Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rambling in Kenya

Yesterday, I made the fairly familiar journey from Nakuru in Rift Valley province to Mumias in Western Province. There are many beautiful sights on the way and the weather was good for travelling, sunny but not too hot. The roads for some of the journey have been improved, some are sill in the process of being improved and others are disintegrating and in a very dangerous condition.

Infrastructure conditions in Kenya have a lot to do with structural adjustment policies imposed by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank. These were first imposed in the early 1980s and they are still used, but they go under different names sometimes. Whereas, the road and other infrastructure improvements have a lot to do with Chinese development, which is carried out without the same level of conditionality.

Much of the fertile land in Nakuru is owned by a handful of very rich people, many of whom are members of political families, the Mois and the Kenyattas, for example. And like a lot of rich landowners, they don't feel the need to grow food crops or, at least, not food crops for Kenyans. You might think that wheat, sorghum and millet are food but the large scale producers, apparently, grow these crops to sell to breweries.

A few hours from Nakuru, the next big non-food product is tea, which dominates Kericho. Most of the industry is foreign owned or run and Kenyans make very little from this monoculture. It may be a world renowned product, but employees are paid very little, live in bad conditions and have few labour rights. That applies to those who have real jobs, rather than the far larger number, who have to take whatever bit of work that crops up, however rarely and however badly paid.

One of the big employers there is Unilever. You can read up on their level of corporate social responsibility on the Corporate Watch website. Suffice to say, they tick all the boxes that you'd expect of a multinational; monopolistic practices, unsustainable agriculture, exploiting cheap resources and labour, environmental degradation, appalling health conditions and a whole lot of other things. It's a long and depressing read.

Long before you reach Mumias you begin to see the sugar cane fields, sugar being another of Kenya's handful of monocultures that have played a big part in keeping Kenya poor for many decades. While sugar cane has long been grown in Mumias to be used as sugar, now there are plans to grow even more sugar cane destined for the biofuel market. Yet more land that could be used for food is being sacrificed for the blessed export market. The profits will go to a handful of rich people. Mumias Sugar Company does pay its employees well but the majority of people who work for the Sugar Company are not considered to be employees. They are casuals, contractors, outgrowers, etc. The majority of them make bugger all.

It probably sounds like I have a thoroughly miserable time travelling through Kenya, thinking about how much of the country is dedicated to exploitation. Well, there are still a lot of beautiful sights, if you are in a position to enjoy them. There's a good reason why tourists come to places like Kenya and even the trip to Kakamega Rainforest, Mount Elgon and Lake Turkana can be a great way of seeing the country. But even the tourist industry is another case in point; very few people make most of the money. The majority eke out a living somehow, but much of the tourist revenue doesn't even stay in the country.

Such conditions in developing countries may be, to some extent, influenced by their own governments. There are, indeed, many corrupt politicians and other parties and they have made themselves very rich. But governments, multinationals and other parties in rich countries have also made themselves rich by grabbing much of the wealth to be made in developing countries. And institutions like the IMF and the World Bank (and the World Trade Organisation) are simply some of the tools by which the rich and powerful extract huge amounts of wealth from the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.

Poverty and underdevelopment are not remote phenomena, far from Western style homes and living conditions. The forces that create and exacerbate poverty also bring to those living in comfortable conditions many of the cheap products that make their lifestyle possible. Tea, chocolate, coffee and other things that come, primarily, from developing countries, are only affordable because of policies created by undemocratic institutions (who, ironically, constantly talk about improving democracy in developing countries). Even Ipods, Iphones and Macs, made by a company that likes to boast about how responsible they are, depend on (high value) materials extracted cheaply from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Much of Western democracy itself, and much Western wealth, depend on the terrible conditions that are created and maintained by undemocratic international financial institutions, multinationals and powerful governments in developing countres. It doesn't seem possible for every country in the world to end up with the same kind of democracy enjoyed by a handful of the world's people. I don't want to argue that democracy is impossible or that it is wrong. Perhaps, as Amartya Sen has argued, there is not enough democracy. Perhaps it is not widely enough distributed.

But if Sen is right and there were more democracy in the world, I think it would look a lot different. The small number of countries that have enough, too much in fact, use more resources per head of population than the world can provide. The level of choice that some people enjoy, the range of goods and services, necessary and unnecessary, the opportunities to overconsume with impunity, could not be offered to all peoples, equally. But I haven't gone deeply enough into political philosophy yet to figure out what sort of democracy would be sustainable democracy. Perhaps I'm just rambling.

I'm in Mumias to visit a very fine NGO called SAIPEH (Support Activities in Poverty Eradication and Health). Like the community based organisation I work for, Ribbon of Hope, Nakuru, they work with HIV positive people and their families, people suffering from hardship, orphans and vulnerable children. (Except that SAIPEH has been going for about 14 years, Ribbon of Hope is still small and young, not much over a year old.) Anyhow, they run all kinds of income generation schemes, such as growing food crops and livestock, teaching people trades, such as tailoring and computing and various other initiatives.

I'm hoping that SAIPEH will be interested in schemes that reduce spending too, such as solar cookers, cooking baskets and fuel briquettes made from organic waste materials. For lack of a convincing political philosophy, I'll stick to a more Aristotelian form of home economics in the hope that, although people will not end up rich, they may end up with a bit more cash than they had before. After all, for Aristotle, all economics was home economics.


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