Sunday, 18 May 2014

Working Ups and Downs

Three and a half months into my stint here in Kasama is probably a good time to provide a low-down on what I'm actually doing here work-wise.

The focus is around “capacity building” (development worker jargon for training) of 'physical planners' at district council level. A physical planner is essentially a combination of what are specialised fields in the Anglophone world including strategic/forward planning, urban design, assessment of planning applications, surveying and planning enforcement, all done very badly if at all. This is happening during a large national process of decentralisation, where the responsibilities are being devolved from Provincial Government level (where I am based) to district Council level. Over the past few governments the local Councils have been left to their own devices and are pretty much a shambles in most things they do. In relation to here, the standard of service delivery of government that you complain about in whatever country you are in is probably like trying to make a comparison between an aged gruyere and easy singles.

        Until a few years ago practically none of them had qualified planners in their staff. Luckily 6 out of 9 Councils in my province now have university graduates employed which is major progress. When I say that I mean they have 1 each and they’re practically a clone of each other. All fresh out of college, maybe with a year’s works experience under their belt, most are relatively enthusiastic and some are quite bright. This is major progress. But these guys are expected (on their own) to take on the responsibilities of an entire planning department (if and) when the decentralisation process kicks in. Currently they have little or no formal responsibilities. So my job in theory is to help these guys make that step.
Andrew, Laia and Paul in Mbala
        Because Irish Aid have funded 4 of our placements (the overall aim of the project is to improve Governance in Zambia (!) the other three placements being in Financial Management, Socio-Economic Planning and Monitoring & Evaluation) and are also funding our project costs (fuel, accommodation and meals for our trips out to the district councils) I have to work with the group on everything and follow all the ridiculous government protocols and bureaucracy (of which I’ll moan about in detail at a further point). Of the districts in Northern Province we had decided to focus on 5 of these rather than spread ourselves too widely. This involved traveling to each district, carry out assessments on each council and eventually come to a decision on which ones to select. An example of some of the challenges involved in this: Kaputa is probably the most distant district from here at around 390km, reasonable you will say. We couldn’t make this journey for the first 2 months due to the rains which last for 5 months. When we did, it took us over 9 hours in a 4x4 through crazy conditions.
One of many road blocks, truck here skidded off the Kaputa road
        In the end we only made it to 8 of the districts because one of them is on an island and the weather was so bad that the ‘ferry’ wasn’t operating for months so we ditched it from our study. Harsh!
        That was a time, finance and patience consuming process but eventually we were at a position where we could finalise our 5 districts. All the way through, we had to do it through the government channels so we were essentially being used by provincial government to show how much they are doing to help their local counterparts etc. African customs/culture means it needs to be approached with the right degree of delicacy so I kept my trap shut and endured it !

       (The following is technical planning talk so feel free to skip over it….)
       First, a bit of background to the major issues that exist here in terms of town planning and urban design.
       80% of Zambia is what is known as Customary Land, that is, it is under the control of tribal chiefs. This area is essentially comprised of mud or brick huts. Only 20% is on State Land. Only State Land is subject to the planning system.  It’s a huge country that’s very sparsely populated (14m in a country 10 times the size of Ireland and 3.5 times the size of Britain), so infrastructure here is very difficult to provide. Saying that it’s one of the most urbanised countries in Africa at 40% (Australia is 80%). Outside of cities less than 5% of houses have legal title, that is to say they have little or no property rights in the eyes of the law other than as squatters. This has serious ramifications for wealth generation as credit cannot be obtained using property as a form of collateral and Councils cannot gather rates from the majority of the properties in their jurisdiction which is theoretically one of their major revenue streams. A vicious circle.

        As the chiefs control 80% of the land, in order for towns to meet the demand for housing land the Councils need to go cap-in-hand to the chiefs to get land off him (all sorts of shenanigans go on here I’m told). But basically they’re at the mercy of a chief in terms of securing land for housing. A major issue I see is that the land given to them is usually in a ridiculous location for the proper expansion of these towns and really creates for major problems down the line.

        75-80% of housing in Zambia is contained within ‘informal settlements’, unplanned (I mean with little or no thought put to it) and unserviced. In other African countries this takes the shape of shanty towns but in Zambia (Lusaka apart) its more shacks than the atrocious images you’d see in Johannesburg or Nairobi. Nevertheless, these shacks are just thrown up and often there’s little or no space for roads (major problem if a fire breaks out or an ambulances needs access), there’s no piped water, majorly prone to flooding, no electricity, no sewerage system etc. 5 or 6 families might share a ‘latrine’ which is an open pit toilet which you would only experience at a music festival or a national park in our world (this effluent can sometimes seep into the shallow wells where the community draw water from). Whatever about how mank these living conditions are, the health ramifications can be pretty severe and where water borne illnesses thrive (among others).

