Connect with us

Ideas

Disaster Capitalism in the Age of COVID-19

15 min read.

The coronavirus pandemic, like other disasters, will no doubt provide opportunities to some people to make money. When many get killed, there are always a few that make a killing. This is the essence of disaster capitalism.

Published

on

Disaster Capitalism in the Age of COVID-19
Download PDFPrint Article

The current COVID-19 pandemic, originating in Wuhan, China, is just one in a series of pandemics that have characterised the epidemiological history of humanity over the centuries. Among the most notable pandemics in the modern world are the HIV/AIDS pandemic that peaked between 2005 and 2012 period, and which is estimated to have killed 36 million people so far; the 1968 influenza pandemic that killed one million people; the Asian influenza of 1956-58 that killed two million; the cholera pandemic of 1910-11 that killed 800,000; and the 1918-20 influenza pandemic (also known as the Spanish flu) that affected more than one-third of the world and decimated an estimated 20—50 million people.

Perhaps the Bubonic plague, also known as Black Death, remains the most devastating pandemic recorded in world history. Originating in China, it is said to have struck in Europe in 1347 and, in four years, it killed 200 million people. It is the Bubonic plague that led to the coining of the word and practice of quarantine. With knowledge that the plague was contracted through proximity to carriers, authorities in Venice, Italy, began holding newly arrived sailors in isolation on their own ships until they could prove that they were not sick. Initially, they were held for 30 days – trentino in Venetian law – then, over time, this was increased to 40 days – quarantino – and thus quarantine was born.

Whereas the Bubonic plague was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, COVID-19 is caused by a virus, coronavirus. There, however, is a parallel in the manner in which the two pandemics spread. The Bubonic plague was spread by maritime transport – by commercial ships sailing from one continental port to another. Similarly, coronavirus has apparently been spread across continents and countries by air travel. It is remarkable, for instance, that the most affected areas in the United States are big hubs of the international aviation industry. These include New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and Miami, among others.

Overall, the most devastating pandemics in human history have been the Bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, and smallpox. Smallpox was endemic to Europe, Asia, and Arabia for centuries and it killed one-third of those infected. It was spread to the Americas by European settlers and, without immunity to the new disease, the natives of these places were killed in the tens of millions.

Fortunately, smallpox was the first viral pandemic to be ended by a vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared in 1980 that smallpox had been eradicated from the face of the earth. The Ebola virus, which struck the three West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in 2014, killed thousands. However, it was regionally confined mainly to the three West African countries and was thus considered an epidemic rather than a pandemic. By mid-April 2020, the coronavirus had killed more than 120,000 people, the majority of them in the Global North.

Overall, the most devastating pandemics in human history have been the Bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, and smallpox. Smallpox was endemic to Europe, Asia, and Arabia for centuries and it killed one-third of those infected.

One major impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is its demonstration of the extent to which the contemporary world has become interconnected. The idea that our world has become a global village is no longer hyperbole. Emanating from Wuhan, the sprawling capital city of Central China’s Hubei Province, in November 2019, the coronavirus spread by air travel to all corners of the world within no time. It has affected both the lowly and the mighty, from the ordinary citizens of this world to the most powerful political actors, such as the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, Prince Charles, US Senator Randy Paul, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Australian Minister of Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, as well as Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. At the beginning of the second week of April 2020, the top ten most affected countries in terms of sheer numbers of the infected and deaths as a percentage of the infected are as listed in the Table below.

Top Ten Coronavirus Infected Countries as of April 9, 2020

Source: Compiled from Worldometers, 2020

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the level of preparedness of governments around the world to deal with such a pandemic. Among the top ten listed countries in the Table above, it is evident that Germany has done very well in managing the pandemic. Ranking 4th in terms of number infected, it drops to 10th in terms of number of deaths as a proportion of the infected, at under 2%. The UK appears to be doing the worst, ranking 8th in terms of number of infected, but first in terms of deaths as a percentage of the infected, at 13%. The Netherlands has also done poorly, ranking 12th (not among the top ten) in number of infected persons; it ranks third in terms of percentage of deaths, at 11%. In terms of sheer numbers, Italy has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths, at 17,907, constituting 12.69% of the country’s infected population, ranking second to the UK. Arguably, there are great lessons to be learnt from how Germany and South Korea have handled the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea, one of the first countries to be hit hard by the pandemic, quickly flattened the infection and death curves and is no longer among the top most affected countries globally.

Third, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the tragi-comedy of the American presidency under Donald Trump. When the media started reporting on the emerging pandemic, Trump, as self-absorbed as ever, never took it seriously. Instead, with the help of his favorite conservative media house, Fox News, he dismissed talk of a coronavirus pandemic as “a hoax”, as another attempt by the Democrats to “impeach” him. At one moment the president remarked that the virus would simply disappear one day! He was more concerned with the impact of the coronavirus on his chances for re-election and thus sought to wish it away. Asked by journalist Yamiche Alcindor why the US’s testing for the coronavirus was far behind other countries in per capita terms, Trump’s response demonstrated that he does not even understand what “per capita” means! The initial response of the Trump administration was thus one of mismanagement, scapegoating, and missed opportunities. No wonder the country swiftly shot to the top of the infection table within no time. Unfortunately, this approach was replicated in Kenya where the government continued to allow flights to land in the country, including one carrying 236 passengers from China, the origin of the coronavirus, with a simple advice to arriving passengers to “self-quarantine”

Fourth, the COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated Cuba to stage a kind of diplomatic coup against the US. Cuba has one of the highest numbers of medical professionals in the world: 90,000 in a country of 11 million. Of these, 37,000 are deployed in countries around the world, some on medical aid missions, but most on official contracts with recipient countries paying Cuba directly. It is estimated that Cuba makes $6 billion annually from the export of medical and other public services. Whereas Cuba and the US reached some rapprochement during the Obama administration, with the two cooperating to help fight the Ebola epidemic in 2014, the Trump administration has, for two years, focused on obliterating Cuba’s deployment of medical personnel abroad, a great source of soft power for Cuba. Arguing that the medical professionals are exploited workers and agents of Communist indoctrination, the Trump administration scored victories when Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador cancelled contracts of thousands of Cuban medical professionals following the electoral defeat in the three countries of leftist governments allied with Havana by rightist ones closely allied with Washington.

