Governing grassroots infrastructure – Resident associations and infrastructure provisioning in informal settlements
Paper in proceedings, 2018
Disruptions in critical infrastructures are part of everyday life for the millions of citizens living in informal settlements, as they constantly have to improvise, create routines, competences, relations and new knowledge to cope with these disturbances. Yet, residents in informal settlements around the world do not remain passive regarding the deteriorating socio-environmental conditions within their neighbourhoods. In the absence of formal infrastructures and services, grassroots resilience initiatives (such as resident associations, women associations, youth groups, self-help groups, community-based organisations, cooperatives, public-private partnerships) articulate the necessary resources, relations and rationales to create and reproduce critical infrastructures (e.g. delivering access to money, water or food) and to construct more inclusive forms of urban governance. Acknowledging the central rol of infrastructures for an inclusive urban development, the social science literature (mostly geography, urban studies or anthropology) has experienced in recent years, what has been called as the ‘infrastructure’ turn (Graham, 2010). Breaking up with traditional views that infrastructures are apolitical and thus not worthy of attention (MacFarlane and Rutherford, 2008; Coutard, 1999), these scholars approach the study of infrastructures as much more than being mere technological and material issues; they also embody social interests and values (Star, 1999) and therefore become politicized assemblages of artefacts and practices (Graham, 2010). Previous research has argued that it is possible to understand the politics of infrastructure and its implications through the study of infrastructure disruptions (Graham, 2010) or institutionalized informality, for example in informal settlements in Global South cities (MacFarlane, 2008, 2011, Trovalla and Trovalla, 2015, Zapata Campos and Zapata, 2013) “in ways that are rarely possible when such systems are functioning normally” (Graham, 2010, p.3). Whilst critical studies on infrastructure networks have often focused on the holistic macro dimension of the networks, the practices enacted in more localized parts of the infrastructure network, and the way they localize meaning, seems to be understudied (Chelcea and Pulay, 2015). The present study intends to contribute to this understanding of the political character of infrastructure, but it shifts the attention towards two aspects less discussed in the literature. First, a redefinition of infrastructures as practice based (Anand 2012) and situational (Chelcea, 2016), which therefore makes it necessary to study everyday infrastructuring practices at the user level. Second, a focus on the role of grassroots organisations in creating and governing these infrastructures in informal settlements. The paper originally brings together organisation studies (e.g. the concepts of partial organisation and institutional infrastructure), and the study of infrastructures in urban studies. It aims first, to examine the role of grassroots organisations in the production and governance of critical infrastructure in the context of uncertainty and scarcity of Global South cities’ informal settlements; and second, to explore the political implications of grassroot infrastructures by examining how they lead to efforts to create governmental structures to maintain them, to connect them to formal systems, and to bring in new infrastructures and services to the informal settlements. Empirically the paper is informed by the case of three grassroots organisations in three informal settlements in Kisumu, Kenya. The case study includes document studies, ethnographical and participatory observations, shadowing, visual ethnography, interviews, focus group interviews, social media, and stakeholder workshops between 2014 and 2018. Particularly the paper focuses on semi-structured interviews carried out with grassroot initiatives, politicians and public officers. The preliminary analysis of the data shows how the management and governance of critical infrastructure is characterized by four features: a) flexibly configured organisational landscapes versus formal façades; b) critical but hidden material/organisational infrastructure sustaining human and organisational life; c) nested versus floating infrastructure; and d) dormant (discretionary) but visible infrastructure.