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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Building an Equitable Society is Kenya’s Grand Challenge

A few kilometers from Muthaiga, the uber affluent residential neighborhood of Kenya’s business and political elite, five-year-old Anita is being treated with Plumpynut. Plumpynut is a high-energy therapeutic food for starving children.  

Anita’s father, Hiram, is a security guard in an upmarket city neighborhood. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of Nairobi’s residents who walk to work. But a swanky and dangerous highway has recently complicated Hiram’s daily commute between Mathare Valley and Parklands.

To appreciate the place Anita calls home you have to traipse down convoluted, narrow corridors, vault over open sewers and suck in the stench of putrefied garbage in the slum of Mathare Valley.  Anita’s mother is a stay-at-home mom. Her vegetable business collapsed after 20 years. I asked why. The answer was succinct. “I was running huge losses because people were not buying anymore”.

The retail prices for staple foods have increased by over 150% in Nairobi slum markets in the past year. Average daily household income in Nairobi’s slums is about KES 200 KES. Besides food and shelter, families like Anita’s must also pay for daily use of latrines, water, or wood for cooking, kerosene for lighting, school fees and health care.

International and local humanitarian agencies are feeding millions of people, especially pastoralists in the Rift Valley, northeast and northern Kenya, where malnutrition rates often range between 20 to 40%. In 2011, the worst drought in six decades in the Horn of Africa led to the worst food crisis of our time. I recall the heart-rending story of a woman who lost all her livestock and was mourning the death of her three children.

A couple of months ago I wrote about my encounter with a feisty grandmother. At the age of 75, her one-hectare farm cannot produce enough food for herself and the eight grandchildren who depend on her. Ann relies on the largesse of the local Chief who distributes food aid. Ann’s eight undernourished grandchildren attend a dilapidated and crowded public primary school where teachers seldom show up.

In 2011, all the top 10 positions in the school rankings in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations were taken by private schools. Public schools, the kind Ann’s grandchildren attend, did not rank anywhere near the best private primary schools.
The wide socio-economic disparities in our society stem from a combination wrong headed policies and bad governance over the last half-century. Consumed by self-aggrandizement, successive governments have diverted vast national resources into patrimonial power structures. Mainstream political discourse and policy making has failed to address the worrying gulf between the rich and the less fortunate in our society. As a public intellectual I admit that our national conversation has failed to create a shared narrative and vision capable of inspiring a yearning for a balanced society.

The citizenry, especially the middle class is not blameless. The middle class has lost sight of any collective belief that society could be better – inclusive and equitable. Instead of a better society the middle class strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within a dysfunctional society. 

The middle class resorts to private solutions to address big structural problems. Their children go to private schools because public schools are failing. They go to private hospitals because our public health care system is broken. They hire private guards because our neighborhoods are unsafe. They drive personal cars to work because public transport is in shambles. The middle class eschews politics and civic engagement because the world outside their living room is rough and chaotic.

The contrast between the odious material wealth of the few and grinding poverty among the majority in our society is disconcerting and perilous. Building an equitable society, not advancing economic growth is the grand and urgent challenge facing Kenya today.

Talk of equality unsettles the business and political elite. I am no wealth re-distribution crusader. Kenya does not need a revolution to achieve equality. We need good teachers and good public schools to close the achievement gap between private and public schools. We need to develop technical skills and harness the entrepreneurial capacity of our youth. We need agricultural and climate advisory services, fertilizers, mechanization, irrigation, veterinary services, and markets to increase crop and livestock productivity.

We need high quality and affordable health care for all. We need a stable stock of affordable housing for all. We need affordable public transport in all our cities. We need a competent police force to uphold the law and keep our neighborhoods safe.

In their book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that societies with huge socio-economic disparities are bad for everyone, including the middle class.  We must see societal problems as needing collective and not private or individual solutions.

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