Solutions to poverty are never simple, a fact Gina Chowa understood long before her June visit to Kibera, East Africa’s largest slum. The trip was part of a major collaborative project between UNC’s School of Social Work and Carolina for Kibera (CFK), an international nonprofit affiliated with UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives.
Chowa, an assistant professor, and her partners are working to develop an intervention that will help Kibera’s youth generate some level of economic wealth in a community where families often live on $1.25 a day. Chowa has suspected the project would require a multi-pronged approach. But after spending time with the youth and with CFK’s employees, volunteers, and other stakeholders, Chowa and her project partners are more convinced that a successful intervention must not only focus on asset building but on employment training, education and life and vocational skills.
“I knew that the problem was much bigger than just getting everybody assets,” said Chowa, whose research work focuses on building capital in developing countries. “What I learned and what I think was clear from the youth we spoke to, is that we have to think about an intervention that will address some of the challenges they are facing. The more and more we talked to people, the more they said, ‘I need a skill or capital or something that will give me income.’”
With the asset development project, UNC researchers hope to determine whether helping Kibera’s youth accumulate wealth—such as savings, livestock, household goods and home and land ownership—will further strengthen their long-term security. Any intervention developed will build off of the programs and services that CFK offers. Founded by a UNC student and Kenyans in 2001, CFK oversees a youth sports program, a medical clinic, a reproductive health and women’s rights center, and a waste management program.
Discovering just how limited employment opportunities are in Kibera was an eye-opener for Anna Scheyett, the School’s associate dean for academic affairs, who is assisting with the study. During last month’s trip to Kibera, Scheyett; Rainier Masa, a doctoral student at the School; Julie Goldberg, MSW ’11; and Mary Oliver, a current MSW student, conducted qualitative interviews with youth, parents, family members, CFK staff, financial institutions, and non-governmental organizations to better understand the realities of living in Kibera.
“…They don’t have access to anything spare—meaning that there’s nothing to save,” Scheyett said. “There’s so little work and when we asked what they did to make money, they said, ‘Well, we carry water for people and get paid for it.’ The young men might do construction work or the women might try and sell vegetables or go door-to-door in Nairobi to clean people’s houses.”
However, the researchers learned just being from Kibera creates additional obstacles.
“One youth phrased it that, ‘Once you tell them you’re from Kibera, you’ve failed the interview,’” Scheyett said. “It’s the branding or stigma of Kibera that also makes it so hard just to get a job to generate any kind of revenue.”
Chowa said she’s equally concerned about the youth who are eager to attend college but have no money to support their education. Parents already must pay for children to attend high school, and while scholarships are available through CFK, they are for youth up to age 18, she said. “So, for me, it was also very clear that the 18- to 24-year-old age range is a forgotten one that we need to focus on.”
Over the next few months, the research team will transcribe and analyze all their interviews and begin working on the pilot intervention, which could be in place by the middle of next year. Efforts are also underway to find funding to support the project, Chowa said.
“I think this project really ties into the strategic plan of CFK,” she said. “I think what also really pleases me is that somehow after reading all the material about Kibera and CFK and really thinking about how we should approach this, that once we got there, it was really like we had the pulse of CFK and the community. Although we got new insights, the kids also seemed to really confirm what we were thinking, and they reaffirmed for me that this is where we need to be.”