The initial response of the Trump administration was thus one of mismanagement, scapegoating, and missed opportunities. No wonder the country swiftly shot to the top of the infection table within no time.

With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting hard, however, the fortunes of Cuba’s medical diplomacy have received a shot in the arm. In the midst of the crisis, Cuba deployed 593 doctors to 14 countries including Andorra, Belize, Dominica, Italy, Jamaica, and Nicaragua. In hard hit Crema City in the northern Lombardy region of Italy, 52 Cuban doctors and nurses set up a field hospital with 32 beds equipped with oxygen and 3 ICU beds to help manage the pandemic in one of the most overwhelmed areas of the country. In response to continued US discouragement of countries from contracting Cuban medical workers even amid the current pandemic, Andorran Foreign Minister, María Ubach is quoted as saying, “I am aware of the position of the United States, but we are a sovereign country and we can choose the partners with which we are going to have cooperation,” a profound testimony to the changing fortunes of Cuban medical diplomacy. Indeed, Cuban state officials have been proudly posting videos of Cuban doctors receiving standing ovations as they arrive abroad to begin work, and have been blasting the Trump administration for its criticisms. Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, tweeted: “Shame on you. Instead of attacking Cuba and its committed doctors, you should be caring about the thousands of sick Americans who are suffering due to the scandalous neglect of your government and the inability of your failed health system to care for them.”

Fifth, and perhaps most poignantly, the COVID-19 pandemic has created lucrative opportunities for what celebrated Canadian author, Naomi Klein, calls “disaster capitalism”. This is an extreme form of capitalism created in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, whether a natural one like an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or hurricane, or a man-made one like a war, a financial crisis, or a terrorist attack. Klein note, in her seminal book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, that many governments employ the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation during a collective shock from disaster to enact radical pro-corporate measures that would otherwise be impossible to pass through. These include: (1) privatisation of public property; (2) arbitrary elimination of laws, clinically dubbed “deregulation”; and (3) slashing democratically chosen programmes that help ordinary citizens, euphemistically called “austerity measures”.

This strategy, according to Klein, has been a silent partner to the imposition of neoliberalism for more than 40 years. Its application follows a clear pattern: wait for a crisis, or help foment one through identity conflicts and coup-making; declare a moment of what is sometimes called “extraordinary politics”; suspend some or all democratic norms; and then ram the corporate wish-list through as quickly as possible. Any tumultuous situation, Klein avers, if framed with sufficient hysteria by political leaders, could serve this softening-up function. It could be an event as radical as a military coup, but the economic shock of a market or budget crisis would also do the trick. Political and economic elites are acutely aware that moments of crisis constitute their best opportunity to push through their wish-list of unpopular policies that further polarise wealth by making the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer.

For instance, the 2007-2008 financial crisis facilitated the US political and economic elite to sell a panicked population on the necessity for attacks on social protections and for an enormous bailout to prop up the financial private sector. Cheques worth billions of public dollars were made out to private financial institutions with arguments that failure to do so would lead to an economic apocalypse! No one was interested in questioning the role of the very institutions in causing the economic crisis through their greed and predatory lending, nor in questioning where the billions they made in annual profits were.

Similarly, one major response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has been the passing of a two-trillion-dollar stimulus package. The planned parceling out of this stimulus package is testimony to how corporations always benefit from such crises. Of the two trillion dollars, ordinary Americans, hundreds of millions of them, are set to receive a slice of only 30%; public services will receive 9%; state and local governments 17%; so-called small businesses will receive 19% while the few big corporations are set to get 25% of the pie – a whopping half a trillion dollars! In other words, 46% of the $2 trillion will go to private capitalist interests. Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal reports, the coronavirus stimulus package has fueled a boom for lobbyists as companies jostle to secure the biggest possible slice of the $2 trillion package for themselves.

Another aspect of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been closure of schools and recourse to online and remote teaching and learning. Clearly, therefore, the crisis wrought by the pandemic is turning out to be a boon for the providers of the internet tools needed for cyber-education, all of which are poised to make unprecedented profits. These include providers of “free” education apps, like Google, who end up reaping massive harvests of data that are critical to their advertising and marketing strategies. As Kline opines, this doesn’t mean that some of their solutions aren’t good; it means that they have to be watched carefully, and school authorities should be asking questions bearing in mind that they are not talking to philanthropists who just want to help out, but companies that are responding to a chance to profit from disaster. Indeed, it would not be surprising, she observes, if some virtual schooling businesses don’t see pandemic-related school closings as a chance to take over portions of the education sector permanently, whether they can actually provide quality education or not.

Similarly, one major response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has been the passing of a two-trillion-dollar stimulus package. The planned parceling out of this stimulus package is testimony to how corporations always benefit from such crises.

The idea of disaster capitalism has become the modus operandi of capitalism in our contemporary world. All manner of crises, both natural and man-made, are turned into lucrative money-making opportunities for corporate interests and an opportunity for political elites to implement otherwise unpopular policies that serve the special interests of capital. A number of other cases, including the September 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in the US, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the perpetual crisis of civil war in the Congo suffice to illustrate this.

9/11, Katrina, and disaster capitalism

Steve Fraser writes that the reconstruction programmes that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina were skewed heavily in favour of the business community and the rich. In both New York and New Orleans, sites of the man-made and natural disasters, respectively, big business controlled the redevelopment process, and ipso facto, where the money landed and where it didn’t. Tax breaks and private sector subsidies became channels for federal aid. “Public benefit” standards, which once accompanied federal grants and tax exemptions to ensure that projects served some public purpose, especially to “benefit persons of low and moderate income”, were eliminated, leaving poorer people out in the cold, while exacerbating existing inequalities. Both federal, state, and city governments scurried around to invent ways to auction off reconstruction projects to private interests by issuing tax exempt “Private Activity Bonds”. These were soon gloriously renamed “Liberty Bonds”, though, as Fraser notes, the unasked question was: Whose liberty?

