Monday, January 13, 2014

Kenya needs an antipoverty policy


In 1963 Jomo Kenyatta set as national goals the eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease. But five decades later 46 percent of Kenyans live below the poverty line, most of them hungry, unemployed and often die from preventable diseases.

Wealth inequalities in Kenya are bewildering. The wealthiest urban households spend 691 times more than the poorest urban households. The gap in educational attainment between middle income and poor Kenyan children is at an all time high. 82 percent of the population in Turkana Country is illiterate, compared to just 11 percent in Nairobi County.

The poor are not just a statistic. They are fellow Kenyans: relatives, friends and neighbors.  The scale of poverty and the magnitude of inequality in Kenya is socially and politically unsustainable. Poverty in Kenya is a national disaster.

Poverty is defined in terms of assets or income or expenditure. But if you travel across this great country or walk our streets you quickly realize that poverty is far more complex. Poverty is a continuum of economic insecurity, a lack of opportunity, powerlessness and absence of choice. Poverty often undermines and chips away at the core of our humanity; hope and the dogged determination to strive and triumph.

In his book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits, C.K. Prahalad wondered why with all our managerial know-how and investment capacity we are unable to affect global poverty and disenfranchisement. But Jeff Sachs reassures us that a global movement to end poverty is taking shape.

There are two views about how poverty is created and transmitted. In the first view people are poor because of behavioral and cultural attributes. The poor are viewed as lazy, lacking in drive and focus, often unable to see and seize opportunities to advance. The poor lack education or skills and are held down bad choices. The poor are victims and perpetrators of poverty.

In the second view considers poverty as a structural phenomenon of a capitalist economy, which is rooted in the economic and political institutions of society. According to this view, the poor are the victims. How public resources for growth and productivity, such as schools, access to health care, water and sanitation, roads, credit, markets, skills and jobs are allocated determines the scale of poverty.

In their book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that extractive political and economic institutions lead to stagnation and poverty. Acemoglu and Robinson submit that extractive political and economic institutions concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a narrow elite, with no constraints on the exercise of this power, especially in the allocation of public resources for growth and productivity. Jeff Sachs was right when he observed that the ills the antipoverty movement must confront are powerful and deadly. 

Poverty is a syndrome characterized by a constellation of conditions that reinforce one another: not just failing schools, poor health, hunger and malnutrition, lack of clean water, poor housing or lack of personal drive but unemployment, low wages, poor roads, lack of markets, poor soils and degraded pasture resources. The conditions that create poverty transcend micro and macro levels. They are deep systemic problems in the structure and appropriation of political and economic power.

Speeches, party manifestos, vision statements and uncoordinated sectoral policies will not reduce poverty. Kenya needs an integrated antipoverty public policy.

The national government and the county governments, along with parliament, senate and the county assemblies must prioritize antipoverty policies. We must invest in the mechanisms that deliver equitable growth and high productivity. Targeted conditional cash transfers to poor mothers can improve child survival and educational achievement. We need growth models that create jobs, an education system, which prepares citizens, at all levels, for a competitive knowledge-based globalized economy.

Over 95 percent of poor Kenyans depend on smallholder agriculture. The best poverty and hunger antidote are policies that provide incentives for resource efficient climate and smart smallholder agricultural production linked to innovations for sustainable intensification, extension services, input credit, reliable public-private partnerships for value addition through agribusiness and marketing.  Not mega irrigation projects.

Moreover, policies to improve training and skill formation for youth, raising the minimum wage and employee benefits are more likely to be designed and implemented if professional associations and labor unions expend their immense political capital and agitate for enabling social protection legislation. 

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