I have just returned to the capital city from the Christmas break having spent time in rural South Nyanza at a place called North West Karachuonyo. I must confess that each time I visit the countryside and mingle with rural folk, I find myself wondering why the quality of life for rural folk hasn’t changed much despite the bragging and the extravagant promises we keep hearing from leaders.
Different parts of Kenya still live in different centuries in so far as basic amenities are concerned. Which begs the question: What, really, is the animal we call rural development?
When you build a modern dispensary somewhere in the rural areas but do not provide the medicines, do not staff it with nurses, or fail to make a budget for recurrent expenses, does this amount to development?
Or, when you establish a women’s group that is busy acquiring assets and implementing income generating projects all over the place, but does not build mechanisms to ensure that the profits trickle down into the pockets of the poor rural women can you real claim to have contributed to rural development?
What is the point of bragging about creating successful women’s groups with profitable income generating projects when the majority of their members are living in squalor and suffering from malnutrition?
Today, what you are likely to see as you visit villages in rural Kenya are incomplete dispensaries, half-built sports stadia, haphazardly designed foot-bridges, incomplete cattle dips and poorly designed and constructed roads.
The biggest problem is mind-set. Our leaders suffer from a mindset that equates rural development with building something- with brick and mortar.
We are always out there organising big harambee meetings and raising millions to fund capital expenditure , building new churches, constructing dining halls and new classrooms for our boarding schools, but will not stop to think about where the funds for recurrent expenditure will come from.
We will raise millions of shillings to build cattle dips but will not stop to think about where the money to buy acaricides or where the money to run and maintain the facilities will come from.
We are fascinated by brick and mortar, but will devote disproportionately fewer resources to things that directly impact on the quality of life of the rural poor.
I make these remarks as an entry point to a discussion on the government’s unconditional cash transfer programme known as Inua Jamii.
Under this programme, the government gives unconditional monthly cash grants to the poor, widows, the physically challenged and the elderly.
From observing the impact of this programme on the lives of poor rural folk in my own village, I am convinced that well-targeted cash transfer programmes can do more to the quality of lives of the rural poor in rural villages than those brick and mortar projects our politicians are fond of bragging about.
Each time I am down there in the village, I find it remarkable to see old and poor folk trooping to Homa Bay town to receive their monthly handouts of Sh 2,000.
There are times when the money can delay for as long as four months. But when that happens, the cash handouts come in arrears. There have been occasions when folks received as much as Sh 12,000.
What is the money spent on? Most of the money goes into buying food- mainly grains, flour, fish, meat and vegetables. And, some of the money goes into improving their dwellings: refurbishing houses, erecting latrines and buying furniture- beds, blankets, chairs and solar lamps.
Then there are those who spend the money on defraying hospital bills, paying school fees for relatives and buying clothes for their children.
Whenever the Inua Jamii money is paid out, there is an immediate upsurge in buying power of the community. The boom in business activity is in the marker centres are immediately palpable, with fisherman, livestock farmers and grain traders recording massive sales.
Inua Jamii is turning out to be a big economic stimulus to these rural villages. Rural Kenya is ripe for more comprehensive unconditional cash transfer programmes. Instead of brick and mortar, just give these rural folks more cash handouts. ‘Development’ can come later.