politicians pay attention. So a few months ago, they began holding events that Felix told me are modeled on American candidate debates. The idea is to host “election forums” for local candidates that forces the politicians to listen to Mathare residents – a task difficult in any democracy, even a functional one. First, Felix needed to gather enough people to pressure the candidates.  Then he had to educate individuals new to democracy on their civic rights. He did what he has learned to do best - utilize Facebook, uploading notices of the event as pictures and tagging potential attendees. This way he could “spark a conversation” and let the news spread naturally through rippling social networks.

Big non-profits and businesses in the U.S. and other developing countries have forgotten that reaching people through social media is at its core about the human connection, not the technology. In our love of shiny new devices and our hunger for bigger, better data, we have forgotten basic principles about human relationships; any new technology needs to be coupled with what we already know about reaching people. Face to face, personal connection is essential and at its best, technology facilitates the connection. 

 Felix recently brought together garbage pickup groups like his from the neighborhoods across the slum. The groups worked with a tech NGO called Spatial Collective to map the mass trash piles in the slum. They used simple participatory mapping technology – techniques similar to a model I used in research back in the United States. They then prepared a presentation for the County Representative candidates they had convinced to attend their “election forum.” Felix’s strategy for the event seemed remarkably like the kind of lobbying I did in the U.S.

A few days after the event, Felix got a call from one of a County Representatives who had attended the forum. Daniel Mutiso called to say that he wanted to address the trash problem in Mathare and has been working with Felix since his election to get sanitation services to the neighborhood. Now Mutiso is a champion for public health in the slum. This is the sort of campaign success that MoveOn.org or Planned Parenthood would proudly display on their posh websites and blast on Twitter.

As I said good-bye to Felix and I stepped off the dirty roads of Mathare, I reflected on the pervasiveness of modern technology among the world’s poorest. The expansion of an increasingly participatory Internet and other technologies is broadening the common space in which the world interacts. Cheap cell phones and the Web are challenging local and global power dynamics.

Yet there is a deeper hidden revolution. What makes Mathare remarkable is the ways locals use technology to mobilize.  The organizers I met created genuine connections with a click and leveraged those links to provide basic services, talk people down from violence, or force their elected officials to listen. The poorest are the unrecognized leaders of modernization.

As developed societies struggle to put the human touch into social networking, they should turn to leaders like Felix for guidance. Perhaps today’s most inventive labs of innovation are not in Cupertino or Mountain View, but in the tarp-covered shacks of slums. Maybe the new Steve Jobs won’t emerge from his parents’ suburban garage, but from the HQ of a youth group in a forgotten neighborhood in a developing country. It’s time that the developing world paid attention, or better yet, re-tweet what’s going on in the slum tech revolution.