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The Turbulent 2010s: Rising Economic Disequilibrium and Shifting Global Hierarchies and Hegemonies

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The tens were a turbulent decade characterised by six key trends: the globalization of tribalism; democratic recessions and resistance; rising economic disequilibrium; shifting global hierarchies and hegemonies; the emergence of surveillance capitalism; and finally, the rebellion of nature.

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The Turbulent 2010s – Of the Globalization of Tribalism and Democratic Recessions and Resistance?
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The aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008-2009 was one of the defining economic developments of the 2010s. It was precipitated by financial crisis in the United States, which was triggered by the collapse of the subprime housing market bubble. It became the deepest and longest recession in the country’s history since World War II. The financial crisis has been attributed to lax public monetary policy, slack regulation of financial institutions, high levels of household and corporate debt, international trade imbalances, and poor corporate governance and accountability. For example, in the United States household debt rose from 77% of disposable income in 1990 to 127% in 2007. In some European countries, such as Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Norway such debt even surpassed 200%.

The Great Recession left a trail of wanton economic devastation mostly in the United States and Europe. In the US, between 2007 and 2009, real GDP declined by 4.3%, the S&P 500 index dropped by 57%, unemployment rose to 10%, home prices fell by 30%, the poverty rate jumped to more than 15% of the population, and the net worth of American households and nonprofit organisations fell by 20%, from $69 trillion to $55 trillion. In some European countries, such as Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal, the crisis became so severe that they were forced to default on national debt and seek bailouts from the European Union, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

To contain the contagion and revive growth, many governments enacted fiscal stimulus packages, and austerity measures comprising tax increases and reductions in social benefits programmes. For their part, central banks cut rates and adopted quantitative easing, an expansionary monetary policy of injecting liquidity into the economy by buying assets. Rates of recovery in the 2010s were predictably slow and uneven, and varied by country and community, as well as the eternal structured inscriptions of class, ethnicity/race, and age.

It is generally agreed the Great Recession accelerated the growth of economic and social inequalities in the United States and around the world. This was one of its major consequences. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs, assets, and livelihoods, as well as control over their lives, dignity, and hope for the future. The policy responses favoured capital over labour, the wealthy at the expense of the middle and working classes, financial services over productive sectors. Fear, uncertainty, rage, and distrust of governments captured by business and often self-serving elites flared into a political and social inferno in many countries.

This is the combustible brew that greeted the 2010s, spawning widespread political instability and social struggles that gave rise to toxic tribalisms and populisms that were most effectively mobilised and manipulated by right-wing forces, as well as heightened recessions of, and resistances for, democracy, examined in the previous sections.

Employment was particularly battered. Employment trends during the 2010s reflected rates and patterns of economic growth and changing economic organisation. According to the ILO’s 2019 World Employment Social Outlook, from 2011-2018 the world economy grew at an average rate of 3.6%, a slight dip from 3.9% in 2001-2010. The percentage of the working age population in employment fell during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath, and rose slowly thereafter, although by 2018 it was down to 58.4% compared to 62.2% in 1993. The majority of jobs were in informal employment, which in 2016 accounted for 2 billion jobs or 61% of all jobs. In terms of sectors, the share of manufacturing employment generally fell, while that of services rose and by 2018 the latter accounted for almost half of all employment.

Working conditions in both informal employment and services including the emerging gig economy largely remained poor. Nearly 700 million workers in low and medium income countries in 2018 lived in extreme or moderate poverty. The deficits in decent work remained alarmingly high, afflicting the majority of the 3.3 billion people employed globally, who suffered from persistent economic insecurity, and lack of equal opportunities for their wellbeing. Average real wage growth remained low and fluctuated, rising in some years and falling in others.

The unemployment rate in 2018, at 5%, was the same as in 2008, and lower than the 5.6% in 2009. Also evident was the prevalence and in some cases growth of underemployment or labour underutilisation. Needless to say, employment rates and conditions varied quite considerably according to levels of development, gender, and for the youth. Overall, employment indicators tended to be worse for low-income than high-income economies, and those in between, and in terms of gender for women compared to men, and were particularly challenging for the youth.

Nearly 700 million workers in low and medium income countries in 2018 lived in extreme or moderate poverty

For many countries, employment was a key feature of the difficult aftermath of the Great Recession and played an important role in engendering and sustaining income and wealth inequalities. Reports on growing global inequalities within and across countries abound in the academic literature, media, publications of development agencies, think tanks, and NGOs.

For example, according to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Databook 2018, 64% of the world’s adult population held less than 2% of global wealth, while less than 10% of the wealthiest individuals owned 84% of global wealth, and the richest 1% owned 45%. The growth of high net worth individuals—those with net worth assets of more than $1 million—was staggering.

While the largest numbers of the world’s high net worth individuals (HNWIs) were in the United States (41% in 2018), Europe, and China (7%), they rose even faster in Africa, the world’s least developed continent. According to the World Wealth Report 2018, the size of HNWIs in Africa in 2017 reached 169,970 who had a combined wealth of US$1.7 trillion (0.9% out of the 18.1 million HNWIs globally and 2.4% out of $70.2 trillion global HNWI wealth).

64% of the world’s adult population held less than 2% of global wealth, while less than 10% of the wealthiest individuals owned 84% of global wealth

Oxfam did much to publicise the scourge of growing inequalities in a series of alarming reports published to coincide with the World Economic Forum, the Davos jamboree of masters of the universe. Its report in 2015 showed the richest 1% increased its share of the world’s wealth from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014, while the least well-off 80% owned just 5.5%. In its 2017 report, entitled Economy for the 99%, it bemoaned the fact that eight multi-billionaires owed as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Its 2019 report claimed the wealth of 2,200 billionaires worldwide grew by 12%, while for the poorest half it fell by 11%.

Oxfam blames the obscene disparities on capital squeezing workers and producers while executives are grossly overpaid, crony capitalism and state capture, super-charged shareholder capitalism, and tax avoidance by the rich. As might be expected, the debate on global inequalities is extremely heated. Inequality received its intellectual imprimatur in Thomas Piketty’s academic blockbuster, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2013 that offered a voluminous and compelling account of wealth and income inequality in the United States and Western Europe over the last three centuries.

Piketty’s bestselling book received as much acclaim as criticism for its thesis, methodology, and conclusions underscoring how high the stakes are. In a lead story in its issue of November 30, 2019 The Economist, the haughty British magazine, returned to the topic with a predictable verdict, “Inequality Illusions.” It argues that the idea of soaring inequality rests on shaky analytical grounds and problematic data. Nevertheless, the magazine still conceded, “And even if inequality has not risen by as much as many people think, the gap between rich and poor could still be dispiritingly high.”

The richest 1% increased its share of the world’s wealth from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014, while the least well-off 80% owned just 5.5%

In the 2010s several global income inequality databases were created, such as the World Bank’s PovcalNet, the World Inequality Database, the OECD’s Income Distribution Database, the University of Texas Inequality Project Database, and The United Nations University’s World Income Inequality Database. Each focuses on a particular set of issues. Much of this work is reflected in the UNDP’s  Human Development Report 2019, which makes sobering reading.

The report offers five key observations. “First, while many people are stepping above minimum floors of achievement in human development, widespread disparities remain”; “Second, a new generation of severe inequalities in human development is emerging, even if many of the unresolved inequalities of the 20th century are declining”; “Third, inequalities in human development can accumulate through life, frequently heightened by deep power imbalances”;  “Fourth, assessing inequalities in human development demands a revolution in metrics;”; and “Fifth, redressing inequalities in human development in the 21st century is possible—if we act now, before imbalances in economic power translate into entrenched political dominance.”

