Columnists

LETTERS: Why the fight against poverty is yet to be won

A section of the Mathare slum in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A section of the Mathare slum in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

When our forefathers fought for independence, eradication of poverty was one of the major issues the post-independence government planned to fight, we have fought a war on poverty and poverty won. As a country, then, we are stuck.

One reason we’re stuck is that the problems are huge and complex. But on a deeper level, we tend to think about them in ways that keep us from getting at their complexity in the first place.

It is a basic tenet of sociological practice that to solve a social problem we have to begin by seeing it as social. Without this, we look in the wrong place for explanations and in the wrong direction for visions of change.

The magnitude of poverty is especially ironic in a country like Kenya. More than one out of every two people in the Kenya lives in extreme poverty. For children, the rate is even higher.

Even in the middle class there is a great deal of anxiety about the possibility of falling into poverty or something close to it – through divorce, for example, or simply being laid off as companies try to improve their competitive advantage, profit margins, and stock prices by transferring jobs overseas.

How can there be so much misery and insecurity in the midst of such abundance? If we look at the question sociologically, one of the first things we see is that poverty doesn’t exist all by itself. It is simply one end of an overall distribution of income and wealth in society as a whole.

As such, poverty is both a structural aspect of the system and an ongoing consequence of how the system is organised and the paths of least resistance that shape how people participate in it. Simply poverty is man-made.

The first thing needed if we’re to get more than 60 per cent of Kenyans out of poverty is more jobs that pay decent wages. There aren’t enough of these in our current economy.

The need for good jobs extends far beyond the current crisis; we’ll need a full-employment policy and bigger investment in education and skill development strategies such as training what is required by the industry if we’re to have any hope of breaking out of the current economic malaise.

The system we have for producing and distributing wealth is capitalist. It is organised in ways that allow small elite to control most of the capital – factories, machinery, tools – used to produce wealth.

This encourages the accumulation of wealth and income by the elite and regularly makes heroes of those who are most successful at it. It also leaves a relatively small portion of the total of income and wealth to be divided among the rest of the population.

With a majority of the people competing over what’s left to them by the elite, it’s inevitable that a substantial number of people are going to wind up on the short end and living in poverty or with the fear of it much of the time.

It’s like the game of musical chairs: since the game is set up with fewer chairs than there are people, someone has to wind up without a place to sit when the music stops.

Clearly, patterns of widespread poverty are inevitable in an economic system that sets the terms for how wealth is produced and distributed.

If we’re interested in doing something about poverty itself – if we want a society largely free of impoverished citizens – then we’ll have to do something about both the system people participate in and how they participate in it.

But public debate about poverty and policies to deal with it focus almost entirely on the latter with almost nothing to say about the former.

If anti-poverty programmes have failed, it isn’t because the idea that poverty is socially caused is wrong. They’ve failed because policymakers who design them don’t understand what makes the cause of something ‘social.’

Or they understand it but are so trapped in individualistic thinking that they don’t act on it by targeting systems such as the economy for serious change.

I have seen days of promise and days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that, every politic regime comes with bag full of promises with no achievements. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so.

Because social problems are more than an accumulation of individual woes, they can’t be solved through an accumulation of individual solutions.

Ndirangu Ngunjiri, Watermark Consultants