The burden of social obligations, or giving beyond your means

What you need to know:

  • Every evening, people in Nairobi gather at Garden Square Restaurant, All Saints Cathedral, St Andrews, and several other venues to fundraise for either deceased or sick relatives.
  • While other countries mitigate such problems with insurance, in Africa insurance is meant for the young.
  • While I sympathise with genuine problems and will go to great lengths to help, I detest the socialisation of self-inflicted problems.
  • Just like Franklin Roosevelt, the Obama administration took a bold step to provide universal health insurance (which many considered socialist) for all Americans, in spite of the country being the bastion of capitalism.

Every evening, people in Nairobi gather at Garden Square Restaurant, All Saints Cathedral, St Andrews, and several other venues to fundraise for deceased or sick relatives.

There are also other fundraisers including for college fees, weddings and other social events.

It is a quite burdensome tax to those who sympathise and feel compelled to donate. Many countries have dealt with such social problems in different ways. In Africa, we have never made any attempt to comprehensively address these challenges.

It is taboo, with dire consequences, to complain of this burden in public. Many people exceed their monthly budgets to keep up with the contributions, and to remain relevant.

I have taken the liberty to explore this subject, to detail the consequences of living beyond our means, and to suggest ways of dealing with the problem.

Persistent societal pressure to give beyond our means has its consequences. It creates a cycle of dependency and undermines our collective independence. It is not a sustainable method of addressing social problems. 

It is something we must deal with urgently, because in the long run we may end up playing into the hands of a few attention-seeking people. 

The pressure is such that a budget, which is the basis of planning, is not part of the exercise we consider every month.

My attempt to maintain a philanthropy budget of about Sh20,000 every month in order to be socially compliant keeps failing.

In some functions, the pressure is even higher when the organising committees decide minimum contributions, and in some cases my entire budget of Sh20,000 becomes the expected minimum contribution. It is assumed that you will always find other means to plug into your personal budget.

Those aspiring to be leaders often love to get the opportunity to give more than ordinary souls, and indeed they are expected to give more. 

Where the resources come from, only God knows but if you carefully listen to whispers of the invited guests, you get to know more about the generous contributors and their perceived sources of wealth. 


The pressure to be so socially relevant is what breeds corruption. Hefty contributions are supposed to endear the contributor to voters and sure as day follows night, we vote for those who buy our souls. 

Strangely, we later complain loudly about poor leadership, never blame ourselves for the part we play in electing mediocre leaders. What is indisputable is that poverty is intricately linked to choice of leadership.

The more we get into this trap, the more we create a leadership that we don’t want to have. In some of our counties, there are leaders funding social issues even more than the government. 

A casual survey will tell you that an ordinary person with normal sources of revenue will have no chance of running for office in such places as Nairobi.

Ideally, Chapter 6 of the Constitution was supposed to address this, but we gave the Legislature leeway to cushion themselves at the expense of good governance. The laws that were supposed to operationalise the Constitution did not address the problem precisely.

It is common knowledge that county chiefs are busy raising money by all means to finance their 2017 campaigns. The Auditor-General confirmed this in his 2013/2014 report. 

In the past week, governors have come together to oppose e-procurement through the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS). Governor’s contributions in fundraisers range between Sh50,000 and Sh100,000 per function.

In some cases, some of the governors have donated in excess of Sh2 million to some social causes. To donate this amount of money, even once a year, means that one’s net worth is beyond Sh1 billion.   

Yet we fail to ask the sources of this enormous wealth, although we know that such officials hardly, if ever, make Sh1 million a month in salary.


We must deal with the issue of dependence from a macro level if indeed we want to address corruption in Kenya. In the past, attempts were made to eliminate harambee but there was nothing to replace it. The result is that we have engendered a dependence so severe that sometimes it looks like an entitlement. 

In some functions, you are not even informed or requested to donate. You are just expected to be in touch and to contribute generously. We cannot progress if we continue to operate in this manner. 

While other countries mitigate such problems with insurance, in Africa insurance is meant for the young. When you hit 65, you are regarded as too risky by insurance companies, and this complicates our problems even further.   

While I sympathise with genuine problems and will go to great lengths to help, I detest the socialisation of self-inflicted problems. While researching for this article, someone gave me the following story. 