The report urges the development of a new framework for analysing inequality that goes beyond income (“A comprehensive assessment of inequality must consider income and wealth. But it must also understand differences in other aspects of human development and the processes that lead to them”); beyond averages (“The analysis of inequalities in human development must go beyond summary measures of inequality that focus on only a single dimension”); and beyond today (“Inequalities in human development will shape the prospects of people that may live to see the 22nd century”).

In the 2010s, concerns over inequalities in income, wealth, capabilities and opportunities became widespread across political divides. While gaps in basic capabilities (such as access to basic education and health) across the world narrowed, they grew in terms of enhanced capabilities (including life expectancy at older ages and access to tertiary education). In the words of the UNDP report, “In all regions of the world the loss in human development due to inequality is diminishing, reflecting progress in basic capabilities.”

Photo by Milo Miloezger on Unsplash

Globally, the loss fell from 23.4% in 2010 to 20.2% in 2018, ranging from 35.1% to 30.5% for sub-Saharan Africa, on one end to 16.1% to 11.7% for Europe and Central Asia on the other. The percentage with primary and secondary education grew more rapidly that tertiary education between 2007 and 2017 in all world regions. For sub-Saharan Africa it grew by about 9% and less than 2%, respectively, so that by 2017 more than 40% of the population had primary education compared to 2% with tertiary education. The ratios for the developed countries were more than 95% and 25%, respectively.

But not everyone benefited equally in the rising provision of basic capacities as millions of vulnerable populations remained trapped in the insidious horizontal inequalities of discriminatory policies and restrictive legal frameworks, and the dynamics of deeply entrenched historical, market, cultural, and gender biases that blocked them from meaningful and ameliorative social, economic and political participation.  The UNDP report calls for more refined and timely studies of inequality using universally recognised statistics and comprehensive inequality databases.

The Great Recession did not affect all world regions equally. As noted above, many developing countries largely escaped its worst effects, although they experienced slower growth. Many of the economies in South America went into recession reflecting reduced demand in their main North American and European markets for their predominantly primary commodity exports.

Economic growth continued in much of Africa, save for countries like South Africa that went into recession, but at lower rates than before. This reflected the resilience of the continent’s recovery since the 1990s and the reorientation of its major trading partners from the western countries to the rising economic giants of Asia, especially China and India, where growth remained robust, as it was in Indonesia and Bangladesh. For its part, South Korea barely escaped recession.

The uneven effects and limited impact of the Great Recession on China and India pointed to an emerging phenomenon in the world economy that accelerated in the 2010s, namely, the decoupling of growth trajectories between the historically dominant economies of Western Europe, the United States, and Japan and the emerging economic powerhouses of the 21st century. This is another major consequence of the Great Recession which became more apparent in the 2010s and is leading to the reshuffling of global hegemonies and hierarchies, which will be discussed in the next section.

While the heady projections of the future made in the late 2000s and early 2010s for some of the emerging economics in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and other configurations (MINT—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey; and Next 11–Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, South Korea, and Vietnam), have faded, the fact remains that these economies assumed a much greater share of global economic output, a trend that continued in the 2010s.

For example, as I noted in my book on Africa’s Resurgence referred to earlier, between 1990 and 2012 the relative share of the BRICS of World GDP increased by some 3.6 times so that they accounted for 56% of world GDP growth. By 2012 the BRICS claimed about 20% of world GDP compared to 24% for the European Union and 21% for the United States. The BRICS accounted for 43% of world reserves of foreign exchange, and increased their share of total world trade to 21.3% as compared to 25% for the EU and 27% for the US.

Shifting Global Hierarchies and Hegemonies

Clearly, global hegemonies and hierarchies shifted in the 2010s at global and regional levels. In terms of intra-regional shifts, World Bank data shows that, in Africa, Nigeria overtook South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy in 2012 ($459.4 billion to $396.3 billion in current US dollars). In East Africa, Ethiopia overtook Kenya as the largest economy in Eastern Africa in 2015 ($64.6 billion to $64.0 billion). In terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), by 2018 the size of the Nigerian economy was $1,117.4 billion compared to South Africa’s $768.3 billion, while it was $219.0 billion for Ethiopia and $176.4 billion for Kenya. In PPP terms, in 2018 Egypt’s economy was actually the continent’s largest, at $1,189.0 billion.

An even more remarkable development during the 2010s was the rising share of the global economy by middle-income countries. According to a World Bank report, from the 2000s to the mid-2010s their share rose from 17% to 35% (4% to 8% for lower middle-income countries and 13% to 27% for upper middle-income countries). In the meantime, the share of global GDP by higher-income countries declined from 83% to 64% during the same period. In terms of purchasing power parity, in 2018 the middle-income countries claimed 53.6% of global GDP ($72.7 trillion out of $135.5 trillion). The respective shares for the lower middle-income and upper middle-income countries was $22.9 trillion and $49.7 trillion, which translated into 16.9% and 36.7% of the global economy, respectively.

The biggest economic story of the decade, indeed, the last thirty years was the exponential rise of China. In terms of purchasing power parity, China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2014. By 2018, the size of the Chinese economy towered at $25.3 trillion, compared to $20.7 trillion for the American economy, although in terms of per capita incomes the latter was still ahead—$63,390 compared to $18,140. China’s re-emergence as the world’s largest economy returned the country to a position it had enjoyed a few centuries before. This phenomenal growth enabled China to lift hundreds of millions of people from poverty, an achievement almost unparalleled in human history.

The story of China is an integral part of Asia’s resurgence into the world’s economic center, and the historic decline of Europe and North America that have been dominant since the first industrial revolution. In 2018, the five leading Asian economies, China, India, Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea, accounted for 34.5% of the world economy. By the end of the 2010s, four Asian countries were among the top ten economies in the world: China ($25.3 trillion in 2018), the United States ($20.7 trillion), India ($10.4 trillion), Japan ($5.6 trillion), Germany ($4.6 trillion), Russia ($3.9 trillion), Indonesia ($3.4 trillion), Brazil (3.3 trillion), France ($3.1 trillion), and the United Kingdom ($3.0 trillion).

Africa seemed nowhere near achieving Asia’s extraordinary feat, although it became popular in the 2010s to celebrate Africa Rising/Rising Africa. The new rhetoric of Afro-optimism clearly sought to countervail the Afro-pessimism rampant during the continent’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s. The media often trumpeted that six or seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies were in Africa. In 2018 there were five (Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Ethiopia and Senegal).

But the reality is that no African country has yet to achieve decades of high and sustained economic growth experienced in Asia. This is clear from the fact that the list of Africa’s fastest growing economies shifts every so often. Many of the Asian tigers consistently achieved growth rates that were far above population growth for three decades or more. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, Africa’s growth rate, which reached 6% in 2005 fell to 5.8% in 2010, to 3.5% in 2015, and rose slightly to 3.8% in 2018, remained too low to achieve profound transformation in human development. It is instructive that Africa’s growth rates during these years were below the averages for the developing economies as a whole (7.2% in 2005, 7.4% in 2010, 4.3% in 2015 and 4.9% in 2018).

The rise of Asia, led by China, which was consolidated in the 2010s, has generated an extensive literature. This historic transformation has been attributed to all sorts of complex historical, political, socio-economic, and geopolitical factors and forces. It is possible to argue that after World War II, and for some after independence, Asian countries constructed far more cohesive and strategic developmental states, undergirded by inclusive economic, political, and social institutions, and massive investments in human capital development, than other regions in the global South. Also, they aggressively pursued state capitalism, which was reinforced following the Asian crisis of 1997, in the face of fierce opposition and often misguided advice from the gendarmes of the Washington Consensus of neo-liberal free market fundamentalism.

