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Let Kenya finally focus on the causes, not the symptoms, of hunger

I was flicking TV channels a while back and came upon the spectacle of assorted GoK bigwigs flagging off something. They weren’t launching a race or opening a road; they were flagging off a convoy of relief food. For the long-starving people of Turkana.

I tweeted at the time: you don’t flag off relief food in front of the cameras; you send it quickly, quietly and shamefacedly.

The president himself was repeating the exercise a few days later, seeing off relief supplies to a number of counties. However, he was more candid and admitted that sending relief food to starving Kenyans is not an achievement; it’s an embarrassment.

And he is right. The fact that people starve in this country fifty years after independence should be a source of deep national shame. Where is the achievement in feeding the starving? Yes, it is vitally necessary to save lives when emergency situations are encountered. But that in itself is not a triumph; the true impact is to create a situation in which future episodes of widespread starvation never occur.

I often see groups of private do-gooders getting together to buy food with which to feed the poor. No problem with that, but all you’ve done is fill a few stomachs for a day. Who will fill them tomorrow? And why do so few people ever get together to address the bigger deal here: of ensuring people feed themselves, and don’t ever need humiliating handouts?

We can forgive the givers of private charity for not having a greater vision or intent, but we cannot forgive governments, at national or county level. No government should be proud to lead a beggar nation or a poverty stricken county. Every government should be focused on connecting the dots and fixing the bigger problem: of education, ability and exchange. President Kenyatta has indicated that it is these problems he is interested in tackling.

I have written here before: It is the failures of men that make famines, not the heartlessness of God. Hunger and deprivation are not immutable. A famine is not caused by lack of food, for the world has plenty of food. A famine is caused by a lack of entitlement to food. That is why, in even the most vulnerable and drought-prone counties, the governors, senators and MPs will never starve, and nor will other bigwigs. Their entitlements to food are nicely taken care of, you see.

The only answer to recurring famine is to attack the cause, not just the symptom. It is to create diversified income streams. So the answers lie in education, awareness, rural infrastructure, income diversification schemes, irrigation and modern farming.

I repeat what I wrote in 2011: “In a modern economy, a famine is a moral and intellectual disgrace. It is yet another blot on the tattered national CV. It records our failure to modernize our rural economy, prioritize our spending, rationalize our planning.”

We can solve this, but we choose not to. We choose to pretend that famines are caused by failed rains. We choose to keep people ignorant so that they can be grateful to be saved by the powers that be.

Any person who gives it more than a moment’s thought will know that giving someone food is merely a gesture, a bagatelle. There are bigger deals that await us, but we settle for the smaller deals, the easier ones, the ones that offer short-term relief but no sustained gain.

At some stage we have to realize, as individuals and as nations, that settling for the smaller action and expecting applause is a very small deal indeed. The bigger deal is to work quietly and with great urgency, for the greater good and the longer term. We hope this government can begin to crack the real problems of poverty and hunger, which so many predecessors have neglected.

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