Inequality erodes poor people’s confidence in public institutions

An image of Nairobi's Kibera slums taken on July 3, 2017. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Given the depth of deprivation in many parts of Kenya, growth will not be enough without attention to easing inequality.
  • Reducing poverty and improving social conditions are essential components of any viable development strategy.
  • In Kenya and neighbouring countries, food insecurity is the most common indicator of poverty.

The difference between the deserving and the undeserving poor remains a dominant theme in the history of social policy.

Indeed, it still remains current in much of social welfare thinking and practice.

In Kenya, almost half the population live on barely a dollar a day – in purchasing power parity terms.

When you look closer, a lack of capabilities, especially in education, health and nutrition among Kenya’s poor threatens to make poverty dynastic, with the descendants of the poor also remaining poor.

The rural poor are more, but urban poverty is substantial and appears to be growing.

Kenya, like other countries in the region is not only poor, she also suffers from vast inequality in incomes, in assets — including health and education status — in control over public resources and in access to essential services.

Schools are poor with inadequate facilities. In most areas, there are indicators of a deterioration in the general health of the population, particularly among the poor and children.

Not surprisingly, the elimination of deep poverty has emerged as the overriding objective of Kenya’s policies.

Growth is essential to reduce the number of poor people and can do so if sustained at high rates.


However, growth is less effective in the face of massive inequality.

Given the depth of deprivation in many parts of Kenya, growth will not be enough without attention to easing inequality.

We must also eliminate the barriers that constrain poor people’s ability to benefit from a growing economy and also to contribute to that growth.

A major acceleration of growth is unlikely without a dramatic improvement in human capital, particularly public health.

In that regard, vigorous action against current health challenges must be an essential component of the growth agenda.

Similarly, a higher savings rate is unlikely without an accelerated demographic transition.

This requires lower child mortality and higher female education.


As such, reducing poverty and improving social conditions are not simply consequences of development, they are essential components of any viable development strategy.

For these reasons therefore, Kenya’s development strategies cannot be focused solely on growth.

They will need to be grounded on a solid understanding of who the poor are and why so many have such trouble escaping from poverty.

Development strategies will also need to be adequately financed.

Poverty is more than an individual phenomenon. It is also a social and political one, entering into the workings of the economy and communities in a multitude of ways.

Poverty also makes it harder to avoid further environmental degradation.

Failing to address growing poverty risks increasing violence and crime and imperils peaceful development.

This, in turn, means that measures to reduce poverty are not a luxury; they are essential for the peaceful development.

Much more needs to be done to monitor poverty, including obtaining a better understanding of its dynamics – how it evolves for individuals and groups and how it is influenced by changes in economic policies.

It is also important to correctly analyse survey data and report them accurately to support policy formulation and implementation.

It is also worth asking: How are the poor identified and what is their view?

In Kenya and neighbouring countries, food insecurity is the most common indicator of poverty.

Many poor people are occupied with where their next meal will come from.

Poor people also speak extensively about the importance of assets, which they can use to get loans. They rarely speak about income.

Poor people also speak more about the social and psychological dimensions of poverty.

They crave a sense of belonging, a future for their children, safety and security for their families.

And although they distrust government institutions, poor communities express more trust in church organisations and in indigenous or local institutions.

As such, the government should strive to reduce poverty and inequality to gain the trust of the poor.

Prof Gesami is an economist and chair of the Nelson Mandela Centre for African Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. [email protected]


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