The biggest economic story of the decade, indeed, the last thirty years was the exponential rise of China

It was quite clear that the 2010s witnessed historic shifts in global power from EuroAmerica to Asia in general, and from the United States as the sole post-Cold War superpower to fierce hegemonic rivalry with China, the ascendant superpower of the 21st century. One British academic and journalist, Martin Jacques goes so far as to argue in a recent commentary in the British newspaper, The Guardian, that “This decade belonged to China. So will the next one.” He noted that “Prior to the western financial crisis, it had been seen as the new but very junior kid on the block. The financial crash changed all that,” which had huge consequences for the western world’s “stability and self-confidence.”

The West, Jacques continues, has displayed “a kaleidoscope of emotions from denial, dismissal and condemnation to respect, appreciation and admiration; though there is presently much more of the former than the latter. The rise of China has provoked an existential crisis in the US and Europe that will last for the rest of this century. The west is in the process of being displaced and, beyond a point, it can do nothing about it.” Particularly galling has been the rise of China from a technological copycat into an innovation juggernaut for the defining technologies of the 21st century through its $300 billion “Made in China 2025” plan. The country has also moved from a cautious global player into a more assertive power through its ambitious belt and road initiative, targeted at the developing world and designed as the harbinger of a new world order.

The 2010s represented the beginning of a historic hegemonic shift in the world system. Such shifts are very rare in world history. This is the third potential shift in the last three centuries. The first was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that pitted Britain, the world’s first industrial nation, and Germany the rising continental European industrial power. It culminated in World War I. The second arose out of the ashes of World War II that saw the devastated imperial powers of Europe replaced by two new superpowers, the United States and the former Soviet Union. As I noted in a longer paper on current hegemonic rivalries, such moments often reflect and are accompanied by profound political, economic and structural crises and changes.

Deluged by the cacophony of daily news, it is easy to get distracted by the endless punditry in the media and the pronouncements of American and Chinese leaders, especially with America’s unconventional and unhinged president with his tweeter storms. At stake is the demise of the post-World War II order that the USA created and disproportionately benefitted from. The decomposition of this order antedated Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, and will outlive them. The US and Chinese economies are so intertwined that decoupling will be extremely costly to both countries, and to the rest of the world. But hegemonic transitions have their own logic that often defies the cold calculus of costs. The 2020s will tell where the bitter rivalry between the declining and rising superpowers is headed. The rest of the world will be forced to adjust accordingly.

The latest issue of The Economist (January, 2020) offers a fascinating portrait of China’s breathtaking technological advances. It shows the progress Chinese companies have made in older and imported industries including nuclear reactors, high-speed railways, electric cars, and laser technologies. The country has also gradually moved up in the microprocessing value chain, and is investing heavily in robotics, the internet of things and artificial intelligence. In some areas China is working hard to become a global leader, such as in 5G technology, or is already ahead, for example in the application and use of face recognition technologies. The latter technologies are a double-edged sword, as they facilitate the enforcement of state digital espionage—what some call algorithmic surveillance, whose implications for human rights and individual freedoms is portentous.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger.

Ideas

Why Indeed Scholars are the Heirs of Prophets

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo. Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing—Knowledge.

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“Scholars are inheritors of Prophethood”
Prophet Muhammad PBUH

To fully contextualise and grasp the gravity of this saying of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH requires knowledge of not just the role of prophethood in society but also of the nature of society. At both the level of Max Weber’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, society consists of large groups underpinned by a set of beliefs that organise the membership’s affairs. This is irrespective of the fact that one is organic and the other legal-rational.

This underpinning corpus of beliefs that serves as the groups’ existential truth, criterion of measure and all-encompassing narrative of and about existence, is the lens through which the internal and external universe at both individual and group level is perceived and therefore ordered. It is this story that is articulated by prophets and oracles of yore, and the scholars and intellectuals of the present day.

It is by this measure that the scholars are inheritors of prophethood. From this saying, by analysis of the function of prophets, we can extract the role of scholars in society.

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo.

Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing — Knowledge.

What knowledge?

Knowledge of truth.

What truth? Which truth?

Empirical? The truth about the inner workings of nature? No.

The truth about the existential, teleological and relational nature of man. In short, a coherent set of beliefs that tell us where we came from and where we are going, why we are here and how we should relate to one another.

The most cogent and convincing story told, that comprehensively answers this question, will calibrate all social interaction, order and direct us all.

It is for this reason that British colonialism of the African continent began with a story. A Story about the salvation of souls, a promise of a beautiful place of endless bliss and, over and above that, complete absolution. Successful “Christianisation” was a sine qua non for absolute subjugation and slavery of the natives. The advance guard of imperialism was the Church Missionary Society.

In fact, the need for this “story” and its power over peoples was common imperialist knowledge. Penelope Carson’s book The East India Company and Religion 1698-1858, records an incident in which 17th century churchman and orientalist Humphrey Prideaux, who was later to become Dean of Norwich, castigated The East India Company for neglecting the propagation of Christianity in India, pointing to the success of the Dutch East India Company, arguing that their Dutch counterparts thrived due to proselytisation of Christianity where they expanded.

Where native elites intervened to bar the entry of missionaries in places such as Japan, the peoples of these lands remained free of European colonisation for centuries.

The answer to the question of existence, manifested in the instinctive questions we all ask — Where did we came from? Where we are going? Why are we here? How we should relate to one another? — has all-encompassing power over a community and society, and herein lies the power of the scholar.

Knowledge has only one purpose: to elevate the human condition, to drive away barbarism and raise us to civilisation. For knowledge is the only attribute that differentiates us from the rest of creation.

Why not make the case for free will here too? For free will is a factor of knowledge. Free will and self-awareness are implied and are necessary predicators for knowledge.

There was never any need for a tree of knowledge in the heavens where angels reside, as angels have no free will. Neither was there any need for one in the realm of beasts, for beasts have no intellect. Only man has the unique ability to value knowledge, for only he has both intellect and free will.

Given that the purpose of knowledge is to lead us to our Xanadu, it follows that those amongst us with the wherewithal for knowledge have a teleological duty to the knowledge and an essential duty to their kind to take the mantle of intellectual leadership together with all the risks and rewards it portends.

This knowledge of purpose enables the scholar to direct the society from its empirical state towards its normative ideal. This direction is not frictionless. It ensures a never-ending struggle between the interests anchored in the status quo and those rising from the promise of change. American scholar and activist Noam Chomsky captures this function well in this quote from his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals: “With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.”

Failure to rise to this duty can be legitimately termed betrayal of calling, betrayal of self.

In the past, where humanity was organised at village and tribal level, it would have been sufficient to speak to individual scholarly duty, but in today’s complex social order, we must communicate the same argument to the organisations in our society that consist of knowledge workers and whose purpose is knowledge or a derivative of knowledge.

This would consist of universities and religious organisations and their affiliate unions and associates. To this end we will cite the most well-known or stereotypical examples of individuals and organisations that have endeavoured to live up to the demands of this vital function, or calling.

The unity of individual scholarship and activism is perfectly epitomised by the world-renowned Scholar Noam Chomsky mentioned earlier, as this summarised excerpt from Who is Noam Chomsky?” perfectly illustrates:

Chomsky joined protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes.

