If we scrolled through your phone, whose numbers would we find? The names are a good proxy for your networks – the people you can rely on in distress or in happiness.
On the list are sponsors – people who can sway decisions in your favour. They could be holders of big Government positions, captains of industry or even people who can help you see certain big people.
So who is your sponsor? We think of sponsorship in terms of older affluent men taking care of young women’s financial (among other) needs. I’m not interested in this type of sponsor.
The term is used more broadly to include anyone who can help you in times of financial distress.
Most naïve Kenyans still believe that upward mobility is based on hard work, lots of education, being faithful to one employer and being honest. They discount the role of sponsors.
One of the newspaper pages that I read like a love letter is the obituaries. These freely give information on who is related to whom professionally, by marriage and other ways. You can easily join the dots and get the web of sponsorship.
Family sponsorship is the most popular type. Your parents sponsor you in school, and can use their connections at the workplace or former schoolmates to get you a job or promotion. If you are looking for a job, parents call someone, not necessarily to corrupt them but to get information other candidates might not get. And who said all jobs are advertised?
Learn from experience
Parental sponsorship is double edged. Their smoothening your path through life from school to the job market denies you a chance to learn from experience.
If as a student you take a matatu to school, you learn something about life – how ordinary people struggle to make ends meet, you learn about scarcity as passengers haggle for fares that you think are already low.
In the animal kingdom, sponsorship is limited and genetically coded. Animals know when to kick the young ones away after teaching them how to fend for themselves through hunting, flying or running from predators.
For human beings, it is not that easy to end sponsorship. My hunch tells me that the period of parental sponsorship is getting longer, particularly in urban areas.
In rural and poor urban areas where families are usually large and resources scarce, sponsorship ends early and children are left to fend for themselves.
This has an unintended economic consequences: low wages. Early self-sponsorship means accepting any type of job at any wage.
Labour, being such a high percentage of the cost of production, means entrepreneurs can make huge profits, or if benevolent, reduce the price of goods and services.
Now you know why Nairobi’s Thika and Lang’ata roads are filled with crowds walking to work every day. Without such a crowd, most of the items you buy in shops would be more expensive. Give these pedestrians way next time.
In urban areas where families are small, the sponsorship period is longer. Resources are available and children are closer to their parents. Lots of parents are in a dilemma on how to end this sponsorship.
Do you agree to house adults? Do you give them money? Do they refuse to work? Do you organise their weddings and parties?
This prolonged sponsorship has another side effect: children fail to learn to take risks. No wonder fashion design, music and acting are popular with victims of prolonged sponsorship. Even in university, they prefer soft courses over STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
It is no wonder that urbanites keep wondering why ‘hustlers’ seem to do well in the long run.
What of other sponsorships?
In the workplace, particularly in the public sector, sponsorship is based on kinship or tribe, and political connections.
Sponsorship rhymes with our cultural imperatives of taking care of each other, particularly our relatives. Needless to say, some Kenyan communities have a higher marginal propensity for sponsorship than others.
In politics, who gets nominated as senator, MCA or MP? Lots of high-profile public jobs are got through sponsorship, not advertisements.
Visit most State corporations and you can tell who the previous MDs or current ones are by looking at the tribe statistics. They do not call that nepotism; it’s ‘helping’.
Let’s not have any illusion that sponsorship is a Kenyan phenomenon; it is universal. What matters is its legality and tolerance.
The economic cost of sponsorship is high, including the sub-optimisation of personal and human potential. By failing to let the market determine the best person to work in certain jobs, those hired have no incentive to offer their best service; they are often ‘protected’.
Sponsorship denies us the chance to take risks and reduces the amount of innovation and entrepreneurial energy in an economy.
Sponsorship is like a spice – too much is bad, too little is bad. Balancing is what matters. Are you a sponsor or sponsee?
The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi.