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Inequality’s the bane of development

By Irungu Houghton | January 28th 2018
One percent of the world’s population currently enjoys four fifths of the world’s wealth [Courtesy]

A couple of years back, Koch Festival organisers invited Kilimani residents or Kilimanians as we now call them, to visit Korogocho on the other side of Nairobi County. That trip and others like it since, always remain vivid for me. The gap between these and other neighbourhoods across Kenya remains grotesquely huge. We live in the age of greed as some have argued in Davos and Dandora this week. This is the greatest challenge before President Kenyatta’s new Cabinet. The world’s most powerful men and women spent the last four days discussing the world’s challenges at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Climate change, terrorism and a looming global finance downturn preoccupied their speeches. Inequality was also on the agenda. 

One percent of the world’s population currently enjoys four fifths of the world’s wealth. Since 2010, the number of billionaires have increased by 13 per cent, six times more than ordinary workers. By contrast, half of the world have seen no real change in their lives. As Oxfam International’s Winnie Byanyima argued, “We are creating a world in which wealth is valued over productivity and hard work.”

These global discussions need to find a sharper focus in Kenya. The inequalities gap between Nairobi’s Westlands and Eastlands is no different than that of Nairobi and Marsabit. Our children are rapidly being characterised in only two ways; “watato wa calbro” and “watoto wa mtaa.” Our numbers experts tell us the richest 10 per cent of Kenyans currently own 40 per cent of the country’s wealth. The poorest 10 per cent live, educate their children (or not) on only 2 per cent of our national wealth. Levels of poverty in a quarter of our counties leave 4 out of 5 Kenyans absolutely poor.

These figures betray the premature triumphalism in the announcement of national Lower Middle Income Status in 2014. “Half chicken GDP economics” we can call this. Some of my neighbours have eight chicken, most of us have none. Do we now argue the village has one chicken each and we are all doing fine?” Stepping over this, will only sustain a bloated billionaire minority at the expense of millions of hungry and increasingly angry Kenyans.

Far from the Davos mountains are the mountains of garbage of Dandora, Embakasi. Another “Summit” took place here yesterday, hosted by one their most eloquent voices, social justice musician Juliani. Dandora best represents the challenge of inequality we face. Nearly 40 years after it was established as a housing estate, Dandora is the Capital’s Dumpsite. Three football pitches lie under garbage. With no formal employment, credit or economic opportunities in sight, adults and children sort, collect and sell the nation’s leftovers for a living.

The historical failure to transform these realities has left many of us numb to the possibility of a different country. What we conveniently forget is that all we see (and try not to see) is created by policies, investment and laws. We still don’t challenge our policy-makers enough. We leave them to the lethal embrace of tenderpreneurs on golf-courses and high end night-clubs. In so doing, they lose their real purpose for public service and we lose them.

We don’t challenge philanthropists to move beyond “charity for selfies” and short term fixes. Imagine if a fraction of our “eight chicken” middle class put their resources behind civic organisations like Mathare Social Justice Centre, Mombasa’s Manyunyu Community Organisation, the Vunjakimya Rapid Response Network or Kajiado’s Youth against Corruption Network. Young Lufta Ali of Machakos put the challenge to them well this week, “Strong people stand up for themselves but stronger people, stand up for others.”

These organisations are working on big issues important to their communities and have their trust and respect. They no longer seek permission to operate and are still largely unrecognised or supported by the authorities. Among them is Dr Kizzie Shako, Kenya’s first female police surgeon and NCHRD Human Rights Defender Award 2017 winner. She is committed to save lives of one person at a time arguing “silence breeds violence.” 

Perhaps, it is time we put some resources in their vision for their communities and Kenya. Perhaps also, our new Cabinet needs to add a fifth big pillar. Inequality is the most dangerous of all animals in our national jungle. Left ignored, it could devour the four policy pillars and Jubilee’s legacy with ease.

- Mr Houghton writes in a personal capacity. @irunguhoughton

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