He also became involved in left-wing activism. Chomsky refused to pay half his taxes, publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested while participating in an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. During this time, Chomsky co-founded the anti-war collective RESIST with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald. Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, Chomsky gave many lectures to student activist groups and, with his colleague Louis Kampf, ran undergraduate courses on politics at MIT independently of the conservative-dominated political science department.

Because of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was arrested on multiple occasions and included on President Richard Nixon’s master list of political opponents. Chomsky was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience and his wife began studying for her own doctorate in linguistics to support the family in the event of Chomsky’s imprisonment or joblessness.

Locally Dr David Ndii has struggled immensely and very successfully to live up to Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals, explaining the economic reality and the Government of Kenya’s policies/plans to the public in terms understandable by all. He began in the most widely read newspaper Daily Nation and now writes economic analyses and open letters to the rulers on the popular online political journal The Elephant, often successfully compelling the government to respond, albeit with more propaganda and red herring.

His sister-in-arms Dr Wandia Njoya has waged an equivalent struggle in the domain of education and culture. Patrick Gathara and Rasna Warah, whose timely pieces questioned the reasons for the Kenya government incursion into Somalia as part of America’s global imperialist Wars of Terror, triggered a vital conversation at the most appropriate time and place, where the powers that be would have preferred none.

Two critical parts remain for our native scholars and intellectuals (“native” continentally-speaking). First is crystallising their ideas into philosophies that can animate the public and move it to action, “action” being the work of bringing the ideas to life in social order and government policy.

Second is inculcating in a group of their students their philosophy, and organising them to carry it to the public space. The scholar or intellectual is a social actor just as is the politician, only at a different stage of the work of social organising. The scholar or intellectual produces the ideas that the politician or activist organises the public around. If a politician is “Philosophy in Action”, the scholar then is the “Action of Philosophy”. That the group for the politician is termed a political party is moot; the currency for both actors is public opinion and neither scholars nor politicians can be effective without the support of groups. We may term the group around a scholar as followers or disciples for purposes of differentiation.

It is hard to imagine, but Noam Chomsky was once a student. Chomsky began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Chomsky states in many interviews that he found little use for his classes until he met Zellig S. Harris, an American scholar touted for discovering structural linguistics (breaking language down into distinct parts or levels). Chomsky was moved by what he felt language could reveal about society. Harris was moved by Chomsky’s great potential and did much to advance the young man’s undergraduate studies, with Chomsky receiving his B.A. and M.A. in non-traditional modes of study.

Noam Chomsky is categorical that, outside of his father, Zellig S. Harris is most responsible for his intellectual direction, political thought and activism.

From scholar-activists to organisation activism

For examples of organisations that have transcended the limited group interests of their membership to actively engage social issues that affect all, we may look to the teacher’s unions in Latin America which are actually social movements that have played critical roles at national and sub-national levels.

The paper Promoting education quality: the role of teachers’ unions in Latin America from the UNESCO Digital Library reports that in Brazil, during the 1988 constitution-writing process, teachers’ unions worked with academic, student and national trade confederations to advocate minimum funding for education. They succeeded in obtaining a constitutional provision establishing that 18 per cent of federal and 25 per cent of state and municipal taxes must go toward education.

Given the crisis we face today is fundamentally a crisis of ideas — or more specifically the lack thereof — to galvanize society, we need our scholars to tell us a new story, or to tell us an old story in a new way.

The Canadian scholar and psychologist, Dr Jordan B. Peterson, serves as an apt example of telling “an old story in a new way”. He reframed the Christian story for an atheistic age, infusing new life into the West’s Cultural Right. After years of losing ground to the liberal social values of the Left, conservatism has found its footing.

Sheikh Taqiuddin An-Nabhani, the Palestinian jurist and founder of political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, reframed Islam as a System for “the Age of Systems”, giving Muslims a way to perceive the complex new global order through the lens of their beliefs. And in so doing, giving Muslims new faith in their way of life and re-energising them to work to find their way forward to re-establishing the Islamic order they had lost.

This spark is what we need. As individuals, and as humanity.

For us in Africa, the 1885 Berlin Conference order is in the terminal stages of decay, just like its Sykes-Picot equivalent in the Middle East. Talk of secession is everywhere in Africa. Even the presumably stable territories like Kenya have not been exempt. Secession, which is the fracture of states, suffers conditions similar to “entropy”, which is the dissipation and dispersion of particles within an entity. Secession creates new problems beyond the potential for an infinite recurrence of further secession. Darfur’s struggle to secede from South Sudan, after South Sudan seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011, after Sudan seceded from Egypt on 1 January 1956, is a perfect modern example in Africa. Somalia need not be elaborated.

Superficial measures such as renaming countries are no different from adopting some costume as a national dress in search of a new post-colonial identity. They are named in top-down tyrannical initiatives and “un-named” after the death of the baptising despot.

Convergence of nations into new blocks has failed to resolve any of the problems humanity faces, even at the highest level of political awareness, with the blocks beginning to BrExit and GrExit even before they are fully formed.

Democracy is imploding as the multiple centres of thought — democracy’s vaunted raison d’être, “Pluralism” — mature into the centres of gravity of powerful hurricanes of political movements, many currently spinning across America leaving death and destruction in their wake, and threatening to tear America, the paragon of Democracy, into a thousand pieces.

Yet we cannot dial the clock back to our tribal ways as Mungiki the Kikuyu tribal cult that rose in the central highlands of Kenya proved. Our tribal enclaves have been completely shattered by imperialism’s modern-day manifestation — liberalism — never to exist again. There is no tribal safe haven to return to for any of us.

Never in the history of humanity has there been such plenty sitting side-by-side with such great need. Capitalism promised humanity that the free market would solve all its problems. Freedom as a doctrine would lead all of humanity to happiness, plenty and fulfilment. This paradise would follow absolute “freedom of markets”, “freedom of capital”, “freedom of thought and speech”.

But as the Bible famously says, “as it was in the beginning so is it in the end.” Freedom of ownership was first enshrined in the Magna Carta, the 1215 AD agreement between King John of England and his Barons, the land owning aristocracy. Freedom of religion, was promulgated in 1648 from the Treaty of Westphalia, as the right of the Kings and Princes of Europe to choose the religions for their nations and therefore their subjects. The now sacrosanct “Universal Suffrage” born of the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848 was a “right to vote” for “white men”. Universal Suffrage being for white men had the net effect of establishing a “political universe” in which only white men are the only legitimate citizens.

That summarised the beginning of “our cherished freedoms”.

History shouts loud and clear that freedom, in all its configurations, from the beginning was and is only for the powerful ruling elites, yesterday the Barons and Princes, today the capitalists and selected politicians, or as Marx termed them, the Bourgeoisie. As for the working class, the poor masses, in the words of Marx, freedom for them was, is and continues to be, the freedom to choose “to work” or “to starve”.

Yet the story the “angry genius” Karl Marx himself told, that promised equality by negation of our most basic human instincts — our instinct to possess, our instinctive need to believe and to be, and that has gained great resurgence powered by the dramatic failure of Capitalism in recent times — also failed humanity epically.

It is incumbent upon those gifted with ability and knowledge, and those vested with the leadership of organisations that consist of agents of knowledge, to transcend their group interests and work for society’s overall well-being.

The need has never been greater.

An outcome of the homogeneity imperialism imposed upon us all is that we are all immersed in the same operating system, secular capitalism. For this reason, we find ourselves in the same predicament of crisis, literally globally.

We need a powerful new story, or an old story told in a powerful new way.

A story that will remind us of our common humanity, harmonise our relations with each other and the rest of creation and reveal to us a common destiny, that can unify our sense of purpose.