The lion’s share of government grants and exemptions went to the biggest corporations. In New York, more than 40% of all bonds amounting to $2.4 billion, went to a single developer, Larry Silverstein. Second to Silverstein was Goldman Sachs. Yet these institutions and their inhabitants represented at best a mere 15% of those affected, most of whom were low-wage workers who, in some cases, ended up getting evicted from their homes, thanks to those business-oriented tax breaks. “Federal aid, hypothetically tied to building affordable housing and the creation of living-wage jobs ended up as just that: hypothetical,” Fraser writes.

When Hurricane Katrina hit America’s Gulf Coast in 2005, it wrought major devastation in terms of human and property loss as well as economic cost. To the surprise of many around the world, Katrina also laid bare America’s shocking poverty. Most people in Mississippi and New Orleans who stayed put in the wake of the hurricane did so not out of choice but because they were too poor to leave. According to figures from the 2000 US census, close to 40% of the New Orleans population lived in poverty, with 27% having no access to a vehicle. Yet in the aftermath of the hurricane, disaster capitalists were the chief beneficiaries of the reconstruction efforts, not the poor victims of the horrific disaster.

Following Katrina, real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro said, in classic disaster capitalist attitude, that the clearing out caused by Katrina represented some “very big opportunities”. A Republican representative from Baton Rouge said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” In this event, as Rachel Riederer writes, “cronies of the Bush administration profited from post-Katrina reconstruction,” with Halliburton subsidiary KBR paying out tens of millions of dollars for no-bid contracts. Public schools and public housing were swept away in the redevelopment. Now, more than one third of tenants in New Orleans pay more than half of their monthly income in rent and the city now has more than 100,000 fewer African American residents whose annual incomes are 54% lower than those of their Caucasian counterparts. The largely privatised school system has achieved many of its test-score gains, leading to former Education Secretary Arne Duncan to famously quip that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to education in New Orleans. Notably this turned out to mean that the disaster swept aside the public school system and opened up opportunities for private operators to move in. These have achieved test-scores by excluding the city’s most disadvantaged students. It is on account of this that John Mutter notes that Katrina put the disaster in disaster capitalism.

The earthquake in Haiti

In his aptly titled book, Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor even Poorer, John Mutter points out that, though we think of earthquakes, cyclones, floods and the like as “natural” disasters, the pattern and level of destruction they inflict are socially determined. Existing inequalities of housing, of land quality, or information asymmetry, are only part of the story. Natural disasters, Mutter shows, often make inequality worse, but that process is no accident of nature. In the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Mutter observes, “destruction was indiscriminate; the homes of the rich and the homes of the poor were all targets.” But the homes of the poor were poorly constructed and much more vulnerable. Though the quake itself—what Mutter calls “the natural part of the disaster”—affected rich and poor alike, the relief process was not so even-handed. In a society already starkly divided by class, the elites were able to pay for private medical and rebuilding services, while the poor were relegated to crowded, dangerous tent cities.

Following Katrina, real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro said, in classic disaster capitalist attitude, that the clearing out caused by Katrina represented some “very big opportunities”. A Republican representative from Baton Rouge said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Within the context of the shock and crisis following the earthquake, the Haitian government was compelled to enact a legislation in April 2010 that created the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) to oversee post-earthquake reconstruction. The IHRC was empowered to do whatever it wanted, including approving policies, projects, and budgeting. The IHRC’s 26 board members were elected by no one and were accountable to no one. Half of them were foreign, including representatives of other governments, multilateral financial institutions, and non-governmental organisations. An international development consultant contracted by the IHRC, speaking with the Haiti Support Group’s Deepa Panchang and Beverly Bell, noted; “Look, you have to realize the IHRC was not intended to work as a structure or entity for Haiti or Haitians. It was simply designed as a vehicle for donors to funnel multinationals’ and NGOs’ project contracts.”

What followed the flood of donations that poured into Haiti following the earthquake was a classic case of disaster capitalism. John Mutter writes that the donations were “viewed as manna from heaven by the unscrupulous, a chance for new profit”. Citing a report from the Center for Economic Policy and Research, Mutter shows that of the nearly 1,500 contracts awarded as part of the Haitian relief project, only 23 went to Haitian companies, constituting a paltry 2.5% of the $195 million. Much of the rest went to US contractors based in and around Washington DC, often through no-bid contracts. In other words, to these US companies, the natural disaster in Haiti was simply an opportunity to make a killing.

Disaster capitalism and instability in the DRC

In Africa, nothing illustrates the case of disaster capitalism than the perpetual crisis of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is endowed with a rich and diverse natural resource base that is of vital significance to the global technological and electronic industry. Among these are gold, wolframite, coltan (columbite tantalite), and cassiterite, all of whose uses in the electronic and technological products make them precious and much sought-after commodities. Gold is highly conductive and resistant to corrosion and is thus used to make connectors, soldered joints, and connection wires, in addition to jewelry. Wolframite is the source of tungsten, an element that is used in applications like turning tools and milling, electronic devices including the vibration function in cellphones, cemented carbides, electrical, heating, and welding applications. Coltan is a metal ore from which the element tantalum is extracted and used to make high quality capacitors for applications requiring high performance, compact format, and high reliability. These include hearing aids, pacemakers, airbags, GPS systems, laptops, cellphones, videogame consoles, as well as video and digital cameras. Cassiterite is a metal ore from which tin is made and is used for producing cans, solder for electronic circuit boards, and plumbing.

