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Politicians talk about poverty only when they want our votes

Dr Mokua is Executive Director, Loyola Centre for Media and Communication.

Should we regulate political advertising? Must political aspirants lie to voters to get votes? Worse, should we just watch as we are being lied to as if we can do nothing about it? 

Most of the campaign materials available on streetlight poles, in shops, on vehicles or the giant bills advertising MCAs, Woman Reps, MPs, senators, governors and presidential aspirants have a very interesting sloganeering around poverty eradication.

No, not poverty eradication the way we know it in development programmes. The campaign sloganeering you are likely to see has to do with “selling and buying poverty for votes”. You see, in the developing world, the question of poverty eradication makes sense insofar as we are able to approach development partners with statistics on severe poverty levels in Kenya.

In development communication, we talk about “selling poverty” through features and documentaries to attract funding. The deeper meaning is that no partner funds you if you don’t demonstrate that indeed there are real human beings who live below the poverty line. The monetary language is selling poverty to attract sympathy for people who mysteriously “survive on one dollar a day.”

Out of 10-election campaigns, adverts you interact with as you go about your daily routine are about how a saviour is finally at your doorstep. The call-in the adverts is in ways leading to the voter buying the line that “your economic status will improve” if “you vote me.” The first stage of the campaign is to sink the poor voter into accepting their helplessness. From that pit, a voter needs a saviour.

Turn the logic of such sloganeering the other way. This is what it in fact says, “insofar as you don’t vote me, you will remain poor.”

Ironically, the poor sell their poverty to aspirants to get by during this period when there is plenty of money in circulation. Many rally attendants are at work. They are vending their availability to cheer and heckle as per terms of service. Crowd renting is a very lucrative business around this time. At least many people, particularly unemployed youths, can sell their poverty by making themselves available to aspirants.

Paradoxically, the aspirants are merchants of poverty. They buy poverty to appease the sellers that they matter. On the contrary, they do not matter after voting. People in the same economic power bracket will not buy each other for a vote. They transact for mutual benefits.

The amount of campaign money available for this or that service with the majority poor is amazingly in abundance. This is why many poor people tend to vote for whoever “buys their poverty” when such a commodity has value. Post-August 9, the poverty demand will diminish and the value slumbers until 2027.

The difference between selling poverty to development partners and selling poverty to political aspirants is that the voter and the political aspirants do not have much love lost between them. They both do not care about each other but have such a strong dependency that they cannot do without each other. Society must have leadership so the poor and the aspirant must maintain each other by selling and buying poverty as the common denominator. However, this is a pure third world problem. In countries with functional systems, people vote issues.

The development partner, on the other hand, comes in to solve a problem because eradicating poverty is a good thing. It is within a human rights framework that poverty should be eradicated. I know the dependency syndrome is equally sustained by some development partners but it is worse when our own turn against us for political enslavement.

There is a need to deconstruct the tonnes of slogans and messages being thrown at us as we enter into the homestretch of this year’s generation election.

In particular, I find it dehumanising to use people’s poverty to glorify oneself just to get votes. There are a million ways one can successfully campaign without manipulating the poor and the situation they find themselves in. 

Dr Mokua is Executive Director, Loyola Centre for Media and Communication.