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Food aid will not save the poor – here’s what will

By XN Iraki | April 21st 2020
By XN Iraki | April 21st 2020
Residents of Kibra queue for relief food to help them cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic at the District Commissioner's office. [David Gichuru, Standard]

The recent riots over free food in Kibra got more airtime than the good gesture itself, reinforcing the popular image of Africa as a hopeless continent.

But let us be fair to Kibra residents. I have seen affluent men and women scrambling for free meat or beer in golf courses. Free things make us irrational.

Beyond the exchange of value, we pay for goods and services to bring some order. Suppose we did not pay for parking in the city?

The stampede for food is easy to explain – scarcity.

The citizens queuing are not sure they will get their ration. And past experiences may have informed their reaction. But what would have been the best option?

Let the market do its work. Kibra has been around for more than 50 years.

The market has been making food available in Kibra all this time. The hard-working residents buy food from vendors using their hard-earned cash.

The government has no role in supplying food beyond licensing the suppliers.

To be more specific, the government or politicians, in trying to supply food in Kibra or any other informal settlement, are doing what an efficient free market should be doing.

Have you noted how face masks have saturated the market within days of the State order for people to wear them while in public places?

We can worry about the quality later, but noted how colourful the masks are?

They are now a status symbol!

The best way to supply food to Kibra or any other informal settlement is to give them vouchers or money, and let the market supply the food.

Even refugee camps and donors are shifting to this approach.

Confirm identities

In other words, why not give these residents vouchers that they can redeem in supermarkets or designated places?

Better yet, why not use M-Pesa? Using data from telcos, we can confirm the actual residents of these informal settlements.

We can supplement telcos’ data with Huduma Namba data and from the registry of persons.

We could even link that data to tax payment to get a foolproof identity of who really needs help.

Once the citizens get their money, they can decide what is best for them. Who says what they need most is unga?

Choice is one key foundation of economics.

That is why it’s better to give couples money on the wedding day instead of beds, clocks, goats and so on. They can choose what to buy, what matters to them most.

And it’s more satisfying to them.

Debate will arise as to who between the husband and wife should be given the money, but that is besides the point.

It is possible that once the residents of Kibra or Mukuru kwa Njenga or kwa Reuben get money or vouchers, they could use it to buy alcohol or for entertainment instead of food. That is likely to happen, but for a minority.

Most people will put that money to good use.

A bigger question is the exit strategy.

How do we stop feeding a population that will have got addicted to food aid?

The aid should be time-bound, not open-ended. Data again matters. We can monitor the economic turnaround for individuals or significant events, like one getting a job.

If we do not control this aid, we risk creating a generation of dependents.

That has been noted in developed countries where dependency is passed from one generation to the next.

An easy way to get men and women out of dependency is to stigmatise it.

We are reliably informed sponsorship is a big industry in informal settlements, from school fees to other needs. Getting multiple sponsors is not uncommon.

But the ultimate exit strategy is to empower citizens to be economically independent. Give them a good education, positive attitude and skills.

The same market that will supply food to Kibra and elsewhere is not perfect.

It will not supply the best education to Kibra because residents may not afford it. Noted the location of high cost or international schools?

Just a thought; why not give vouchers to students of Kibra and other informal settlements to attend such high-end schools?

Visible hand

We know for sure that intelligence is normally distributed; there are as many intelligent men and women in Kibra as there are in Muthaiga or Karen

Harnessing their intelligence for the benefit of humanity using market forces or the visible hand of the government is the way to go.

Covid-19 has given slums a new focus. It should go beyond basics like food to improving their lives and exploiting their potential.

These are hard-working citizens; they only found themselves on the wrong side of the economic divide.

After all, the hallmark of a civilised nation is how it treats the disadvantaged members of society, not how it pampers its tiny elite.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi  

Covid 19 Time Series


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