In 2010 the Commonwealth Association of Planners held its first Student Essay competition. The winners were Jeremiah Atho Ongo and George Wesonga Auma. Their essay looked at the skills in Making Planning Work and their application in the undergraduate planning programmes at Makerere and Maseno, and in the planning of the huge Dadaab refugee camp in north-east Kenya. It concluded that those skills were widely covered in the courses, and important in the practice of planning this camp under the most challenging conditions. The tasks of engaging with social, economic and cultural needs in a dry environment under great pressure demonstrated real insight and commitment. I interviewed Jeremiah and George and wrote this blog in late 2010.
Dadaab is the biggest refugee camp in the world. Over a thousand refugees a day have been arriving there from drought-stricken and war-scarred Somalia. You’ve probably seen it on TV or read about it in the papers. But what’s it like to be working there as a planner? I have been talking to two young African planners who use their professional skills to provide shelter and security for some of the most vulnerable people on this planet. The photo of Dadaab below is from UNHCR.
Origins of Dadaab
Dadaab is close to the border with Somalia. The refugee camp has been there for 20 years now, providing a home to what have become generations of “temporarily” displaced people. Dadaab is actually a complex made up of three camps, each a few kilometres from the other. In all they are home to something like 400,000 people, about 100,000 more than at this time last year. Currently, over a thousand people a day are arriving. This is Kenya’s fourth largest city. Originally the camps were designed for 90,000 people. All available plots were taken as far back as 2008. Since then people have doubled up or settled on land around the edges of the camp.
The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) manages to the camps for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This involves planning for basic urban services – roads, schools, recreation areas, health centres, and, of course, shelter. A team of qualified planners has the job of planning the camps. It’s a tough call.
Jeremiah Ougo and George Auma are two of these planners. Jeremiah is a graduate of the undergraduate programme in Urban and Regional Planning at Makereere University in Kampala, Uganda. George did his planning degree at Maseno Univerity in Kenya.
As planners, they are acutely aware of the natural environment in which the camps are being developed. As Jeremiah explains, “Dadaab is in a semi-arid area, with thorny vegetation cover, though some parts are severely flooded during rainy seasons. A 950 hectare extension to the camp has been proposed. We identified environmental issues through a combination of aerial images, Google Earth, thematic maps and field visits that were guided by the local community. Through this we were able to identify a site in a less fragile ecosystem.” An environmental impact assessment was carried out as a basis for an environmental management plan for the area.
However, development of the new camp was stalled by disagreements with the Kenyan government. This, combined with the surge in arrivals as the situation in Somalia deteriorated in recent months, has resulted in newcomers setting up homes on a flood plain on the outskirts of the Ifo camp. The planners were very concerned about the risks this posed. The belated consent for the new camp came from the Kenyan government on 21 July.
Economic and social concerns
George explains that as planners they have made provision for markets, garages and corner shops, all important income generating facilities that can help support livelihoods. Similarly the layout has taken account of the need for spaces for primary and secondary schools, maternal health posts, mosques and churches. “We have had to recognise and plan for the social diversity of the residents”, he says. Thus there playing fields on which youth organizations can play football, but also spaces for younger children too.
One serious issue in the camp is sexual violence. Most of the refugees are women and children. The planners have sought to provide a safe haven for women and girls. The planned extension includes provision of toilets within sight of police and refugee workers. However, the delay in approval for this “Ifo 2“, combined with the overflow” and informal settlement of recent months has exacerbated vulnerability. There are reports of men hiding in bushes then, as women go to relive themselves, robbing and assaulting them. Over the six months from January to June this year 358 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence were reported, compared with 75 last year. Of course, not all assaults get reported.
George and Jeremiah stress the participatory nature of the planning in Dadaab. “Women and minority groups in the very culturally diverse refugee communities are represented on Site Planning Committees” explains Jeremiah. “These Committees are responsible for monitoring the camp layout plan. Members get training for this task – thus building capacity and enhancing camp maintenance.
George adds that local area councillors and community leaders were fully involved throughout the process of planning the extension to the camp. He stresses the importance of planners’ communication skills in delivering the development. “When there are encroachments on green areas and other land use violations, skills in negotiation and conflict resolution become very important.”
At a time when many planners in the UK are feeling under pressure, the challenges faced by these practicing planners in Dadaab are a cause for sober reflection. The development of Dadaab has been very politically controversial in Kenya, with the government there concerned about the scale, permanence and costs of the immigration and fearful about Islamic radicals. Conversely there are criticisms of the restrictions placed on those in the camps, which prevent them travelling elsewhere in Kenya. In the midst of these tensions there are young planners doing a professional job with commitment, and looking for solutions that provide shelter and security for people in desperate need, aid livelihoods and respect the natural environment.
Today, the public service ethos of planning makes it unfashionable. It is an “enemy” to those impatient with such wimpish ideals. This is a time when we need some iron in the soul, and to point to examples of planners’ skills making a difference.
For an update from 2023 on the situation in Dadaab click here.