Without equal rights for all, there will never be development

BY TOM ODHIAMBO As Kenyans approach the end of the year, many are already planning how to manage the so-called festive season. In many homes, promises are being extracted and made about gifts in December and at the beginning of the New Year. Husbands are expected to buy their wives new clothes and other accessories for wearing in the Christmas period and when ushering in the New Year. Where children are found, parents have to decide what presents to buy for them. Yet this is also a time when money is scarce and whatever is available has to cover for so many needs, including the end-of-year and beginning-of-year celebrations, school fees in the New Year, annual costs such as medical insurance cover and many more. If you followed the word of those who study the economy, you will be told that the country is ‘moving into the right direction.’ Indeed, there is talk in town that Kenya is approaching the entry point of a middle-income status country. If you look around, there are buildings going up in tens, if not hundreds. Roads are being constructed, tarmacked or repaired all over the country. In fact, some European countries that have traditionally supported Kenya’s development programs have said that they will only trade with us because we are doing well. So, you may ask, why is it that there are reports in the media that the poor seem to be getting poorer? Why are out towns and cities ringed by slums? Why is it that millions of Kenyans are unemployed or underemployed? Why is the government borrowing and borrowing, locally and from abroad? Why are some international businesses relocating from Kenya? Why this contradiction of nearing that magical land of middle class whilst the majority of Kenyans can barely pay school fees, pay for medical services, afford to rent or even buy a decent house? Why are the banks charging extortionate interest rates; and why is the government – in a supposedly free-market economy – capping interest rates? Why can’t the economists explain how Kenyans are getting poorer by the day? William Easterly thinks that the real reason why the poor are likely to always remain behind the rich is due to the tyranny of experts. In his book, Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (Basic Books, 2013) Easterly argues that the top-down approach to the question of socio-economic inequality is the cause of the unending poverty in the world. His primary proposition is that the only way to radically address the indefensible inequity in the world is to ensure that the poor and the rich have equal rights. Easterly writes, “It is time at last for the silence on unequal rights for the rich and the poor to end. It is time at last for all men and women to be equally free.” Essentially, Easterly indicts economists, development experts, donors, policy makers, governments, in parts of the world that are poor for making assumptions about how to eradicate poverty, assumptions which naturally ignore the rights of the poor. He argues that for as long as these approaches don’t begin from the premise that the poor should have the same rights as the rich, then those programs are only temporary or are likely to seriously infringe on the rights of the poor. Easterly summarizes his argument this way: “The technocratic illusion is that poverty results from a shortage of expertise, whereas poverty is really about a shortage of rights. The emphasis on the problem of expertise makes the problem of rights worse. The technical problems of the poor (and the absence of technical solutions for those problems) are a symptom of poverty, not a cause of poverty.” In other words, lack of potable water in many parts of northeastern Kenya, because there isn’t a program to drill wells in the region, isn’t the cause of the poverty that results because of lack of economic activity, which ready water would support, leading to a healthy and working populace. It is a symptom of the inequality that this region has suffered since it was included in the colonial modernity project, which categorized it as a ‘hardship area.’ In fact, what the experts who might be sent to ‘assess the viability of development projects’ in a region such as northeastern Kenya, or any other poor part of Kenya, are likely to do is speak least to the locals about their immediate needs (which needs might be lacking because such a community has never known that it is its right to expect certain services from the national government) but spend most of the time talking to government officials about what could be done to address the situation as opposed to what rightfully ought to be done. There are tens of cases throughout the world where projects from ‘outside’ the host community, managed by ‘experts’ with little or no knowledge of local circumstances, language or expectations, have been implemented to the detriment of the locals. The host community is simply expected to trust that there will be benefits, in future, for them. Were things to go wrong, the community would most likely be blamed for not fully supporting the project, or undermining it. What rankles is that often, international organizations, which should know better, support such efforts, exhibiting and referring to them as proof of development. Easterly starts off his discussion with a case of farmers in Mubende, Uganda, who were displaced to make room for a forestry project by a British company, financed by the World Bank. The point Easterly makes is that if the project had been implemented elsewhere, the farmers’ rights wouldn’t have been ignored. No soldiers would have been used to compel them, at gunpoint, to abandon the only homes they had known for generations or to lose their livelihoods. In another case, which is probably more current, Easterly notes how the Western world and some institutions there – especially those doing philanthropic work – tend to highlight progress in some African (or underdeveloped) countries by citing ‘statistical’ measurements. He gives the case of Ethiopia – which is today praised as on the right path of economic growth in Africa – as having seen tremendous reduction in child mortality rates. The reductions were impressive. In 1990 about 198 children out of 1000 live births would fail to reach their fifth birthday. By 2010, the death rates were just 81. That is a reduction of 59 per cent. All that is good news except that it says little, according to Easterly, that the “Ethiopian government was an autocracy, which, among other things, denied food aid to its political opponents.” The point is: the technocratic approach to addressing social problems does work in many cases. But when it becomes the reason to trample on people’s rights, it undermines its logic and only produces short-term solutions. Which explains why there are so many well-meant ‘development programs’ in this country – we seem to have stopped calling them ‘white elephants – that have never yielded benefits to the host communities. The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi

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