We need scholars at the universal and local level, to crystallise a story, an idea into an isotope that will fuse with our imaginations and trigger a chain reaction that will galvanize radical change.

The situation is critical, the need urgent.

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Ideas

The Death of LAPSSET and Kenya’s Poverty of Imagination

The Kenyan government’s misguided and costly investments in big infrastructure projects are compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Meanwhile, elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.

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The Death of LAPSSET and Kenya's Poverty of Imagination
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The Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project was officially launched at Magogoni, the site of the new Lamu port, in 2012. The two heads of the coalition government attended.

At the launch, President Mwai Kibaki told the people of Lamu that they had a new constitution and that they should familiarise themselves with its provisions to protect their land rights. Prime Minister Raila Odinga said something to the effect that the train is now leaving the station and either you Swahili can get on board and go forward with the rest of us, or you can remain behind as is your usual custom.

After the launch, LAPSSET progressed in fits and starts. A modern building to house the secretariat was built in Mokowe, an official website came online, and construction of three of the 32 planned berths began.

LAPSSET is by far Africa’s most ambitious project. Its description on the website is a testament to Kenya’s central planners’ imagination:

This mega project consists of seven key infrastructure projects starting with a new 32 Berth port at Lamu (Kenya); Interregional Highways from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba (South Sudan), Isiolo to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and Lamu to Garsen (Kenya), Crude Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba; Product Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Addis Ababa; Interregional Standard Gauge Railway lines from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba, Isiolo to Addis Ababa, and Nairobi to Isiolo; 3 International Airports: one each at Lamu, Isiolo, and Lake Turkana; 3 Resort Cities: one each at Lamu, Isiolo and Lake Turkana; and The multipurpose High Grand Falls Dam along the Tana River.

During the interim, the local community fought back through Save Lamu, a coalition of community organisations. Their objective was to make the Kenyan government hear their voices and to facilitate local participation.

Save Lamu was ignored, harassed, and accused of opposing the region’s development. The organisation constantly repeated they were not against the project, but rather, they were fighting for the right of the local community to be consulted over its impact on the environment and local livelihoods. At one point, the office holders were summoned to Nairobi by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). For two days, CID officers interrogated them about their imputed involvement in the horrific Al Shabaab attack in Mpeketoni. They returned safe but frazzled by the experience.

Several months later, the coalition extended its advocacy to the Lamu power plant, a 1,050 Mw coal-fired electricity project to be built next to the port at enormous cost and protected by Treasury-sapping guarantees for payment of the power whether the electricity was used or not. Although some people in Lamu supported the new port for the prospects of the jobs it would create, the community in no uncertain terms did oppose the coal-fired plant.

Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention. The lack of acclamation reflects the simple fact that the tide has been going out on LAPSSET for several years.

Kenya left holding the baby

In 2016, the Ugandan government announced plans to build a railroad that would connect Juba to another planned rail line from Kampala to the port of Tanga in Tanzania. Kampala explained that although the Tanzanian route was longer, the lower cost of construction justified the decision to withdraw from the planned link-up with the LAPSSET route through Kenya. In September, Ethiopia set in motion plans to build a 1500-kilometre railway to Khartoum and Port Sudan. The planned rail line effectively removing Ethiopia from the LAPSSET equation added another nail in the project’s coffin.

In 2009, major Western and Asian governments were queuing up to finance the diverse components of LAPSSET. South Sudan, or more correctly, the oil in South Sudan, was the main prize. At the time of LAPSSET’s initial conceptualisation, the country was forced to export its oil through Port Sudan. Newly independent South Sudan was exporting over 350,000 barrels a day in 2012. Although the supply was expected to decline over the decade, exploration held out the promise that much more crude oil would be coming, complementing the even larger deposits found in northern Uganda and eastern Congo.

Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention.

The sea of oil reportedly floating underneath the long neglected region made the grandiose infrastructural investment appear sensible at the time. The peak oil theory was making waves. But a matrix of factors, including climate change, the discovery of new oil reserves across the planet, and the falling cost of renewable energy, shifted the calculus. The financiers slowly melted away, leaving the Government of Kenya holding the baby.

This was also due to the other usual suspects: unreliable state partners, the fickle nature of investment capital, and the multiple problems that come with big projects in this and most parts of the world – all of which was compounded by the fact that exporting the thick crude required building the supporting superstructure from scratch, including heated pipelines to prevent coagulation en route. The pipeline to Lamu was estimated to cost US$ 8 billion circa 2012. China, the primary purchaser of Sudan’s oil, told Salva Kiir they would loan him the money for the pipeline but would not pay for it as many local stakeholders had assumed.

LAPSSET was already losing its shine at that juncture, and even before the pandemic, Kenya’s investment in big infrastructure (epitomised by the financially challenged Standard Gauge Railway project) was proving to be a debt spinning mirage. If this is not a concern for those playing the front-end game, the Big Project mentality should be a concern for everyone else.

Colonial conquest and economies of scale

The expanding powers of Europe invaded the continent when the age of industrial capitalism was taking off. Material progress and the conquest of nature became the measure of man and nations. During the first half of the 19th century, world trade doubled; between 1850 and 1870 it expanded by 260 per cent.

Coal and iron fueled industrial commerce. Steamships and railways provided the sinews. The length of European railway tracks increased from 1,700 miles in 1840 to 63,000 miles in 1870, and passed 100,000 miles ten years later. Progress in other infrastructural domains followed a similar trajectory.

The unification of countries, new constitutions, and an increase in civil liberties preceded these developments in Europe. The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.

The contrast accounts for why the British colonial administrator, Charles Eliot, found little to recommend in the socio-economic domain during his tour of the East African Protectorate. The country’s future, he opined, “lay in the vegetative kingdom”, but it was infrastructure that led the way. Eliot’s comment, “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country”, conveyed not only the inverted logic of colonialism, but also the outsized impact of the Uganda railroad.

The establishment of industrial capitalism redirected the pathway to include investment in public goods like education and scientific research. The knowledge creation enabling the imperial surge came from a different mindset. The work of Charles Babbage in informatics, the engineering audacity of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Alexander von Humbolt’s quest to map the planet’s geographical features all stemmed from an outsized imagination.

The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.

The process supported a complicated system dedicated to the maintenance of growing armies of labourers and soldiers while erecting monuments, heroic statuary, and grandiose houses of worship. For generations, communities bought into the idea because it improved their security and facilitated trade.

The scale of such intellectual agendas is different than the Thinking Big model of development. Expanding vistas of science and the imagination is not the same as building a gigantic dam or assembling the King of Bahrain’s new robot bodyguard. Such toys and vanity projects, like Dubai’s artificial islands, represent one endpoint set in motion by the capture of surplus, the rise of elites, and the formation of states.

Once upon a time the rise of the state offered a pathway out of a world of fear, superstition, conquest by neighbours, and punishments ordained by the gods. Half a millennium later, the Leviathan became the new god of economic rationality that substituted hierarchy for cooperation, replaced the commons with capitalist extraction, and generally raised the quality of life in exchange for the mega-accumulation benefitting a small group of individuals. All this was done in the name of efficiency and progress.

For five hundred years, the state expanded, culminating in big government experiments, such as the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s China. Its post-1989 retreat left us with Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Water, Big Data, Big Finance, Big Retail, and even Big Foreign Policy in the guise of Xi Ping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The skewed rewards of stardom has made competition a Winners Take All game across the board, from corporate salaries, sports, to social media.

The Big State was colonialism’s parting gift to Africa and the neoliberal economy now incentivises its agents to transact resources and to cash in on their geopolitical location.

