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How Big 4 will exorcise ghost of neoliberalism

By Faith Munuhe | June 13th 2019

President Uhuru Kenyatta delivers his Keynote address at a plenary session of the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver, Canada. [Standard]

In high income countries, young people have known this for decades: Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. When blues singer Janis Joplin sang these famous words, she did it on behalf of an entire generation, which sought to shake up and transform the system. The rules were just fine for their parent’s generations, but they wanted something different.

Those young rebels got their wishes in the form of a liberal culture wave that gave rights to women, freed oppressed minorities, and which brought greater awareness to environmental protection.

Where’s the wealth

In parallel, a different kind of freedom rode on the back of the liberal wave and became a reality some 40 years ago. It is sometimes referred to as neoliberalism: including lower taxes on the rich, deregulation, increased reliance on the financial sector, decreased government intervention, tax cuts for the rich, and eliminating social programmes.

Neoliberalism has allowed a broad range of market failures to proliferate, as Joseph Stiglitz, explains in a recent article. Not only is economic growth lower than what it was in the first three decades following Second World War - most of the growth is concentrated with those already extremely rich.

Youth across Europe, the US and, of course Africa, have found themselves in an unprecedented situation, in which they study more than their parents did, but earn less (if they have a job at all). They wish to act responsibly and invest their scant savings, but housing prices never stop rising.

This socio-economic reality also threatens liberalism itself. In many countries migrants and globalisation become the scapegoats for contemporary anguishes and the dream of an ecological revolution becomes an environmental nightmare.

We know this all too well ourselves. One in four young adults in our country is out of work, with youth unemployment making up 90 per cent of all unemployment in Kenya.

In the age of plenty, our youth find themselves equipped with a sophisticated smartphone, and a huge selection of places to go out and spend their money, but without the basics to return to.

They are, naturally, the primary victims of more than two million missing units in the Kenyan market. As a rooftop becomes unattainable, so does private (or privatised) education, and health services become unaffordable.

Indeed, this story is not unique to Kenya. We are - as other emerging markets - finally catching up with the troubles of Europe and the USA.

The insights of Prof Stiglitz is that you cannot fix the market’s problems by simply trusting the market. In his own words: “slow economic growth, rising inequality, financial instability and environmental degradation are problems born of the market, and thus cannot and will not be overcome by the market on its own”.

It is necessary therefore that governments all over the world take responsibility for the failings of the market. We see that call for such a government rising throughout the European countries and American states that were not taken over by the extreme right.

Sooner or later, if action is not taken by governments across Africa, the same abjectness and polarization will hit us too.

Wave of tsunami

Fifty-six years ago, after grandparents fought a long fight for their freedom leading to the retreat of the old colonial power and the granting of national sovereignty. This, however, is now endangered by the ripples of a neoliberal tsunami that has sent billions of people across the world into homelessness and uncertainty.

While Kenya is a liberal, open, and tolerant society, for its people to enjoy the freedoms that our founding fathers fought for, we need a government that doesn’t shy away from its responsibilities to guarantee the basic needs of its citizens. Only when those needs are met, will we say we have real madaraka.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ambitious Big 4 are key to our country’s challenges and to the freedom of our youth.

Shifting the economy and investing in manufacturing guarantees stable and rewarding jobs.

Just to be sure, food security and universal health coverage are essential to ensuring the dignity of everyone, including those who remain unemployed or are in transition.

Most importantly, however, would be the successful roll-out of affordable housing programme.

The rapid registration of youth for the programme demonstrates its high demand and makes the critics of the housing levy appear detached from the people’s needs.

Ms Munuhe studies International Relations at the University of Nairobi.

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