Since Independence, the government as well as donor community have made great efforts towards poverty reduction but despite moderate improvement, more than 45 per cent of Kenyans still live in poverty.
If we compare our pace of poverty reduction with that of East Asian countries, we have simply failed. What bothers me most is the fact that we have not acknowledged this failure as a basis of starting afresh to deal with the problem effectively.
There are several reasons why we have failed. First is the assumption that it is only the economists who know what is happening and they are the ones who prescribe the solutions. Second is our failure to design the solutions with the poor themselves.
Third, we do not have a common understanding with respect to how we measure poverty reduction. Fourth, but not the least, policy makers do not seem to understand the causes and severity of poverty in the country.
In Poverty and Economics, Daniel Little rhetorically asks: how important should the subject of poverty be within the discipline of economics? There are times when it seems that developing world economists work in silos, and blindly apply Western theories.
Indeed some contemporary economists like Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have given the greatest attention to poverty as deprivation, neoclassical, free-market purists stand at the other end of the garden says Little.
The economists of the Chicago School put primary emphasis on the beneficent effects of untrammeled market behaviour, and they give little attention to the “market imperfections” that poverty and deprivation represent.
I know this well because at the inception of mobile money, their biggest fear centred on money supply and a dual regulatory framework that was not in any known theoretical foundation.
The tech community had invaded their comfort zone. Yet disruptive innovations bring about greater efficiencies. There are probably many innovations that have not seen the light of the day due to always working in a silo.
And in poverty lie many solutions that economists may never see by themselves. There is need to always incorporate sociologists, psychologists, business people and other professions.
In bringing together all stakeholders, you enable what in tech community is referred to as co-creation. To prove that this concept works, I spent time with folks from flood prone Budalang’i, Mukuru kwa Njenga, Mathare, Kisii township, Kiambu and Migori just to understand how they perceive poverty reduction interventions.
I had a one hour focus group discussion covering issues around poverty mitigation and representation.
Whereas a few had some idea that there were poverty mitigation measures like the Uwezo Fund, many had no clue about what was going on.
Virtually all of those I talked to did not know the role of their MPs. They fairly articulated their problems and had an understanding about what needs to be done but as they said, they are never part of the solution, including their own Constituency Development Fund (CDF).
They could not explain whether CDF or any other intervention has helped anyone come out of poverty. There are no measurements of success.
It is said that if you can’t measure it, it is not there. Despite regular monitoring and evaluation from the Planning ministry, the measurements are unknown to the public.
If government gave a subsidy on fertiliser, it would be helpful to know the yield rates and comparisons made to previous harvests to understand the value of the intervention.
In this kind of measurements, most interviewees heartily laughed saying such a move would be resisted because of corruption.
In a country where more than 70 per cent are involved in agriculture, measurements are critical in understanding where poverty is coming from and devise innovative mitigation measures.
I asked the groups in their understanding what causes poverty. In some winded ways, they thought lack of information was the primary cause. And they are right.
They think if the government takes care of health and education, their poverty status would significantly improve.
Indeed data from the Ministry of Health show that the former Nyanza and Western provinces lead the country in infant mortality rates most of which are as a result of water-borne diseases.
Water that is abundant in these regions is a curse. Yet CDF is enough to provide clean water to all. If we dealt with the water problem, we would perhaps reduce poverty by 20 per cent in these parts of the country.
In summary, it is imperative that we co-create solutions, involved mwananchi in CDF utilisation and strive to measure our performance towards poverty reduction. Sending prescriptions to faceless people is not the best approach.
Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi, and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.