A woman poured very precious ointment on Jesus’ head. In indignation, his apostles asked, “To what purpose is this waste?’” In their view the ointment could have been sold for much and the money given to the poor.
But Jesus defended the woman and praised the good work that she had wrought upon him. Matthew 26:11 record these eternal words, “ For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always”.
Many people – academics, clerics, journalists and politicians – often read Jesus’ words out of context and use the scripture to justify or tolerate depressing depravation in society. A majority of those who invoke this verse believe that poverty cannot be eradicated.
Poverty is neither inevitable nor pre-ordained. There is, in my view, a constellation of structural, and hence modifiable conditions, which cause poverty to thrive. That every year, according to WHO, eight million people die because they are too poor to stay alive is unconscionable. A majority of these people die of hunger, malnutrition, diseases such malaria, diarrhea, respiratory infections and measles. All of these diseases can be treated or prevented.
Recent estimates by the World Bank put the population of global poor at 1.44 billion people, based on the $1.25 daily expenditure. However, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, based on a multidimensional poverty index (MPI), estimates that there are about 1.7 billion poor people. The MPI takes into account living standards ranging from quality of dwelling house, sanitation, child mortality and years in schooling. Based on the MPI, our poverty rate surpasses 50 percent.
But poverty is not only multidimensional. Poverty is produced by a confluence of interacting and mutually reinforcing conditions. The interplay among the legion of factors that cause poverty invariably creates a “poverty trap”. Columbia University’s Jeffery Sachs defined a poverty trap as the overwhelming interconnected burden of disease, illiteracy, lack of capital, hunger, malnutrition, low agricultural productivity, etc. Poverty is a wicked condition, not amenable to straightforward, technocratic or expert or silver bullet solutions.
Kenya’s new status as a middle-income economy is undermined by what many analysts as well as ordinary folk perceive as pockets of extreme wealth in vast and deep Ocean of poverty. The enduring puzzle is why the tide of economic growth has failed to lift millions of Kenyans out of poverty. What happened to the notion of “trickle down economics”? Have markets failed to distribute or allocate prosperity equitably?
Think about the more than one million children of school going age who are out of school because their parents cannot afford to clothe or feed them. Think about the millions of children who go to school but do not have a desk or a book or a teacher or a decent classroom or toilet or clean water to drink. Think about the hundreds of thousands of kids who will sit KCPE this year and yet cannot read at the level of a child in class three who attends a private school. Think about 40 percent of our children who enter school ready to fail because their cognitive capacity has been damaged by years of hunger and malnutrition.
The plight of Kenya’s less privileged children, and there are tens millions of them, reminds us that the greatest driver and purveyor of poverty is not wealth or income but the unconscionable gap of opportunity. A lack of opportunity creates differential life outcomes and often produces insurmountable divergence in life achievement, which is intergenerational. The most effective way to break the poverty trap is to deploy fiscal and social policy tools to ensure equitable access for every Kenyan child. For many years we imagined that free primary education alone was the best way to deliver equal educational opportunity for all Kenyan children. We were wrong. We forget that equally important was the health and socio-economic wellbeing of the children in the home environment.
We can learn from Brazil’s conditional cash transfer program, which has reduced child mortality, improved nutritional outcomes for children and bolstered school attendance among poor children.
We need to turn the plight of millions of children who lack opportunity today into a business proposition. A rough calculation shows that if 75 percent of the 906,000 children sitting KCPE in 2014 graduated from tertiary education with skills, they would add about $10 billion to our economy annually. Do we have the audacity to bet on our children?