The perpetual crisis of instability in the DRC is thus a kind of organised chaos that serves the vested interests of many actors at the local, national, regional, and international levels. Eastern Congo’s mines are controlled by militias and rebel groups that use profits from these minerals to perpetuate the DRC conflict. The conflict is estimated to have claimed more than 5 million lives since 1998, while trade in the minerals has continued apace with regular flights in and out of North Kivu’s Walikale in the conflict zone. Whereas miners make between one and five dollars a day working for either an armed group or someone who pays an armed group, the militias rake in millions of dollars. It is estimated that in 2009, militias made USD180 million while final dealers at the end of the chain made up to 50 times this amount.

According to British-based Global Witness’s 2009 report, the national Congolese army (FARDC) and rebel groups (especially FDLR – Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), regularly cooperate with each other in Eastern DRC, carve up territory between themselves, and systematically use forced labour and violent extortion in mining areas. The conflict minerals then go through various middlemen from DRC through Burundi and Rwanda to East Asia where they are processed into valuable metals needed for electronic and other industrial products by companies such as Thailand Smelting and Refining Corporation (THAISARCO), the world’s fifth largest tin producing company. Incidentally, THAISARCO is owned by the British giant, Amalgamated Metal Corporation.

The perpetual crisis of instability in the DRC is thus a kind of organised chaos that serves the vested interests of many actors at the local, national, regional, and international levels…It is estimated that in 2009, militias made USD180 million while final dealers at the end of the chain made up to 50 times this amount.

Global Witness, an international NGO that campaigns to break the chain-link between natural resources and armed conflict, established in 2008 that the British-based Afrimex company was dealing in conflict minerals from the DRC. In its own investigation, the British government verified this finding that Afrimex was buying minerals from suppliers who made payments to rebel groups, a practice that was in breach of OECD international guidelines. Despite this finding, however, no concrete measures were taken by the government against Afrimex, not even a slap on the wrist. Other companies mentioned by Global Witness as partakers of trade in conflict minerals include Trademet and Traxys, both from Belgium, American electronic tech companies Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola, as well as Finnish telecom, infotech and electronics company Nokia. In their 2009 report, Global Witness concluded that the failure of governments to hold companies accountable, the failure of Rwanda and Burundi to restrict trade across their borders, and the failure of donors and diplomats to explicitly address the conflict minerals trade, have all contributed to the continuation of the endless DRC conflict.

Indeed, an effort to legislatively rein in the activities of American companies that profit from conflict minerals in 2009 came a cropper. In April 2009, Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced the Congo Conflict Minerals Act to require electronics companies to verify and disclose their sources of cassiterite, wolframite, and tantalum. The proposed legislation died in committee stage, perhaps a testimony to the lobbying power of the targeted companies that profit from the crisis of instability in the DRC.

Conclusion

Overall, the United States has perfected the practice of creating crises ostensibly to serve the interests of its capitalist class. These include waging unnecessary wars, engineering coups and regime change, and fomenting intra-state conflicts. The main beneficiaries of such adventures include military defence contractors, private security contractors, and energy and natural resource companies – a phenomenon that has come to be referred to as the military industrial complex. No wonder American elections are an exorbitantly expensive affair in which special interests finance politicians’ campaigns and, once in office, the politicians execute legislative agendas in the service of the said special interests. It is on account of this that investigative journalist Greg Palast describes the American system as the best democracy money can buy in a book of the same title and subtitled A Tale of Billionaires and Bandit Ballots.

At the end of the day, in the event of a disaster, whether natural or man-made, pandemic or war, hurricane or earthquake, flooding or volcanic eruption, whereas there are many that get killed, there are always a few that make a killing. This is the essence of disaster capitalism.

Avatar
By

Wanjala S. Nasong’o, Ph.D. is Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee, USA.

Ideas

Cutting the Hand That Feeds: The Plight of Smallholder Farmers in Kenya

Small-scale farming accounts for roughly 75 per cent of the total agricultural output in Kenya. The future of food security in the country, therefore, lies in safeguarding small-scale farmers. However, Kenya’s agricultural policies are focused on cash crops and industrial agriculture. This has led to the food crisis we face today.

Published

on

Cutting the Hand That Feeds: The Plight of Smallholder Farmers in Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

In the pre-colonial days of the early 1900s, Africans predominantly farmed finger millet, sorghum, pearl millet, amaranth, jute mallow, spider plant, and lablab, among other indigenous crops. The farms were so rich in biodiversity that food production thrived. This subsistence nature of farming saw crops being transferred from farm to plate.

In the western Nyanza belt, for instance, ugali was brown (a mixture of sorghum and millet) and often accompanied by indigenous vegetables, such as elisaka (spider flower), omurere (jute), and chimboka (amaranth). During bountiful days, farmers thronged the local food markets to sell off their surplus produce. Food was diverse, high in nutrients, locally grown, and locally available.

In contrast, most farms in Africa today have morphed into monoculture (cultivation of one type of crop) farms. In Kenya, maize is the most dominant food crop on most farms. Cash crops, such as tea, cotton, and coffee introduced by the colonial enterprise, still dominate most farms, and food markets mostly sell kales (sukuma wiki), spinach, maize, and cabbage. Consequently, meals in most households have shifted to either white processed ugali and sukuma wiki or beef and chapati or rice. Food is now processed, low in nutrients and 14% of it is imported.

The diversity present in farmers’ fields has continually declined and the threats to diversity are on the rise. Of the more than 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, with only 9 accounting for 66 per cent of total crop production in 2014.

Such has been the evolution of food systems that farmers intuitively gravitate towards producing what has a ready market as opposed to what is nutritious and indigenous. Cash crops have replaced heritage foods that fed people for generations sprawling back to the dawn of human life.

Cash cropping: A profit-driven paradigm  

Mass cash cropping (popularised by industrial agriculture) has done more harm than good to smallholder farmers. Fertile lands in the Kenyan highlands are occupied by multinational tea corporations, such as James Finlays and Unilever Tea. These corporations pocket high profits at the expense of Kenyan smallholder tea farmers, who constantly grapple with low prices for this produce and remain mired in poverty. Meanwhile, tea pickers work and live under destitute conditions and some suffer from sexual harassment.

