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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fighting Poverty with Equitable Development

Nearly five decades ago, Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta declared war on Poverty, disease and illiteracy. But progress stalled immediately thereafter: corruption, skewed public policy and ethnic patronage produced political disciples and civil servants baptized in the spirit of “what can I do for myself?”

Today we see tiny islands of prosperity in a vast ocean of poverty and misery. Instead of hearing the biblical admonition that “the poor will always be with us” as a call to action, we feel an obligation to explain regional disparities using unhelpful and patronizing ethnic stereotypes that obstruct honest and dispassionate public discourse.

Politically ordained regional disparities mean that neighbourhoods we call home determine the quality of our lives.

Picture this dichotomy. Region A struggles with decrepit roads, lack of markets for crops/livestock, lack of access to affordable credit, under achieving schools, lack of access to clean water, high infant mortality and low life expectancy. Conversely, region B benefits from increased political clout, decent roads, proximity to large urban markets, rural electrification, affordable credit, high achieving schools, access to health services and high life expectancy.

The average life expectancy of a Kenyan living in the heartland of central Kenya is about 62 years while that of a Kenyan living in Western, Coast, Northern Kenya, Nyanza or Eastern province is about 50 years. 12% of households in central Kenya have piped water compared to less than 2 % coverage in other regions.

What are the odds that a child raised in the livestock rich “low potential” district of Garissa will gain admission at Alliance High School? The irony is that good education is a veritable prerequisite to participating in Kenya’s opportunity and innovation market place. Equal opportunity is at best empty rhetoric without policies and programmes that address practical barriers to economic and social parity.

Poverty traps greatly limit the potential of pure market solutions to tackle poverty. The poorest populations in Kenya rely on the natural resource base to eke out a living. A distressingly large proportion of the poor suffer chronic rather than transitory poverty.

Free market did not create these inequalities. Bad policy and partisan politics did. For instance, in the Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965, the government decided that “development money should be invested where it will yield the largest increases in net output”. This seminal paper inadvertently spawned the untenable myth of “high potential’ and “low potential” areas that continues to misguide public spending and investment priorities.

Environmental deterioration augments these factors. Not only do the poor suffer disproportionately from ecological decline, they have unwittingly become a major cause of it. In their struggle to feed their children they degrade their soils, clear forests and woodlands, put hill slopes under the hoe and drain wetlands.

Poverty and extreme suffering in Kenya, whether rural or urban, is therefore not random in distribution or effect. Poverty and under-development are symptoms of pathologies of power, politics and policy and are linked to the socio-economic conditions that determine the distribution or effect of inequality.

Equitable development seeks to integrate social and economic development. Equity embraces social justice and consistently examines who benefits from policy, resource allocation, public spending and public investment.

What is needed is a new generation of public policies and programmes that take into account the inherent potential in the diverse geographical regions of the country. Kenya’s development paradigm must depart from the unhelpful labels of “high” and “low” potential. By harnessing the geographic diversity and fully engaging local communities in decision making, we can build regions vibrant with opportunity where all citizens can participate in wealth creation and share in the prosperity.

But whatever the pathway, elimination of chronic poverty through equitable development requires mechanisms to harness resources and create economic opportunity. Policies and programmes must enhance access to health care and quality education to enhance human capital of the next generation and break the inequitable intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Public policy-public investment-and socio-economic programme cycles that shape our society must ask, who pays? And who benefits? Equitable development outcomes must answer unequivocally that the Kenyan people pay, the Kenyan and all Kenyans must benefit. Only equitable development can make real the promises of social justice and national cohesion

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