We need to query policies on poverty reduction, wealth creation

There is little doubt that the issue of economic inequality and the lack of political will to eradicate poverty will be one of the defining issues of our times.

It is already playing out across the world as right-wing politicians seek to maintain the growing gap between the rich and the poor by invoking nationalist, racist and fascist sentiments and propaganda to confuse populations into garrison mentalities to fend off demands for economic equality and equity.  

Some of this propaganda is wrapped up in statistics about employment figures. But as Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima explained in simple language in a video that has gone viral to conservative corporate types at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, it should be about the dignity of the job.

That Davos, the most influential gathering of the rich and powerful, could entertain a conversation about economic inequalities speaks volumes. But whether these corporate types will take the issue seriously remains to be seen, but don’t hold your breath.

People with power rarely give it up willingly and with a smile. Now, this contestation is not new. It is what made Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famous from the 1800s as they sought to better understand and combat social and economic injustices and inequalities. In simple terms, they reckoned that uninhibited capitalism focused on profits at the expense of workers and humans that generated the wealth, would inevitably lead to tensions, conflict and revolutions.

As predicted, there were class conflicts and various attempts at revolutions in Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The communist takeover of Russia in 1917 was probably the single most important event in influencing countries to shift from laissez faire capitalism and incorporate the welfare state that provided services and goods to the poorest in society.

Hence, the rise and increase of free and quality education, free and quality healthcare, affordable housing, affordable public transportation, free job training and providing food for the poorest. Conversely, there was also increased taxation on the rich, as well as deliberate state encouragement of trade unions to fight for workers.

The rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the USA and the UK respectively marked the beginning of the end of this experiment, as they advocated for unrestrained market fundamentalism, their rise coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union teetering under its own internal contradictions, and liberal use of repression and coercion.

And so, for the last 30 years or so, the global economic focus has been on expanding profits for executives and shareholders, with little heed given to the people whose sweat generates these profits and whose standard of living has remained the same or decreased.

Last week, the Ted Sorensen Centre for International Peace and Justice at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law hosted a conversation with Prof Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights - and the world’s leading authority on human rights - which I moderated.

Prof Alston - who some may remember from his visit to Kenya in 2008 as the UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial executions and his frank report on the shocking role of the state in killing its own citizens - discussed his recent visits to the US, UK, and China in the context of extreme poverty and human rights.

He also discussed his thematic report on the link between privatisation of public services and extreme poverty, making the case that almost always it is the poorest who suffer when governments privatise services, as companies find it easiest to cut off the poor to reduce costs and increase profits.

He had some startling revelations from his reports. In the US, there are 40 million poor people, in a population of 300 million.

That works out to one in every eight people in the world’s richest economy! He focused his report on the impact on this extreme poverty on the enjoyment of civil and political rights - in a country that defines itself as a democracy - and found it wanting.

Poverty in America, beyond forcing a life of indignities with respect to shelter, food, work, education and health, also excludes people from voting, expressing their rights of assembly, and forces lower standards for fair trial.  

Eradicating poverty and ensuring human dignity in America is easy. But Donald Trump’s agenda of tax cuts for the rich, increased funding for the military and destroying Obamacare are not about the poor.  

For Kenyans, we need to ask how much of the Kenyatta regime’s policies are about reducing poverty, and how much they are about accumulating wealth for the rich, including his family.

He has taken huge loans in our name, but have these helped us or have they helped the small clique of the rich more? Who gains when important parastatals - like KCC, KenGen, Kenya Port -are sold and who will buy them?

The SGR is being expanded to Naivasha, but do we know who owns the land that is housing the Internal Container Depot there? And do we know where all or part of the proceeds of the Eurobond went?

- The writer is former KNCHR chair. [email protected]

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extra-judicialMaina Kiai