Whereas the proponents of cash crop farming might argue that this type of farming has placed farmers on the global market (thereby increasing their chances of earning an income, which could, in turn, address food insecurity) health, economic and social concerns have assumed a secondary place to profits.

Of the more than 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, with only 9 accounting for 66 per cent of total crop production in 2014.

The development history of cash crops in Africa over the last few decades, however, shows that cash crops have produced minimal cash. In the previous three decades, real income from cash crops has declined. African shares in world markets of most commodities have worsened, and most African countries have been sinking deeper and deeper into debt.

The cash crop monopoly has led to the inhumane exploitation of smallholder farmers. This system has consistently oppressed farmers economically and socially through land grabbing, repressive seed laws, and dependency on multinational corporations for farm inputs. Farmers can no longer save and share seeds from the current harvest to plant the next season, as these seeds are patented by multinational seed corporations and protected by intellectual property laws. In Tanzania, farmers risk a prison sentence of at least 12 years or a fine of over €205,300, or both, if they sell and share seeds, including their own farmer-bred seeds, that are not certified. Smallholder farmers now have to buy the seeds, chemical pesticides, and fertilisers each planting season. They have increasingly found themselves at the short end of the stick in this profit-driven paradigm.

This dependency has tied farmers to crippling debt that has sunk the farmers deeper into cyclic poverty. In India, many farmers have committed suicide on account of spiralling debt. In Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, 60,000 farmers committed suicide in 2007 because of debt, repeated crop failures, and the inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation.

Growing cash crops for export has taken more productive land from local food production. Resources that would otherwise have utility in local food production have been channelled into producing agricultural export crops. Consequently, smallholder farmers have converted marginal land with little agricultural productivity for local consumption.

Cultivating cash crops on lands traditionally meant for food crops has a significant impact on the food security of a community or nation. Conversion from subsistence farming to market-oriented agriculture, and shifting from the cultivation of traditional food crops to cash crops through the commercialisation of agriculture have led to an increase in malnutrition and food insecurity in most African countries. In Kenya, for instance, in 2008, an estimated 1.3 million people in rural areas and between 3.5 million and 4 million in urban areas were food insecure. This is despite Kenya exporting more than 3 billion dollars in food crops in 2010.

Cultivation of cash crops has also led to the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, which have harmed our bees and soil and aquatic organisms, and left our water bodies choking with pollution. The need for more land for cash crop cultivation has led to massive deforestation, which has further degraded soils and increased water scarcity. According to the Ndung’u land report, from 1963 to 2003, 11,000 acres of forested land in Kenya was excised off to create the Nyayo Tea zones. In 1988, Transmara Forest Reserve lost 937.7 hectares to Kiptagich Tea Estates.

Monocropping issues

Agricultural commercialisation has led to monocropping. This introduction of new and similar crops into farmers’ fields has drastically altered the diversity of local varieties previously cultivated by farmers. Farm agricultural diversity has been killed under the false assumption that local varieties have low productivity. Ownership of diverse indigenous seed varieties has shifted from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations. The farmer no longer controls and owns the seeds he grows. New patented varieties, often marketed as high yielding varieties, require smallholder farmers to purchase the seeds from one supplier, in this case, the multinational corporations.

Growing monocultures on farms only advances the global agenda of globalisation, which is often controlled by global corporations. Monocultures have been proven to displace the biodiversity on farms. The UN International  Technical  Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig Germany, 1996, noted that industrial monocultures in agriculture had replaced 75 per cent of all agro-biodiversity.

Cultivation of cash crops has also led to the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, which have harmed our bees and soil and aquatic organisms, and left our water bodies choking with pollution.

In addition, Western agricultural corporations and governments are now pushing African countries to industrialise their agriculture. Consequently, food crops, such as rice, wheat, and maize, are currently grown as cash crops. These crops currently account for more than 50 per cent of the world’s calorie intake. An indication of the loss of agricultural diversity is the fact that today we have more Kenyans consuming imported maize, wheat, and rice  as opposed to millet and sorghum so much so that the former have become the staple foods.

It is this reliance on food and agricultural imports that has seen most Kenyans go to bed on an empty stomach. What’s worse, in the wake of COVID-19, farmers are losing their produce due to lack of markets or are sell it at throwaway prices.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, in his March address, encouraged traders and farmers to continue with their agricultural activities so that Kenyans can have access to farm produce at all times – a clear indication that smallholder farmers produce the food consumed in the country.

Who feeds Kenya?

A World Bank Report shows that Kenyan agriculture covers small-, medium-, and large-scale farming. Small-scale production represents roughly 75 per cent of the total agricultural output. The report further states that small-scale production further accounts for 70 per cent of the marketed agrarian produce, as opposed to large-scale farming, which accounts for 30 per cent of traded agrarian food and mainly involves growing commercial crops, such as tea, coffee, maize, sugarcane, and wheat.

Hans Binswanger-Mkhize, in his book, Agricultural Land Redistribution: Toward Greater Consensus, makes a similar assessment. He notes that with just 37 per cent of the land, small-scale farms in Kenya produced 73 per cent of agricultural output in 2004.

It is therefore quite evident that small-scale farmers feed Kenyans as they focus on producing food for local and national markets and their own families. In contrast, large-scale farms specialising in cash crops tend to produce commodities and concentrate on export crops, many of which people can’t eat. They also focus mainly on return on investment.

Despite this realisation, there is little evidence of action taken to ensure that these small-scale farmers produce more during this COVID-19 pandemic. To cushion Kenyans against hunger, the Ministry of Agriculture has sought to import 4 million bags of maize to curb the shortage in the country instead of supporting the smallholder farmers who produce 70 per cent of the maize consumed in the country to produce more. This dependence on the international market for food security that prioritises the industrial agriculture paradigm (the frontier of the cash crop monopoly) is the very foundation of the food crisis we are facing today.