       When the bureaucratic blockages ceased the actual work could begin in earnest. The bulk of my work is essentially training and guiding these planners in 5 Councils and also working directly with them on certain projects. Although I try to limit the amount of hands on work I do as enabling them to do the work is more valuable in the long term than me getting the projects done myself, even though the need is pretty acute at times. We focus mainly on the following topics:
        Geo-spatial Database: 
        Most councils have seriously out of date maps, talking decades here and none of them are digital so we’re trying to digitise any of the raggedy things we can find, get out on the ground to update what’s actually been built using a GPS machine and map it on GIS (I’d never used GIS before I came here so I had to train myself up on it fairly lively in order to pretend I was an expert in it!)  Because there are no digital records, serious chaos has taken place. Land being sold by the Council to two different parties, land not having planning permission, land not having legal title etc.  

        So we are trying to compile this information and input it onto this GIS based mapping system that I am creating. It’s not going to have much of an immediate impact on the quality of the environment as it currently stands but I’m pretty sure it will go a long way to cleaning up the mess that has been created in the past and avoid such chaos occurring in the future when the problems are really likely to come. The population of Zambia is going to double in the next 25 years. Jaysus.

       Computer Software: 
       Mainly GIS, AutoCAD and SketchUp and maybe some Photoshop down the line. They’re relatively computer literate in fairness to them and do a bit of it in college. They’re pretty keen on this side of things so we should make a degree of progress.
       Upgrading of Informal Settlements
       As I mentioned above, many of these settlements are of very poor quality (they’d be called slums in our world) and completely lacking in the most basic services – clean water (not even talking of drinking quality here, just clean). Even toilets are probably too ambitious in these situations. I haven’t yet started on an upgrading project but they’ll probably require a much more collaborative approach with local community workshops as often more contentious initiatives may be required to bring about improvements in the living environment and provision of these basic services. Eg Often rehousing a few families is the only solution to create space for access roads.

       Encouraging the local community to embrace the legalisation and titling process is central to the successful upgrading of these settlements.
Wouldn't have fancied being in this latrine when it collapsed
       Introducing Evidence Based Planning:
       There’s very little data contained in Councils but it’s possible to plan areas here based on solid facts. So this involves introducing methods of calculating socio-economic services required in a given area based on spatial location and population/housing information. Eg. for every 100 houses this means X number of extra primary school pupils, church go-ers, medical patients, market stalls needed etc.

       Town Strategies: 
       There is a programme of Integrated Development Plans and Local Area Plans that commenced a few years ago. The idea is that every Council area will have at least one of these done. In reality this could take years. Currently none of the Councils in my province have been given budget for any of these to occur and if any of them have actually had development plans done in the past, they’re more than likely over 15 years old and of no practical use.

       What myself and the planner are aiming to do in each Council is to create an in-house strategy that identifies a future vision for the future development of the main town over the next 10-20. It allows the Council to adopt a pro-active approach to the inevitable development pressures that it will face in the coming years. Using this document they can go to the chiefs with requests for the release of land in actual suitable locations for the future expansion of the town. 

       While this document will have no legal or policy standing, it will allow the Council to dictate where development happens and what form it should take, ensuring some semblance of sustainable future development.  It should incorporate issues such as the appropriate location for future growth, design standards for new housing areas and for development in town centres (among others). Ambitious definitely but worth aiming at.
      Updating of Housing Layout Plans: 
       This is currently the domain of my office in the Provincial Government but it is in ridiculously costly for them to do it [incredibly they actually charge the Councils to do it which (legally) goes into staff pockets] which I will explain in some later rant. It involves updating the plans as to what has actually been built since they did the initial plan (usually 5-10 years ago). This needs doing because often due to incredible administrative incompetence or neglect, houses get built in completely wrong places, often straddling multiple lots or even on the land where roads are meant to go. So what needs doing is redesign these places to accommodate the shambolic scenario that has been built, find new space for access roads (and limit the amount of inevitable cul-de-sacs that have been caused), refit new plots into left over spaces etc. I’m expecting some resistance down the line from the Provincial Office but we’ll carry on until that happens.

       Recently I accompanied my office on one of these jollies to see how things are carried out. After walking about doing the assessment for about an hour we reached a ridge in the land and beyond it we were greeted by the sight of a reasonably sized lake (probably 500 sq m). 

       This surprised me as I hadn’t noticed any lake in this housing development when I’d briefly perused the plans earlier.

        -       “Lads whats the story with the lake?”
        -       “hmmm yeaaaah”
                 (a bit of head scratching commenced)
        -       “Gis a look at the plan there again Tryson willya”
                (I then survey the plan)
        -       “Lads, there’s meant to be 3 rows of houses right here”
        -       “Oooh…… hmmmm …… ahhh … well yeah that’s the problem with doing the plans from  the office”
                (everyone erupts laughing)
The Phantom Lake
       Basically nobody had even been out to the site to notice this massive fucking lake in the middle of this piece of land! Initially I felt like Roy in Saipan but after a few seconds I just had to smile. Hilariously farcical. 
       Only Africa could make an Irishman feel Swiss.

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