Mentalities of scale

The United Kingdom’s Whitehall model replicated itself across the Empire’s colonies. Everything from the formal school system, the conventional assumptions of developmental policies, and the inability of the colonial-designed African nation-state to remake itself following the unsuccessful post-independence alternatives championed by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and Julius Nyerere reinforces this state of mind.

Historically, infrastructural development takes care of itself once the factors of production, exchange, security, and basic rights are in place. No one planned or financed the Great Silk Road but it sustained Central Asia’s contribution to world civilization from the pre-Christian era until about two hundred years ago. Even the succession of invasions, conquests, and dynasties that swept over the region did little to disrupt the underlying system that supported the trade network until Russia’s colonial ambitions instigated the 19th century imperial great game in that region.

Now China is seeking to build a grander Great Silk Road spanning the Eurasian Steppe as part of the Communist government’s Belt and Road Initiative. It remains to be seen if the outcome will work the way XI Ping’s planners anticipate. In the meantime, the mega cities built on the country’s margins remain uninhabited and many of the centrally-planned BRI projects are experiencing cost overruns and other problems. The New Silk Road may yet set in motion a revival of the complicated oppositions and conflicts characterising the region’s history.

Back in this part of the world, where the historical template is totally different, it is still mind-boggling that big failures, from the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme to LAPSSET, the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation scheme and the Jubilee government’s faltering Big Four agenda, continue to propagate themselves. The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.

There is a difference between tapping economies of scale and scalability. This also applies to the world of ideas. We live in a world where the critique and testing of concepts and beliefs that long underpinned human processes is being reduced to the circulation of memes. This is reducing political discourse in the democratic West to the capture of single-issue constituencies and battle lines based on memetic tribes.

In Kenya, the political arena has long been dominated by a dynamic based on the control of the monolithic state. In these conditions, the problem of scale is not a function of small-to-large, even though the educated elite have been conditioned to think in these terms. Politics in these conditions descended into a monetised exercise based on ephemeral ethno-linguistic coalitions.

The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.

This approach has proven to be poorly suited to the challenge of fitting together multiple units of different sizes into a synergetic economic configuration. The history of the pre-colonial era provides an alternative political economy template. Kenya’s constitutional reform marked a step in this direction, but replicating the dynamics patterned on regional initial conditions will remain a work in progress as long as the power concentrated in the centre works to break creative devolution and participatory development.

We are witnessing shifts in workplace and settlement patterns that make it possible to envision the process reaching an equilibrium point where entities based on the old clan and new tribe continuum may reemerge as an asset. But who is thinking about the future in terms that question the conventional assumptions about organisation, or that tap into the co-evolutionary potential inherent in Kenya’s cultural mosaic?

Kenya’s superstructural poverty

In social science, superstructure refers to the ideational domain – the world of concepts, languages, myths, ideologies, science, religion, superstitions, beliefs, and shared assumptions that define the societal mind. Culture is an overlapping concept that is typically defined in terms of a population’s superstructural orientations and the behavioural patterns they generate.

The influence of superstructure and the cultural domain occupies a secondary role in materialist and evolutionary analysis. For example, the use of tools and fire resulted in the reduction in the size of early human beings’ jaws because they no longer had to use their mouths to rip and chew meat. This in turn led to the rise of language, a primary enabler of cultural development.

Things were simpler during the Paleolithic. Today societies are complex systems where prediction based on infrastructure variables, such as the development of roads and communications, is confounded by the influence of non-linear dynamics and unpredictable forces. This is because superstructure is a mutable domain. It acts as both a critical source of both system maintaining and system changing feedback. This is a key element of societal transitions that allows us to translate our collective experience into resilience. Once deemed an epiphenomenon, evolutionary ecology studies now document the role of culture in accelerating the slow process of biological evolution.

The colonial model superstructure worked to stabilise Kenya’s development during the first decades after independence. When the rigid organisational order began changing due to a release phase during the Moi era, the ground began to shift under the received paradigms of development. Before that the socialism versus capitalism dichotomy contributed to the intellectual debate about Kenya’s and the developing world’s progress in general. Both sides of the discourse acted as mechanisms selecting for the regional ideological convergence we now take for granted. Promoting integration is a good idea but the utility of the current top-down approach is debatable.

A recent journal article examining LAPSSET and three other similar infrastructure corridors described the political economy of corridors as “contests over the framing of development interventions influenced by a range of social and technical imaginaries”. Kenya’s politicians’ and policy makers’ embrace of large-scale centralised planning comes with high costs; the benefits of Kenya serving as Eastern Africa’s hub are slipping away. Kenya’s reputation of maintaining an even-handed regional foreign policy has also been marred.

The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind. Preachers, social media, and identity politics expanded into the vacated superstructural space. The influence of the Chinese model contributed to passive acceptance of the techno-infrastructural developmental pathway. Behind-the- curtain dealings have generated the funding.

As a result, Kenya’s public-private cartels continue to benefit from a succession of revenue-draining projects and a succession of massively overpriced feasibility studies that render local stakeholders invisible. The Infrastructural Master Plan for the LAPSSET Corridor and Lamu Port, for example, is a thousand-page document that does not mention the regional population and communities affected. The attempt to build a technologically obsolete pollution-belching coal plant next to one of the planet’s most unique near zero-carbon urban settlements and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is proof of what can happen in the absence of a countervailing developmental narrative.

The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind.

This is not to say the objectives of projects like LAPSSET will not be realised. The issue is not so much thinking big but the actors and incentives behind it. The corporate-empowered developmental state many African governments aspire to be should not be conflated with the moonshot mentality behind so many of humanity’s greatest achievements. The regional links will coalesce over time, Old Silk Road style.

In the meantime, Kenya’s superstructural deficit is compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate and multicultural vibrancy that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. Unlike infrastructure, investment in the exchange of ideas is not costly. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.

We will discuss the some of the concepts and practices framing the new developmental narrative emerging across the world in the second part of this epistle—which will also locate Kenya as an important player in our collective transition to the Anthropocene.

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Is Universal Basic Income the Answer to Alleviating Poverty?

Poverty is the main factor in the transmission of coronavirus. What we need is a “vaccine” against the disruption of livelihoods, and a model might just be staring us in the face.

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Is Universal Basic Income the Answer to Alleviating Poverty?
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At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, made a statement that has become the butt of social media jokes. He said, “If we continue to behave normally, this disease will treat us abnormally. Behaving normal under these circumstances is akin to having a death wish.”

The man in charge of the health docket as the nation is in the throes of a global pandemic moaning and lamenting the public’s apparent refusal to comply with the official prevention strategy sounds defeatist.

The government had curtailed movement into and out of the capital city, Nairobi, and Mombasa and Kilifi counties. A national dusk-to-dawn curfew had been imposed, and a health advisory required that all Kenyans wear masks, avoid social gatherings and other crowded places, including places of worship, and practice handwashing with soap and running water, preferably every half hour.

“Stay at home. Work from home,” was the official line.