This lack of support has led to the reduction in the number of smallholder farmers. Dr. Vandana Shiva, in her book,  Who Really Feeds the World, notes that since the introduction of policies of globalisation of agriculture in 1991, farmers have sunk in numbers, from 110 million to 95.8 million – a loss of nearly 15 million farmers, or 2,000 farmers per day.

This reduction in the number of smallholder farmers is a direct result of the loss of their agricultural land. A large number of farming families have less than two hectares to feed themselves and humankind. The acreage available for cultivation is shrinking due to a number of factors, including population pressure, lack of access to land, and rules of corporate globalisation designed to make profits at the expense of smallholder farmers.

A World Bank report shows that between 2008 and 2010, at least 60 million hectares of productive farmland was leased out or sold to foreign investors for large-scale agricultural projects, with more than half of these in Africa. farmlandgrab.org noted that these massive new agribusiness projects were throwing a limitless number of small farmers off their territories.

As though the shrinking land size is not enough of a hurdle, farmers are even locked into debt as multinational corporations sell them costly inputs in the form of patented seeds, fertilizers, and agrochemicals while buying their produce cheaply. Multinational corporations such as Bayer, Dupont, Syngenta, Land O’Lakes, BASF, Yara, PepsiCO, Unilever, and Carrefour are ripping everything off farmers. Consequently, farming has become unviable, and most farmers are leaving their farms for meagre jobs in the urban areas.

A World Bank report shows that between 2008 and 2010, at least 60 million hectares of productive farmland was leased out or sold to foreign investors for large-scale agricultural projects, with more than half of these in Africa.

The future of food security and food safety lies in promoting and safeguarding small-scale farmers. It is time to make farming feasible for the smallholder farmer, given that high input, resource-intensive farming systems have failed to achieve sustainable food and agricultural production.

Contradictory to this, is the decision by the government not to buy maize for its Strategic Food Reserve from local farmers but instead pave way for private sector warehousing. This will lead to no stabilisation of food supply levels and prices within the country during prolonged droughts. This move is likely to exacerbate the levels of food insecurity within the country by increasing the prices of food thus reducing its availability to majority of Kenyans. This is per the Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy 2019 -2020, which purports to boost food security in the country.

What needs to happen

Small-scale farms have already proven that they can produce more diverse foods for households and the market. The Ministry of Agriculture needs to prioritise domestic food production over international exports and increase investment in smallholder farmer-based food production.

The UN Environment Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the UN special rapporteur on the right to food estimate that small farmers produce up to 80 per cent of the food in non-industrialised countries. We need to stop the allocation of land to agribusiness-led ventures and make land accessible to smallholder farmers through appropriate land reforms. Land from the cash crop plantations needs to be handed over to smallholder farmers. Women farmers who produce most of our food have no access to land. We need systems that make it legal for women to own and cultivate land.

We need policies that enable farmers to grow locally, export real surpluses, and import what is not available locally. Policy interventions include stabilising market prices and regulating import controls through taxes to avoid dumping, which threatens local agricultural production.

We need to innovative and create eco-friendly farming systems, such as ecological farming that protects and enhances the natural resource base while raising agricultural productivity. Farming systems should encourage diversity to cope with climatic shocks.

We need farming systems that protect farmers and consumers against the increasing monopoly power of vast, multinational, agro-industrial corporations. We require systems that encourage consumers to purchase food directly from farmers, systems that allow farmers to breed their seeds, save and exchange these seeds amongst each other, systems that will not make smallholder farmers dependent on the excessive use of agrochemicals and fertilisers.

We need to innovative and create eco-friendly farming systems, such as ecological farming that protects and enhances the natural resource base while raising agricultural productivity. Farming systems should encourage diversity to cope with climatic shocks.

These systems promote self-reliance and self-sufficiency, which are key to a future free of hunger, oppression, and starvation.

In the words of Thomas Sankara, “He who feeds you, controls you.” Because food is fundamental for the development of society, and serves the purpose of nourishment alongside enlivening our culture, its producers must be protected and supported.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

Continue Reading

Ideas

Let’s Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees

If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society.

Published

on

Let's Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees
Download PDFPrint Article

After two decades of the neoliberal gutting down of Kenyan universities, Kenya’s president has now gone for universities’ jugular. He has cut off the university as as a route for social advancement among the non-elite class. The slicing of the jugular came with the recent university admissions when the government announced that more than a half of them would be turned into technical programmes and institutions. At first, the government announced this move as a choice of the students themselves, but later on, it became evident that many students were caught by surprise.

Kenyan universities have maintained a semblance of independence from direct patronage by Kenya’s aristocracy. As long as universities have existed in Kenya, and especially after the expansion of university education by Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, a child from a village had a shot in the Kenyan imagination of becoming next in line to the presidency. (For the moment, the integrity of the process is not considered here.) Now that President Uhuru Kenyatta has ditched his deputy, he has got his bureaucratic robots to slice the jugular of Kenya’s schooling system and let it bleed to death.

As is to be expected, the Kenyan media has celebrated the event, thus becoming the conduit for fairly unbelievable stories that clothed Kenya’s feudal politics in the parlance of employment and The Market (as opposed to the regular markets that we all love). Like clockwork, the media published headlines such as “Are degrees no longer hot?”, wrote op-eds justifying technical and vocational education and training (TVET) as a better alternative to a regular university degree, or held town hall meetings that gave a semblance of public participation by fielding questions from youth who had clearly not understood that they are pawns in a system that just does not care about them. This move will not surprise anyone with knowledge of the aristocratic class system in Kenya and the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. It has been a long time coming.

Missionaries, colonial settlers and the colonial state

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil, dubbing, for example, herbal medicine as “witchcraft,” and all the while shipping indigenous knowledge and crafts to London.

When formal British education was introduced to Kenya, there was tension between the competing interests of the missionaries, the colonial settlers and the colonial state. The missionaries were primarily interested in converts, and so reading was essential to their education. The settlers, however, were interested only in manual labour, and were frustrated that the colonial government was not forcing Africans to work on the huge tracts of land that had been dispossessed from Africans. They were therefore hostile to schooling beyond trade schools, and accepted formal education for Africans only on the promise that the inclusion of Christian religious education would ensure that Africans remained compliant with the colonial interests.

