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We cannot develop if we leave the poor behind

Last Sunday I found I suddenly had a distinguished neighbour: a ‘whole’ ambassador, as we say in Kenya. No, I haven’t moved to one of those affluent suburbs where the diplomatic classes spend their weekends in stately repose. I refer to the fact that Bo Goransson, Sweden’s ambassador to Kenya, wrote a thought-provoking article on the page opposite (Sunday Nation, 21 March 2004).

Mr Goransson wrote eloquently and forcefully about an issue many of us in Kenya choose to ignore: inequality. The ambassador noted that we are one of the most unequal societies in Africa, where the rich are obscenely rich and the poor are desperately deprived. Yet we seem to be unwilling to discuss poverty and inequality, much less address it. He gave the telling example of Kibera, where 800,000 people crowd into a space that gives them an average of three square metres living space each; yet they are a stone’s throw (an unfortunately apt metaphor) away from the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, where the richly endowed have 10,000 square metres each in which to brandish their toys.

In Kenya, we who are not poor don’t ‘see’ the poor. We house them in slums, which we studiously avoid. We see them being ferried in trucks to miserable, back-breaking jobs, and we turn up the volume in our car stereos and look away. We watch them put up kiosks near our homes, and arrange to have them flattened by City Council bulldozers. We come across teenaged mothers carrying starving children on their young backs, and cross the street to avoid them. The poor are lepers, a stain on our otherwise pristine landscapes.

This attitude presumes that if people are poor, it’s their own fault. They are probably lazy and maladapted and lack what it takes to make a success of life. But put yourself in the unenviable position of having been born in Kibera. What kind of a life would you have?

For starters, you would be born pathetically poor, with little by way of assets in your family. Hunger would be a regular part of your daily life. You would most probably live in a semi-permanent dwelling, with no power or water, which would be flooded whenever it rains. Your father, if at all you know him, would probably not be married to your mother, and would seldom be around. You would face the threat of violence every single day from thugs and slum gangs. You would find that there is not a single government-funded school in Kibera, so education would be a distant and expensive luxury. You would arrive at the threshold of adulthood with no skills, poor health, little family support, and no particular hope for the future.

Equality of opportunity? If we fail to give poor people even the most basic building blocks of what it takes to make a success of life, then what exactly are we giving them? The guarantee of failure, and the certainty of more poverty.

If we are not poor ourselves, why should we care? We work hard, earn our money, look after our families, pay our taxes, don’t take anything out of anyone else’s mouth, and mind our own business, right? The poet John Donne had a succinct answer: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

The poor diminish us, because they bring into sharp focus our self-centredness. But this is not just a moral issue; enlightened leaders, from Bismark to Disraeli to Roosevelt, have recognised the economic issue for centuries. Extreme poverty is most often the result of social and economic conditions over which the poor have little control. Malnutrition, poor schools, discrimination, lack of job opportunities and a dangerous environment are central determinants of the fate of the poor. As countries become more affluent, they redistribute resources towards alleviating precisely these conditions. As we have developed through the four decades of our independence, we have done exactly the opposite: increased poverty and stretched the inequality gap to breaking point.

In Kenya, poverty is a disease to escape from and then avoid. Successive generations of leaders, even those emanating from the very slums we are discussing, have made it a point in life to shake off the rags of poverty as quickly as possible. They have hidden themselves away behind high walls and the curtained windows of limousines, never to return. Of course, no one ever gets elected without making promises to the poor. If the poor have anything, they have a vote; and they have the numbers to make their vote count.

The Narc government, too, pulled together a groundswell of votes from the poor. Narc politicians, too, made all the promises about jobs, services and education. They then announced universal free primary education upon taking power, and promptly moved on to more interesting things. Yet the government’s Economic Recovery Strategy states that only economic growth (a “bigger national cake”) will ultimately reduce poverty; but recognises that “in the medium term, interventions that increase access to social services and reduce inequality” are necessary and desirable.

In the short term, however, the emphasis is all on investors and boosting business confidence. Businessmen may be many things but they are rarely fools. Enlightened self-interest tells them many things: that they cannot sell their products in an economy where the purchasing power of the common man remains in perpetual decline; that they will not find skilled workers where education and nutrition levels remain so low; and that they will risk life and limb, not just capital, by landing in an economy where insecurity has gotten progressively worse over the past twenty years.

I, too, believe fervently in market mechanisms. But if we create a hundred billionaires and a hundred thousand millionaires without reducing the number of people in absolute poverty (an eminently feasible task), what exactly will we have achieved? No nation has developed on this planet without engaging its poor people and improving their lot.

I hold that the provision of incentives and freedoms are the pivotal part of this development process. We must change the way we think about the poor. We must recognise that upfront investments in providing incentives for the poor to participate in their own development are an absolute imperative. Our economic agenda should be dominated by business parks for micro-entrepreneurs, access roads for small-scale farmers and community banks for rural areas.

Sadly, it is not. As our Swedish friend pointed out last week, his taxpayers would be very happy to support initiatives like this. They are less keen on funding salaries for our MPs that outshine those of Sweden’s own legislators, and on paying for ridiculously ostentatious vehicles in a country with a poverty problem. And so they should be. Perhaps they can help us ‘see’ our poor people again.

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