“What work? Which home”? Kayole resident Albert Otieno, a 32-year-old father of two who lost his job when the economy was shut down by the virus and is battling a chronic health condition, puts the stay-at-home order in perspective:

Sasa ku-stay at home na isolation, pande yangu ilinifinya. Ilinifinya proper. Kwa sababu, for my family to eat . . . na mimi napata hand to mouth, yangu siwezi sema hata nita-save, yangu nikikuja nayo hivi, ni kuiweka kwa meza. Kesho unaenda tena kwenye umetoka. Unatoka kwa nyumba tena bure, bila hata bob, ya kuenda hata utasema eti nitaenda kula lunch huko kwenye ninaenda, ama utakula breakfast. So hiyo social distance iliniua. Hiyo working at home, mimi sina ati kazi nitaifanya kwa nyumba. Sasa kazi gani nitafanya na mimi kazi yangu ni ya mikono yangu? Now to stay and home and the matter of isolation to me was oppressive, properly oppressive. This is because for my family to eat, and I only get hand-to-mouth, for me I cannot even think of saving, what I earn lands on the table that day. Tomorrow you have to go back where you earned the previous day, you leave the house without even a shilling, nothing that you can say you will use to eat lunch or breakfast. For me when I put my earnings on the table it is all gone. So that social distancing is a death sentence, that working from home too. I do not have any work that I can engage in at home. What work will I do when I survive from the work of my hands?

The question that lingers is whether the government took into account what “normal” means for a majority of Kenyans before suggesting that behaving normally is akin to a death wish.

The Cabinet Secretary was addressing himself only to a small proportion of the Kenyan population, those with the wherewithal to host parties and deliberately disregard health advisories, and certainly not the majority of Kenyans whose existence is defined by poverty.

The coronavirus disrupted the livelihoods of a majority of Kenyans, and the only way that they could survive was to continue their usual, normal life struggles. The 17th edition of the Kenya Economic updates 2018, places 36.1 per cent of Kenyans below the poverty line, whereas a SIDA report indicates that almost 80 per cent of Kenyans are either income poor, or near the poverty line. This means that a majority of Kenyans are tottering on the precipice and risk losing their means of livelihood at the drop of a hat. The report paints a gloomy picture of the Kenyan economic situation. It states,

As much as 78% of Kenyan workers are employed in the informal sector, many of whom lack security of employment, have few labour rights, lack trade union organization, and suffer from low access to social protection. Women, youth and persons with disabilities are even less likely than other groups to receive benefits, including health benefits, when engaged in the informal sector.

The informal sector is made up of small-scale business people, typically, casual or domestic workers, mama mboga (vegetable sellers), mama fua (washerwomen), street hawkers, jua kali artisans, boda-boda (motor-bike and bicycle taxis), kamjesh (transport sector crew) and mjengo crew (builders). Seventy-two per cent of the households which earn their livelihoods in the informal sector do not have a stable income and live mainly from hand-to-mouth. In the 2019 census, Nairobi recorded a population of 4,397,073 of whom 60 per cent — about 2.6 million people — live in informal settlements. Of these city residents, 30 per cent or 1,446,549 are severely food insecure with only 25,000 having a semblance of food security.

According to a rapid food security assessment conducted in April 2020 by The Kenya Red Cross Society, a majority are experiencing severe hunger. Only one out of every four households in Nairobi’s informal settlements has a stable income. Only 20 per cent of the thousands of households in Mukuru and Korogocho are able to support 80 per cent of their domestic needs. This is the situation in Kibera, Mathare, Soweto, Majengo, Gitare, Marigo, Gatina, Lunga Lunga, Kayole and probably in many other informal settlements in the Kenyan urban areas.

The Kenyan economy was already doing badly when the coronavirus struck and COVID-19 was just one more nail in the coffin. Those who were struggling are now barely clinging to life by the skin of their teeth. As the pandemic intensified, food prices soared and reached an unprecedented three-year high, while the cost of essential items like paraffin for lighting and cooking went up by more than 20 per cent in some cases.

Mildred Lucia, a single mother of four living in Dandora who used to wash clothes to earn a living until the coronavirus struck, laments the rise in the prices of basic commodities. “Vitu zimepanda, kama unga tulikuwa tunanunua unga kilo moja shillingi 40. Saa hii imepanda hadi 50 to 55. Napia mchele imepanda. Tulikuwa tunanunua Pakistan 40 shillings saa hii imepanda ni 55 nusu kilo!” The cost of basic commodities has skyrocketed, like maize meal that we were buying at forty shillings now costs between fifty and fifty-five shillings. The price of Pakistan rice has also gone up. We used to buy at forty for half a kilo and now it’s fifty-five!

Food prices have risen by over 25 per cent since the pandemic struck. Food and rent are the highest recurring costs in the informal settlements, followed by health. With no work, residents in the informal settlement see their debts pile up day after day. The sense of desolation evident in Nairobi’s informal settlements is replicated in every informal settlement in Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Nakuru.

The coronavirus pandemic and the government’s mitigating strategies disrupted livelihoods. Informal jobs were lost. Those working in the construction industry lost their jobs because building sites were closed and those that remained open could only operate within the limits of the curfew. At the beginning, the 7 p.m. curfew meant that construction sites closed at 3 p.m. having opened late as the curfew only ended at 5 a.m.

Workers were paid less for working fewer hours. Women who sell food and water to the construction workers and the washerwomen who make a paltry Sh200 per day washing clothes suddenly found themselves persona non grata in the homes of the wealthy who feared that they might transmit the coronavirus to them. The street hawkers selling food, groceries, vegetables and fruits were affected, not only because they were not able to freely ply their trade, but also because the incomes of their customers had been disrupted. And with movement curtailed, the earnings of boda boda riders dropped because they had fewer clients.

Children in the informal settlements had their education completely disrupted because they do not have access to online learning facilities and nor can they afford home schooling. Children stayed at home, or wandered aimlessly around the informal settlements making their parents very worried for their safety. Staying at home in the crowded informal settlements is untenable, yet when the children and their parents wander outside the anxiety rises further because no one knows who could be a COVID-19 vector. Parents return home after a day of trying to earn money to buy food and cannot hug their children because they do not have water to sanitise. Water in the informal settlements costs 150 per cent more than it does in the more affluent neighbourhoods where it is piped right into the houses.

As the loss of livelihoods ate up whatever savings families had, debts began to pile up: food credit, fuel bills and rent arrears. Landlords evicted the Incomeless tenants and locked up the houses, in some cases locking up the tenants’ belongings inside. Many residents of informal settlements built up huge rent arrears forcing them to adopt extremely desperate measures. Thirty-two-year-old Albert Otieno moved into the single room occupied by his old ailing mother, whose own house back in Budalang’i in Busia County had been swept away by the floods that preceded the coronavirus pandemic. In Albert’s culture, this is taboo and totally unacceptable. He says this has affected the entire family.

All these little traumas arising from valiant attempts to stay alive are taking a toll on the mental health of the inhabitants of informal settlements. Cases of domestic violence, homicide and suicide have risen significantly since the coronavirus hit. The National Council on the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) noted that 35.8 per cent of crimes reported just a fortnight into the coronavirus lockdown were of a sexual nature. The perpetrators were for the most part people close to or known to the victims.

Data from the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) shows a similar trend. During the pandemic, CREAW’s gender-based violence helpline has been recording an average of 90 cases a month, compared to 20 cases during the same period last year. The rate of gender-based violence was alarming enough for President Uhuru Kenyatta to order investigations into the rising cases. The National Crime Research Centre was tasked to probe the escalating cases of gender-based violence as well as the sharp rise in teenage pregnancies during the lockdown.

Distress calls to helplines have surged more than ten-fold since the lockdown measures were imposed. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that dealing with pandemics can be stressful, and that the prevention strategies suggested could lead to fear and anxiety thereby increasing stress levels. Stress can cause fear and worry for one’s safety as one is forced to continue doing what they must in order to live. This results in an upsurge of mental health challenges and a worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions.

There are also other health-related challenges that further complicate the lives of the poor. In the informal settlements where cases of chronic diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are more prevalent, and cases of hypertension and cardiovascular disease remain untreated for long, access to health services is disrupted because resources to travel to seek health services cannot be raised. The result is that scheduled medical appointments are missed, and respecting medication schedules becomes impossible.

