Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Right to Trivia

On Friday the 9th of January, newspapers announced that the government was warning that up to 3 million people faced starvation because of growing food shortages. That's more than 10% of the population. By the following monday, the number had risen to 10 million, in excess of 25% of the population. There was no analysis of why the figures had changed so profoundly.

Yesterday, Friday the 16th, famine was not to be found, unless you count passing references in articles on unrelated matters. There is mention of millions facing starvation on page 6 of The Nation in an article on senior politicians spending large amounts of public money on a trip to the inauguration of the president of a foreign country. These politicians were not invited so taxpayers (which doesn't include politicians, because they don't pay tax) are going to pay for an expensive trip to watch the event on TV.

Perhaps they don't trust their own media to cover the event adequately. Their own media is far more interested in signs of disagreement in the coalition government. That's front page news today. After all, these signs of disagreement are so hard to discern, right? There is a a small amount of interest in various scandals that involve various politicians and other senior public figures but interest in these is currently waning.

But there is little interest in the matters that affect individual people, especially poor people. For example, why do water supplies only reach wealthier neighbourhoods and where does the water sold to poorer people at such high prices come from? Where did all the recently imported maize, intended to avert famine, go to? What has been happening to fuel that has been distributed to outlets, allegedly, but doesn't seem to have reached them?

One quarter of the country's population facing starvation didn't make the front page today. Nor did the fact that child death rates are up, again. Child death rates have been rising almost constantly since the 1980s, so this is not a recent trend. It's a trend that cannot be blamed on the HIV epidemic, the water, fuel or food crisis, global warming or any other issue. There is a long running crisis in health, education and other social services.

Of course, it's difficult to assess figures like those from the UN 2009 State of the World's Children report, showing that 121 out of every 1000 live births recorded result in death, mostly in the first year of a child's life. Difficult to assess because an estimated 40% of births are not recorded. The figure could higher or lower but it's difficult to know how many births have not been recorded!

It's not that political wranglings are not important or that the coalition shouldn't be urged to settle their differences and start running the country, these are important. But it's because of their failure to run the country that child mortality and maternal mortality figures, to name but a few, are so high. It's because of the government's failures that people are starving, have no water, are dying of preventable diseases.

Behind the shortage of maize, in addition to the cartels that may or may not exist, there are government plans to sell and/or lease land so that foreign countries can grow sugar for biofuels and food crops for their own people. This is land that is currently farmed by Kenyans or, at least, owned by Kenyans. It could be used to grow food.

The government says it is building a port in Lamu with the money they make from the land. This port will take many years to build, as Raila Odinga reminded us when he gave a figure of five years for enhancements to Mombasa Port.

So what's wrong with using the land to grow food that should be available after one season? In five years time, if the port is really built, will Kenya have any money left to import anything through a new port in Lamu?

More importantly, how many people will have died, unnecessarily, by the time this 'vital' port is built? Water and food cannot wait till political wranglings are sorted out. These wranglings, in many cases, date back to the earliest days of the Kenyan Republic. Death from lack of water and food is very fast. Some will already have died by the time the politicians who went, uninvited to party in the US, have returned.

It's not politicians who die in civil unrest, famine or epidemics; politicians children don't die of preventable diseases and their wives don't usually die in childbirth. They are completely divorced from the pain, although they may see it all on TV. That's if the media bothers to cover it. And if they are not watching US TV, in the US.

The press who appealed so recently to the electorate to protect them from government excesses is now little moved by the plight of ordinary Kenyans. Millions of people facing starvation and children dying in large numbers should be front page news, so should reportage covering what the government intends to do about it. And when the government says what they intend to do, their actions need to be followed until they show some result. Why is the press so obsessed with triviality?

Of course, government wranglings can turn to riots and many lives can be lost. But far more people die from malnutrition, starvation, water shortage, preventable disease and various other things than from civil distrubances. When these issues have been resolved there will be time enough to cover the many political farces but meantime, perhaps the press will reconsider its priorities.


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