Kenya must steer clear of populism and stop manufacturing poverty

global warming, rising temperatures, climate change

According to the World Bank, climate change will potentially impoverish 100 million people in the next decade or so. As such, Kenya’s proposal to plant 1.5 billion trees must go beyond rhetoric and become a reality.

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Extreme poverty is on the rise. Some 719 million people — 9.2 per cent of the world’s population — are living in extreme poverty, on less than $2.15 a day.

The vast majority of the estimated 10 per cent of the world population struggling with extreme poverty is largely concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sadly, the policies and practices of states are manufacturing poverty. To be sure, the idea of states manufacturing poverty is not new.

States manufacturing poverty is the subject of a recent article by Margaret Talbot, evocatively titled, ‘How America manufactures poverty’ (The New Yorker, March 13, 2023). 

The article is itself a review of a new bestseller by the American sociologist, Matthew Desmond, Poverty, by America (2023), which identified specific practices and policies in America that have consigned tens of millions to destitution.

“Nigeria must stop manufacturing poverty,” said Peter Obi, the leader of the Labour Party and presidential candidate in Nigeria’s recent election. 

Kenya’s fragmented power elite is busy manufacturing poverty. A string of problems have pushed millions deep into poverty. 

The Kenyan state is yet to develop and implement a cogent post-Covid recovery strategy. Prior to the eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, Kenya had made considerable progress with poverty reduction. 

The epidemic dealt the biggest setback to efforts to reduce extreme poverty, pushing an estimated two million Kenyans deeper into poverty. As a result, Kenya, like many countries in the world, is unlikely to meet the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030.

Second, the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine have pushed the country deeper into poverty. 

Third, the perils of climate change, especially the longest and most severest drought in the Horn of Africa, have imperilled efforts to reduce extreme poverty. 

According to the World Bank, climate change will potentially impoverish 100 million people in the next decade or so. As such, Kenya’s proposal to plant 1.5 billion trees must go beyond rhetoric and become a reality.

Conflict over power 

Since January, the power elite has been locked in conflict over power. Conflicts in countries like Libya and Syria have pushed more than 80 per cent of citizens below the poverty line. 

The recent bout of conflict in Kenya has weakened communities that are already struggling, undermined the economy and exacerbated poverty. 

Not less than Sh7 billion was destroyed in anti-government protests in the month of March.

This manufacturing of poverty manifests itself in the still underdeveloped infrastructure. 

The ideologies of the hustler nation don’t think it is important to continue investing in infrastructure, which includes roads, bridges, the internet and public transport. Yet families and communities that lack connectivity cannot access the markets, services and resources they need to lift themselves out of poverty.

Second, the manufacturing of poverty is also manifest in the high costs of food, other consumer stuff and housing. It is estimated that 60-80 per cent of the incomes of the poor is spent on food.

Third is the serious lack of water and sanitation, and hygiene. About 28 million Kenyans lack access to safe water and 41 million lack access to proper sanitation. 

Kenya is home to some of the more than two billion people globally who have no access to clean water at home. 

The impact of the manufacturing of poverty is felt across social stratums.

One of the stratums affected is the middle class. Before the epidemic, the African Development Bank (ADB) categorised Kenyan middle-income earners as those getting an average annual income of $3,900 or more — estimated at 44.9 per cent of the Kenyan population. 

Today, a third of Kenya’s middle class is a heartbeat away from poverty. It is a sitting target of recent state policies and is increasingly bearing the brunt of the high cost of living. 

It is also the main target of the implementation of policies that use the consumer class to cushion other segments of society. 

Growing inequalities 

Kenya’s growing inequalities have benefited the wealthy and pampered the upper class pushed the vast bulk of the middle class to poverty and brutalised the poor lower class.

Poverty is also turning the youth bulge into a demographic time bomb. Kenya’s total population will increase from an estimated 55 million in 2023 to 115 million by 2065. 

Correspondingly, the population of young people between 15 and 24 years will increase by more than 10 million to 18 million, and many of these young people living in extreme poverty.

Moreover, Kenyan youth aged 20 to 29, the age bracket of fresh university graduates, had an unemployment rate of more than 32.4 per cent as of 2020. 

The hardest hit by poverty are those without an education. According to Unesco, more than 170 million people would be free of extreme poverty if they only had basic reading skills.

Additionally, exclusionary policies have created social injustice and undermined efforts to lift the poor out of poverty. Discrimination along racial, gender, age, ethnic and religious lines limit access by the poor to job opportunities, good education and resources. 

As recent events in Kenya have shown, widespread poverty has lured poor Kenyans into dangerous, unregulated churches or cults. It is the German economic theorist Karl Marx who popularised the dictum: “Religion is the opium of the people.” 

More than 109 Kenyan followers of Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, a ‘cult leader’ with the Good News International Church, have perished after the preacher told them to starve themselves to death in order to ‘meet Jesus’!

The Kenyan experience is not new. South Africa’s Pastor Mboro demanded a $100,000 transport fare to travel to hell and fight the coronavirus demon in March 2020.

Kenya needs less populism. The state should steer clear of populist approaches and instead focus on effective national policy reforms to help reduce poverty.

The country should avoid introducing broad subsidies that end up benefiting the wealthy classes, and widening the poverty gap. Instead, it should increase targeted cash transfers to the poor.

Long-term interventions hold the key to poverty reduction. The country should invest in high-return investments in education, research, development and infrastructure projects and mobilise domestic revenues without hurting the poorest of society.

We must conclude with the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who noted that: “The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes.” The hustler of today should be the middle class of tomorrow. It is to the middle class we must look for the safety and stability of Kenya’s democracy.

Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser, the Chief Executive at Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University, Kenya.