The unforgiving gap between Kenya's poor and rich

By Robert Shaw

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, only 12 of every 100 people are classified as poor in Kajiado, whereas in Turkana 94 people of 100 live in abject poverty.

Why are there such huge and embarrassing disparities 50 years on?

The first thing to take on board is the contrasting geographical makeup of Kenya. Only a fifth to a quarter of Kenya can be classified as even good or reasonable arable land. The vast majority of Kenya ranges between arid scrubland to desert.

The bulk of economic activity has been highly concentrated in this productive agricultural zone giving rise to several major rural urban centres.The majority of the country’s population lives in this zone.

Conversely economic activity declines in relative levels as one gravitates away from this rich agricultural belt into these arid areas. Turkana is literarily at the end of the food chain whereas much of Kajiado borders or is close to Kenya’s agricultural heartland. 

While there has been generous lip service paid to the cause of national development nationwide, the reality on the ground is the complete opposite. The more remote the area the more it is likely to have only a skeleton of economic activity and an outpost form of government administration.

Kenya remains a highly unequal country with around 20 per cent of its population accounting for the half the national income at one end and the bottom 20 per cent scratching around with a mere five per cent of the national income.

 It is in the same league as the two countries traditionally considered as the most unequal in the world namely Brazil and South Africa and much more unequal than our neighbours Tanzania and Uganda.

As well as the divide between the economically productive areas versus the rest divide there is the unequal access to education, jobs, credit, land and markets which is underpinned by this geographical divide.

Three other dimensions of inequality are between the sexes, the rural urban divide regardless of region and the divide between the formal and informal sectors of activity.

Indeed some of these inequalities have become more entrenched over the years. In 1972 one in four urban Kenyans had formal jobs but by 2008 it was one in eight. The figures are starker in the rural areas with one in 25 having a formal job in 1974 increasing to one in 34 by 2007.

It is estimated by the World Bank that approximately 600,000 out of the 850,000 youth coming onto the job market each year get gainful opportunity and even more shocking is the fact only 50,000 of those get jobs in the formal sector.

Many of those informal jobs are part time and poorly paid.  What we have witnessed over the years is the   growing informalisation of job creation in Kenya which in turn enhances the relevant inequalities.

Another interesting facet has been the polarisation of wages and salaries in the formal sector itself. Between 2007 and 2009 the salaries of chief executives went up from being 315 times those of the lowest employees to 414 times as much.  The pertinent question is why have the stark inequalities arguably become even sharper and more pervasive over the years? There are two explanations. One is that there has, in effect, been very little real net growth over the years especially when population growth is factored in.

East Asian countries that at Kenyan independence in 1963 had per capita incomes equivalent to half of Kenya’s had attained equivalent capita incomes to Kenya by 1980. By 2007 Kenya’s per capita income was equal to only 16 per cent of the per capita income of South East Asian countries.

Even if we compare Kenya to most other developing countries, Kenya has lost ground since 1990. Kenya’s growth pattern over the years has been erratic and the lost decade of the 1990s with its Goldenberg scams and numerous governance issues really pulled us down.

A good example of our erratic growth pattern was the contrast between the two Kibaki terms. The first saw solid growth with 2007 hitting seven per cent. The second was one of a climb from a mere one per cent to just over a lacklustre four per cent by 2012.

While economic growth is not the magic bullet per se to end social inequalities and economic disparities, it is accepted that an economic growth rate of eight per cent and above makes it a lot easier to ease and reduce those disparities.

The other major factor is that there just has not been the political will or vision to systematically and deliberately attack and reduce those inequalities. If anything there has been an acceptance and acquiescence for those disparities hardening. Are there any positive indicators on the horizon? The new Constitution and its devolution bias and roadmap is certainly one.

The greater awareness of these inequalities and the increased political will to tackle them with the backing of the Constitution is another. Whether that will result in the necessary deliberate interventions and pro poor policies remains to be seen.