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil…

It is from the colonial settlers that Kenya inherited the narrative that education would make Africans unable to do manual work (or what today is called “useful” or “relevant to the market”), because all the African would acquire from education is big ideas and a desire for the status of the Europeans. And, from a certain perspective, the settlers were not wrong. In a stratified system such as colonial society, being at the bottom of the hierarchy, as Africans were, meant a cruel life of dispossession, forced labour and taxes. Africans could not be enticed to go to school if there was no carrot in the form of exemption from this oppressive life. And once that door was opened, it would only be a matter of time before Africans demanded, as Frantz Fanon famously said in The Wretched of the Earth, “to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible.”

There was a second element of truth to the settlers’ fears. The settlers were familiar with the fact that even in the belly of the empire, aristocratic education had the effect of paralysing one’s thoughts and sense of reality. In Victorian England, the industrialists complained that aristocratic education from prestigious public schools and Oxbridge had rendered their children incapable of running the companies their parents expected the children to inherit.

The settlers did not need to point to London to see the truth of this: the bulk of the colonial administration was made up of graduates of elite British schools, and even the settlers called their own colonial administration stifling and suffocating. The list of complaints by the British settlers are depressingly similar to the complaints that a Kenyan today would make: the government borrowing loans at high interest rates, failing to address the economic depression, moribund, “dependent on an uninstructed electorate situated 6000 miles away, and characterised by a continuous epidemic of public meetings, which produce much eloquence, heady talk and little practical benefit to the [white settler] community as a whole”.

The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst.

The aristocratic values which the settlers were wary of would return to Kenya in the 1980s when the World Bank proposed to African Vice-Chancellors to eliminate universities, since African countries needed basic education, not higher education. The audacity of the proposal notwithstanding, it is hardly surprising that the university administrators would not comply and phase themselves out of a job. But later, as Ayesha Imam and Amina Mama report in their book chapter, “The role of intellectuals in limiting and expanding academic freedom”, the World Bank got their wish by starving African universities of money and going to the extreme of demanding that purchases of books and journals be first approved by the Bank.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To see that the complaint of “useless” and elitist graduates has not changed a century later gives us food for thought. But it is not as disturbing as the fact that Kenyan citizens today are strange bedfellows with colonial settlers and British industrialists, sharing the same complaints about the Kenyan ex-colonial state and its aristocratic schooling system. When communities of different geographies, cultures and political inclinations have the same complaint about university graduates, it is time for academics to abandon the old strategy of accusing society of not understanding what university education is for. We need to either concede that society is right, or we explain the truth.

I choose the latter.

Justifying why Kenyans don’t need university education

To explain the mess of the system that is now receiving its last kick from the president, I will address three justifications for the bizarre turn of events in university education:

  1. People shouldn’t get degrees because there is no employment.
  2. Degrees make graduates become employment seekers rather than employers.
  3. Degrees do not give Kenyans skills which are “useful” or “relevant” to The Market, such as entrepreneurial skills for business or technical skills for building infrastructure.

The lack of employment justification

This justification should be fairly easy to explain by pointing out that the availability of employment is an economic, rather than an educational, function. In Kenya, however, this argument routinely falls on deaf ears for psychological and ideological reasons.

Psychologically, tackling the economy is too daunting for simple minds fed on the Anglo-American logic of easy and instant solutions to complex and long-term problems. It would require addressing the political economy, being an active citizen and making certain demands politically.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In contrast, blaming schools for unemployment is comforting. The majority of the school population is made up of minors who cannot speak back, and of teachers who are fairly powerless in terms of employment conditions and even the syllabus, especially in these neoliberal times when teaching has been transformed into slavery by managerial and regulatory regimes of accountability.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market. Unfortunately, the trade union movement has been too paralysed to come up with an effective counter-argument, and those who are still in permanent employment have failed to establish worker solidarity with their colleagues suffering on gig terms.

In any case, there is an argument to be made against using educational accomplishment for employment. The reliance of employers on academic certificates is a form of discrimination, since those who are employed will always be those with the resources to get an education. Reliance on academic achievement also makes the school system subsidise employers by sparing them the cost of equipping their employees with the requisite skills.

Any country that has a backbone should tell businesses to shut up and train their own employees at their own cost. But in this era of state capture, that is unlikely to happen.

The education for employment justification

It is important to clarify that employment was never the immediate goal of the British-oriented university education system that Kenya inherited. In Victorian England, university education and admission through the examination system were primarily a tool of assimilation for the rising middle classes into the aristocracy. It was through the university system that members of the middle class gained access to the social and symbolic power of European aristocracy, which remains the source of cultural legitimation in today’s world. In turn, the middle classes were offered an opportunity to become part of the burgeoning British Empire. As a consequence, most of the colonial administrators were graduates of public schools and Oxbridge, and even now, the rising inequality in Britain has been attributed to the fact that this same cohort still dominates British politics and institutions.

Similarly, university education in Kenya was an opportunity to be assimilated into the colonial state. The first university graduates were the children of Chief Koinange, a colonial collaborator. One of his children, Mbiyu, received education from elite schools in three continents: Alliance High School in Kenya, London School of Economics in the UK and Columbia University in the US. He was also a Rhodes scholar at the University of Cambridge. He later became the brother-in-law of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and was in the president’s core cabinet for most of his life in independent Kenya.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market.

With the outbreak of the Mau Mau war in the 1950s, and with the rise of the United States as a global power, the British government jacked up the availability of university education to raise a Kikuyu middle class that would provide the civil servants for the colonial state. After independence, the first president saw the university as fulfilling precisely the same role, and as Mwenda Kithinji argues in his brilliant book, The State and the University Experience in East Africa: Colonial Foundations and Postcolonial Transformations in Kenya, the first president had no intention to expand university education since he had the Kikuyu elites that he needed. The second president, a member of a minority ethnic group, then expanded university education in order to widen the Kenyan middle class to include people from other ethnic groups. It is therefore wishful thinking, if not delusion, for Kenyans to believe that the government schooling system was ever about employment. The schools have always been about class status and power.