When his uncle retired, he disappeared to Mombasa with his entire pension, abandoning his wife of 35 years. At 60, he married a 25-year-old and when the pension ran out, he came home with two children. 

He called for a family gathering asking his sons and nephews to play a part in paying school fees for their young step-brothers and cousins. He also needed the family to arrange a fundraiser for his medical attention, and on top of that he needed the relatives to pay dowry for his young wife. 

I know that African traditions demand a communal approach to dealing with problems, but we need to rethink the role of culture in the case of a person who decides to enjoy the benefits of a second wife after retirement. 

With decreasing resources, we must adjust culture. It is time for Culture 2.0 in Africa.


The system we are quickly developing is a new form of feudalism. François-Louis Ganshof described it as a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords (the nobility), vassals (largely the clergy who stood between owners of capital and the peasants) and fiefs (those who surrendered their land in exchange for service, initially from the state).

The lords in our case are the people with the money, who donate it to lesser mortals in exchange for loyalty. Vassals are the intermediaries, who on behalf of fiefs, contact the lords for any social cause, and of course the fiefs are those who surrender their independence for service from the lords.

Feudalism was bad even for capitalists and was eventually overthrown. While searching for the best system, Max and Engels, in their attempt to shape German society, saw "human society as fundamentally determined at any given time by the material conditions – in other words, relationships which people get into and maintain in order to fulfil basic needs such obtaining food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families".

They identified five successful stages of development including:

  • primitive communism where the concept of ownership was beyond individual possession;

  • slave society characterised by class, private property and some form of democracy;

  • feudalism, largely aristocracy, nation states and hereditary castes;

  • capitalism, consisting of market economy, private property, bourgeoisie democracy, imperialism, and monopolistic tendencies; and,

  • socialism, which they characterised as a democratised, planned economy with common property.

We have never quite agreed on what system is best suited for Africans. Even when outside forces drive us into any particular system, we don’t quite get it, although we often prefer a hodgepodge of solutions that do not address our needs. 

This is where political parties should provide leadership, but as we know, none believes in any form of relationship with respect to socioeconomic development.


Instead, many confuse communism and socialism while others embrace primitive methods of wealth accumulation, thinking it is capitalism. In essence, we have not managed to deal with our own socioeconomic development from a macro level.

The small Scandinavian countries that were sandwiched between capitalist nations and the bastion of communism adopted a form of socialism that has worked immensely for their people. 

Just like Franklin Roosevelt did with social security, the Obama administration took a bold step to provide universal health insurance (which many considered socialist) for all Americans, in spite of the country being the bastion of capitalism.

If we improved our productivity levels and reduced wastage and corruption, we could very easily take care of education and health, two issues that form the bulk of our micro attempts to advance our socioeconomic development. 

Even within micro thinking, there are lessons from elsewhere and within that we can perfect to deal with our challenges more effectively. 

In Israel, they have a collective community gathering or cluster of farming communities called the kibbutz. Many are referred to as kibbutzim

The first kibbutz was established more than 100 years ago. More modern kibbutzim have expanded into other areas of the economy. The common thread of a kibbutz was largely socialist ideology and Zionism. 

As the Associated Press reported recently, by 2010, there were more than "270 kibbutzim holding in excess of 9% of Israel's industrial output, worth US$8 billion, and 40% of its agricultural output, worth over $1.7 billion". 


Those who live in the kibbutz adhere to a strictly secular lifestyle.

What I want you to note from the kibbutzim is the continuous improvement of their culture to meet emerging issues. We need such a system among the rural communities.

Cooperatives almost got it right but corruption put a check to meaningful progress. If only we had incorruptible leaders, we would already be the subject of discussion globally. 

It is not too late to revive some of the good things that worked in the past. Among the Kamba in Kenya we have the Mutui Museo (good neighbour) philosophy, which, although not well developed yet, is a concept that closely resembles the kibbutz. 

We need to develop it further and extend to other communities. Through such togetherness, we can develop insurance schemes to take care of the social concerns that drain us into poverty, yet we have more educated people now than any time before.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, once said, “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” Let’s get creative and move our people out of poverty.

The writer is an Associate Professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter: @bantigito


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