Sunday, December 1, 2013

Kenya’s socio-economic inequality is solvable


Globally, countries are experiencing historic levels of socio-economic inequality. In Africa especially, there are emerging concerns about whether the bulging and youthful population will benefit from their countries’ increasing prosperity.

Socio-economic inequality relates to disparities in both economic and social resources, linked to social class and includes earnings, income, education and health that contribute to a sense of wellbeing. Typically measures of socio-economic incorporate such indicators as income, education, occupation, or health status.

Kenya’s widening socio-economic inequality is making headlines again. A recent report, – Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling apart or pooling together?, suggests that the widening well-being gap among individuals and communities is a worrying scorecard, especially after 50 years of successive governments run by ourselves.

The richest 10 percent of Kenya’s households spent on average 14.3 times more than the poorest 10 percent of households in 2011. Similarly, 10 percent of Kenya’s wealthiest households control 42 percent of the total income, while the poorest 10 control just 1 percent. Over 64 percent of Kenya’s population live on spend Ksh. 7200 (USD 83) or less per month. The gap in educational attainment between middle income and poor Kenyan children is about 40-60 percent wider than it was about three decades ago. 82 percent of the population in Turkana Country is illiterate, compared to just 11 percent in Nairobi County.

Ours is a tale of three countries: the obscenely rich country; the gasping middle-income country, teetering on the precipice; and, the miserably poor country. Unchecked, socio-economic inequality has a strong negative welfare impact and poses threats to future well-being and social cohesion. In their book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that inequality can result in non-income disparities in health and education outcomes, further undermining public investment in poverty reduction.

The drivers of socio-economic inequality in Kenya, in my view are: educational inequality,; blind and unbridled faith in trickle-down economics, especially during the Kibaki administration, historical and politically motivated bias in allocation of public resources, failure to develop the agricultural sector, which employs a majority of the poor.

Even the Pope is suspicious of trickle-down economics. In his Apostolic Exhortation released on November 26 2013, the Pope Francis writes; “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world”.

I dare say that Kenya’s wealthy and privileged classes are the perpetrators in chief of socio-economic inequality. Over the decades, these classes have been refused to stand up for the justice and fairness. They remind of the Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Like the priest the privileged classes have seen the poor, “stripped of their raiment, and wounded”, but passed by on the other side.

Here is how the privileged classes pass by on the other side everyday; when public schools decay, they send their kids to expensive private schools, when public health care collapses, they seek healing in private hospitals, when the roads are broken and dangerous, they ride in SUVs and take airplanes to travel between our cities, when the neighborhood is unsafe they build high perimeter walls and hire private security, they disdain honesty and hard work embrace greed and corruption. In the minds and hearts of Kenya’s wealthy, prosperity is the privilege of the few. Kenya’s privileged classes have become so atomized and disdainful of a life centred on values, shared prosperity and community.

Moreover, our political and religious institutions have failed to provide a shared vision capable of inspiring of inspiring us to create a just and fair society. I think in his Apostolic Exhortation last week Pope Francis addressed Kenya’s privileged classes when he said “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor”.

Socio-economic inequality is not an inescapable consequence of economic growth. Decline in inequality in Brazil has occurred alongside economic growth. In particular, the spread of conditional cash transfer programmes such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme, under which substantial transfers are made to poor households provided children attend school and participate in health programmes, have played an important role in this pro-poor redistribution. I believe there is considerable scope for progressive policy to successfully undermine the foundation of Kenya’s socio-economic inequality. 

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