There is also the reluctance to visit a health facility for fear of contracting the coronavirus there and cases have been reported where healthcare providers lacking personal protective equipment (PPE) are reluctant to see patients they suspect could be infected. This means that expectant mothers are not able to access prenatal care, and new-borns cannot be taken for post-natal clinic appointments. Moreover, many children in the informal settlements will miss their immunisations and this will have long-terms effects well after the COVID-19 curve has been flattened. Mutahi Kagwe’s remarks rang hollow for the millions of poverty-stricken Kenyans forced to take risks and behave as they normally do as they struggle to eke out a living day by day.

Universal basic income is the answer to the inequalities exposed by COVID-19. This bold statement is the title of a blog by Kanni Wignaraja, the United Nations Assistant Secretary General and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, and Balázs Horváth, Chief Economist, UNDP, Asia-Pacific. Kanni has been consistent in her writing in support of a policy response to the coronavirus that has universal basic income (UBI) as its centrepiece. She has argued that without a robust response targeting the poor and the marginalised, the long-term social effects could be grim, and could erase any economic recovery put in place to re-energise the economies devastated by the coronavirus lockdown.

Of all the models of social protection, universal basic income is probably the most radical approach. Social protection describes a wide range of interventions — direct and indirect, in cash or in kind, social services, reliable public and private initiatives that enable people to deal with risk, vulnerability or shocks such as the coronavirus, provide support to overcome acute and chronic poverty and enhance the resilience, the social status and rights of marginalised individuals.

As the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the informal settlements, a consortium of NGOs — Oxfam Kenya, The Kenya Red Cross Society, Concern Worldwide, ACTED, IMPACT, the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) and the Wangu Kanja Foundation — have been running a cash transfer social protection project targeting 20,000 households in Nairobi’s informal settlements with funding from the European Union (EU). The programme began in June and was designed to complement the government’s Inua Jamii initiative that was offering cash support to the poor. The cash transfer project reached out to 11,250 households that were already receiving Sh2,000 from the government with a Sh5,668 top-up every month.

Through the Nyumba Kumi mechanism, the project identified a further 8,750 households which received Sh7,668 monthly. The sum was calculated to provide at least 50 per cent of what is described as the Minimum Expenditure Basket (MEB), or half of what an average family needs to survive. The project also identified 1,200 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) for legal and psychosocial support and even resources to find a safe house. The Royal Danish Embassy also signed a DKK20 million (Sh310 million) grant to provide cash support to 40,000 vulnerable households within informal settlements in Mombasa and Nairobi. By mid-September, Sh204,020,492 — approximately €1.6 million — had been transferred to 15,792 individuals. This is obviously a drop in the ocean, but does it present a model that can be scaled up as a solution to help alleviate poverty?

Social protection programmes that provide cash transfers have greater impact compared to initiatives run by the government. Studies have shown that government-run social protection programmes in Kenya typically missed out 90 per cent of the informal workers compared to a reach of 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Workers in the informal sector, when compared to other workers in Kenya, are less likely to get involved with organisations or service providers through whom they can access medical benefits from employers. The elderly and persons with disabilities (PWD) are worse off in this respect.

Speaking for UNDP, Kanni Wignaraja has made it clear that there must be some sort of minimum income that acts as a safety net so that the most vulnerable do not succumb to hunger or other diseases well before COVID-19 gets them. In Nairobi’s informal settlements where this social support project was running, it was a case of pulling people back from the brink.

Beneficiaries of the cash transfers recount how the money literally gave them a lifeline. Albert Otieno was able to pay his rent arrears, buy medication to treat his cancer and buy food for his children. The money also eased the domestic tension and brought a smile to his wife’s face; for the first time since he lost his job his family were able to eat three square meals a day. Albert is still in disbelief that he was included in the social protection programme without knowing someone or having a godfather or being asked to pay a bribe. He describes himself as a guy who was a thorn in the flesh of the Nyumba Kumi chairman because whenever he had no money to buy his medication or food for his family he would go to the chairman. The transparency in vetting and the integrity of the programme is why he feels it should be adopted by the government. Otieno says that in Kayole where he lives, he has not heard of any beneficiary of the government’s Inua Jamii programme although it is supposedly on the ground.

Beatrice Mbendo, a 39-year-old pregnant single mother of three whose washing jobs had dried up, was able to pay her debts including rent arrears when she received the money. In her view, the government should have a social protection programme for the poor even in the absence of a pandemic. So does Mildred Lucia, who sells tissue paper in Dandora Phase 4. She is a mother of four whose business collapsed with the onset of COVID-19. She used to be a washerwoman, but all like her are now treated like pariahs because of fear that they might infect their clients. When she received the cash transfer, the money went to feeding her family which had been reduced to eating a single meal a day. Mildred also invested a little money to grow her business and she is hopeful that this boost will get her out of the clutches of poverty.

Margaret Mutambi was thrown out of her home after an abusive eleven-year marriage. When she received the cash transfer she was able to purchase household goods for her new home, pay rent arrears and buy food for her children. Margaret decries the fact that there are no formal jobs for women in the informal sector, saying that their vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence is exacerbated by their dependence on men. At her lowest moment before she received the cash transfer Margaret had to re-use a face mask when she went out to look for work because she could not afford Shs20 to buy a mask and could not afford to stay put at home.

Cash transfer as a social support strategy has its critics, with the most vociferous saying that it is unsustainable and leads to a dependency syndrome that results in recipients not being keen to try and get back on their feet. Others have complained that receiving “hand-outs” is undignified and robs the assisted communities of their sense of self-worth. Yet others complain that cash transfers promote lethargy and laziness, that recipients adjust to being in the programme and have no incentive to exit even when their lives improve. Those against cash transfers also argue that poor people do not know how to handle money, and that they are wont to waste whatever they receive or invest in non-essentials. However, research and evaluative studies have debunked these myths and vindicated the cash transfer social protection approach.

The argument that UBI is unsustainable is the most challenging one to counter except from a moral standpoint. Kanni responds to it with an existential dilemma. She states,

The alternative to not having UBI is the rising likelihood of social unrest, conflict, unmanageable mass migration, and the proliferation of extremist groups that capitalise and ferment on social disappointment. It is against this background that we seriously need to consider implementing a well-designed UBI, so shocks may hit, but they won’t destroy.

A properly designed social support programme should be able to transition the community from abject poverty to a state where social business can take over in uplifting living standards The Grameen Bank model has demonstrated that the poor have the capacity to work themselves out of poverty as long as they are given initial support. By the end of 2008, the bank had loaned up to $7.6 billion to the rural poor with a repayment rate of 99.6 per cent. Of these borrowers, 97 per cent were women. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recognised the work of Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus.

Grameen Bank believes that the poor know best how to better their situations and debunks the notion that unconditional cash transfers to the poor will be abused and lead to further poverty. Research findings show that cash transfers actually do provide the poor with support to pull themselves up, and notions of reluctance to resume work have been disproved.

In the informal settlements the normal cannot be avoided. It is a threadbare normal, rendered worse by the efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Without cash transfers, the risk of death lies not in ignoring the government’s advisory but in actually adhering to it.

Today, the cash transfers from the state and the bilateral partners have ceased but millions are still held hostage by poverty. Is there a lesson to be learnt from the UBI “coronavirus vaccine” that, for a while, shielded some 20,000 households from COVID-19? Could UBI be used as a blueprint for a national social support and livelihood system that could be run by the national and county governments?

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