Social Insurance Done Kibera Style July 6, 2011  by      

By Kevin Diao, CFK Intern

When we think of social insurance, we think of government-sponsored benefits programs funded by taxpayers. In Kibera, however, the flavor is very different – much more personal and intimate. Besides that, its ramifications are more real – directly observable and tangible. But what exactly embodies or defines social insurance in Kibera?

First of all, the Kenyan government does not sponsor any social welfare or benefits programs in Kibera. This means that despite paying due taxes, the people have no safety net provided by the government to protect them from any form of risk. Can you imagine not receiving any unemployment benefits after losing your job, or entirely relying on your own savings for retirement, or having to pay for all of a health bill that you can’t afford in the first place? Those are just a few examples of the problems that the people of Kibera must overcome in the face of a passive and, at times, negligent government. As a result, they have been forced to create their own kind of social insurance – Kibera style.

I spoke with CFK Education Program Assistant David Ngira to gain some perspective on social insurance at the individual and the community level. For David, social insurance is based on friends, relatives, and connections. The higher the number of these relationships that you have, the higher your respective level of “insurance” is. Thus, it follows that people with more social relationships are much less likely to find themselves without shelter, food, medical treatment, care for their children, and much more.

What does this tell us about the social fabric of Kibera, or more importantly, what generates the particular social fabric? People in Kibera are actually strongly motivated, by more than mere gregarious whims – they are motivated towards befriending their neighbors and maintaining relationships with their relatives and meeting new people of all types because doing so actually insures them against risk, however intangible the “insurance coverage” may be.

Of course, it would be overly simplistic to think that social insurance is the only factor that drives people to connect with each other. While there is a significant self-interested aspect of social insurance, it also springs from altruism – having empathy, common experience, and common understanding with other community members moves individuals to look out for each other. When one community member sees another starving from unemployment or struggling to keep their children in school, they immediately understand – they’ve been there too.

But social insurance takes many shapes and forms in Kibera – another important one of which is as currency, a simple form of exchange. Community members in Kibera look out for each other because they care for each other and have common understanding in circumstances and experiences, but also because they want to care for themselves. When one community member helps out another community member, it is unofficially unders

tood that in the future, there should be some kind of reciprocal treatment. One community member is trading, no, investing some of his or her wealth in times of prosperity for security in an uncertain future that might yield times of severe poverty and need.

In fact, there are numerous small, loose social welfare institutions in Kibera that operate informally and are largely based on clan or other group identities. Each member contributes a small lump sum of money each month to the association, which keeps the money in a collective coffer. This money is then available for emergencies for members in the association – death, funeral arrangements, transportation, medical care, childcare, etc. David himself is a member of the Sarika Village Welfare Association – Sarika Village is his hometown, and thus the Association is arranged in a clan-like manner.

Other examples of social insurance as currency are even more simple and clear-cut. In times of violence, most recently during the post-election violence in 2008, groups of young men offered security to neighbors and communities in return for quarters and meals.

But, one might wonder, how exactly are these loose social welfare institutions different, or better than a large, formal social insurance institution? CFK Program Officer Darius Isaboke offered his insight on the matter.

“The social welfare associations of Kibera are more operational when you have an issue; especially when you have an issue that you yourself cannot manage. Other institutions cover you out of damage or risk, which in many cases is indeterminate, making claims very difficult. The associations also work more broadly – they can cover anything from funeral arrangements to children’s education, and any other issues that the community collectively views as important. As a result, the majority of people in Kibera, say, 75% belong to some sort of informal or formal social insurance association.”

And what would Kibera be like without social insurance?

No one that I spoke to wanted to consider too deeply the implications of losing one of the foundational institutions of Kibera society. People’s opportunities would be severely compromised – children would lose the opportunity to attend school, others the opportunity to start a business and seek a better life, others the opportunity to see their loved ones sent off in a proper burial ceremony, and others the opportunity to live a healthy life or simply, to live.

In the end, Darius concluded with a resounding affirmation of social insurance’s important niche in Kibera.

“People would have many problems if they were on their own and would have an extremely difficult time handling them. Eventually, people would realize that they would have to come back to some sort of social insurance scheme in Kibera.”


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One response to “Social Insurance Done Kibera Style”

  1. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog. An excellent read. I will definitely be back.

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