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Take your marks: The poverty race begins now

“Programs alone can’t replace parents; government can’t turn off the television and make a child do her homework; fathers must take more responsibility to provide love and guidance to their children.”

Now THAT is why I like Barack Obama. Not because he’s Kenyan (he isn’t, in any sense that matters), but because he is asking people to take responsibility for their own lives, rather than sitting back and waiting for a government, a corporation, an NGO or a guardian angel to descend with blessings and solutions.

That America, the bastion of enterprise and self-reliance, is in sore need of this message is indeed cause for concern. It demonstrates that all over the world people have built false expectations about what others should do for them.

Here’s another man I like: A. Parthasarathy, a trenchant Indian spiritual scholar who also says it like it is. In his famous book ‘Vedanta Treatise’, he dismisses the notion that we must take responsibility for others. “Your foremost occupation in life should be just to do whatever work you ought to do. That is the beginning and the end of all your obligations. You are not to brood or worry about your own creation of duties or responsibilities. Your real duty in life is to keep yourself mentally self-sufficient, self-poised and self-pleased. All other service that you do is secondary. Your primary service to the world is to keep yourself cheerful and happy.”

His point? That you are of no use to the world if you are perpetually stressed, depressed, repressed. Your contribution to the world is through work and service, and you cannot deliver that contribution without being strong and equable. So look after yourself; only then can you do something for the world.

We need to listen to all those words very clearly here in Kenya, where the dependency culture is frighteningly entrenched. Here, a hundred people seem ready to live off a single one. Here, relatives distant and close crowd into the yards and receptions of ‘big men’, awaiting handouts. Here, we are always looking for someone else to do something for us: pay school fees for the multiple children WE gave birth to; give us a job; give us free land; pay all our hospital bills.

This was brought home starkly to me years ago when I was conducting a restructuring exercise at one our leading banks. A very senior executive, reporting to the CEO, asked to see me in private. He asked whether my team was considering shifting the organisation toward cash remuneration, rather than paying for all the perks the executives were used to: house and car allowances, school fees, home staff salaries, etc.

“Yes, I replied. That is the modern way. You get more cash and fewer perks, and can choose how to spend your own money rather than the company choosing something for you that may be sub-optimal.”

He pleaded with me to abandon this plan. Why? It would be his undoing! He was only able to keep all the hordes of rural relatives seeking handouts at bay by claiming that the company paid for everything in kind rather than cash. If it ever came out that he was given cash to dispose of as he saw fit, he would be finished!

I am reminded of that gentleman when I see the latest hullabaloo in the press. I am profoundly depressed to see politicians of all shades jumping up to claim that their constituencies are the poorest, most miserable and most pathetic in the land. Where else in the world would anyone want to win the race to be declared the most impoverished? This is ridiculous in the extreme, and shows just how far we and our leaders have fallen in our thinking.

The reason for the outcry is simple: the poorer you are, the more handouts you feel entitled to. And so politicians and their constituents are crying foul over the newly published constituency development list, and seeing a ‘dark hand’ in the calculations. I have no idea whether anyone has cooked the list, and it would not surprise me if someone had.

What is alarming is the mindset on display. The only way to get ahead is to parade your poverty and exaggerate your wretchedness! What would those countries that were gifted only barren rocks and hot deserts say to that? Do the South Koreans sit around waiting for handouts? Do the Israelis? Do they think the world owes them a living? No, they are some of the hardest-working people on the planet. They have made the most of their lot, educated themselves and added doggedness and determination to the mix.

I am sick of seeing grown men sitting under trees drinking while their womenfolk carry huge burdens. I am sick of seeing poverty extolled as a permanent condition, rather than a starting-point from which to move forward. The race to be declared poorest is the last one in the world we should want to win.

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