However, the popular belief in education for employment is understandable, because the expansion of the control of the (ex)colonial state and global capital by the British and Kenyan elite was experienced by ordinary Kenyans as employment.

But almost 60 years after independence, there is no longer a need for the Kenyan elite to provide Kenyans with university education. In the 1960s, when there were not enough British-educated Kenyans to run the civil service, the Kenyan elites were the first generation in their families to go to British schools. . Today, however, there are enough British-educated Kenyans to run the ex-colonial state. The children of the elite are in power, and they also have children and grandchildren whom they want to ascend to power. Moreover, the inequality in Kenya’s education system necessarily means that those who perform well are children of middle-class parents who can afford private school education and can take over the bureaucracy and civil service through patronage, rather than through academic achievement.

The elites of Kenya, whom the current education system serves, have enough of their children and relatives to work in government, and enough of second-generation middle-class children to do their work. With families of a minimum of four wives and dozens of children, the elites have enough personnel.

Moreover, the elites cannot afford an educated Kenyan population outside of government. The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst. The goal of the government education system in Kenya has never been employment. Employment was simply a side effect. And employment seekers were not supposed to be ordinary Kenyans; they were supposed to be the elites entering top government posts through family ties and club networks.

The “useful” and “relevant” skills justification

Given this history of the imperial education system, it is almost laughable that university scholars have sought to justify themselves as providing skills that are useful for graduates in The Market. That said, it is a lie to which I dedicated a significant part of my career, until I realised that studying the arts can never be “marketable” in an anti-human economic and political system.

That aside, the fantasy of making university education appear “relevant” has been a public relations exercise in which even the British academy was engaged in the 19th century after industrialists complained that universities were not training their sons to take over the family industries from their fathers. In fact, John Brown argued in 1970 that the British elite university could not find a strong enough argument to defend the imperial education based on the Roman and Greek classics. However, it won over the industrialists by what he calls “the parlance of advertising” and an “imaginative sales effort”. Rather than argue for university education on its own merit, the universities assimilated the critique about their lack of “practical skills”, and claimed that elite class manners were a skill in and of themselves.

To put it simply, the universities told the business elite that they needed knowledge and habits of aristocrats for them to be “successful”. It was not enough to make money; one had to be sophisticated and convincing, able to talk across cultures and social class.

Before my road to Damascus conversion, I made this same laughable argument myself. Now when I think of it, this defence of university education belongs to the same whatsapp group as the products of business coaches and motivational speakers who promise “soft skills”, like how to speak convincingly, how to make an elevator pitch, how to dress to look presentable, and all other forms of self-improvement for The Market. We academics making those arguments are no different from those who give tutorials on how to have English “afternoon tea the correct way”.

We should do away with universities – as they are now

If universities, as they currently stand, are useful only to the elites, it should come as no surprise that the elites are now destroying them. After all, the universities are theirs.

But rather than fight for universities to remain public institutions in their current form, we the people need to fight for them to become truly public by removing degree programmes and turning them into a space for knowledge and culture. We should break down the walls of admissions and examinations. We should diversify and increase opportunities for people to learn through cultural centres, festivals and public libraries. We should make public engagement, like dialogues under a tree, and visits to what Odero Oruka called “sage philosophers” a part of formal education. For skills training, we could resort to apprenticeships as a way to enter a profession and facilitate peer review as a way to improve services.

Two things must definitely be removed from the university as an institution: 1) certification; and 2) the interference and regulation in university education by the state. Both have reduced university education to a cynical process of gaining papers to access elite status and titles, and of measuring outcomes and indicators like a balance sheet.

Most of all, we must remove the institution of the imperial elite, which is made up of people who gain wealth and power through their manipulation and control of the commons – land, natural resources, labour and knowledge.

​Africa may not always have offered degrees, but it has had universities for millennia. We can do away with degrees and retain universities. If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society. Right now, universities are hardly different from members-only clubs for those who survive the hazing ritual of examinations and gain the right to become snobs who undermine democracy and social justice for the rest of their lives.

​But to scuttle such fundamental and dynamic reforms to education, the economy and politics, the president has now sacrificed the dreams of an entire generation of Kenyan youth – however contradictory those dreams may be – in order to sustain the exploitative social status of his family and the ruling elite. This situation is not only unjust; it is also untenable.

Continue Reading

Ideas

Reimagining Home in a Time of COVID

COVID-19 has compelled us to think about the home as an enclosed political economy. The pandemic has placed an additional strain on the caregiving role and labour of women, who have been disproportionally affected by domestic and other forms of violence. What might a just home in a post-COVID future look like?

Published

on

Reimagining Home in a Time of COVID
Download PDFPrint Article

One of the contradictions of the past few weeks is that while we have become isolated within our own borders, neighbourhoods and homes, we have also become joined globally in the incantation of new words: social distancing; lockdown; quarantine; curfew; shielding. To this list of what the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams might call our COVID keywords, we must also insist on adding evictions, demolitions, and forced internal migrations, all of which have unfolded before our eyes in the first pandemic to occur in the age of social media.

At a recent webinar on Africa and the Pandemic, ROAPE’s Heike Becker described African governments as being more intent on flattening houses than on flattening the curve. I was provoked by this to revisit the literature on domicide, a word used to describe the deliberate destruction of homes and the suffering of those who dwell in them. In this pandemic, there has been an under-theorisation of the meaning of home. Instrumentally, instructions to stay at home were not made on the basis of careful knowledge of how homes function as what Kathleen Lynch, John Baker and Maureen Lyons have described as enclosed places or political economies.

Feminists have long argued that affective relations and the conditions under which reproductive labour is provided are neglected and under-researched. This failure risks making the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 not just instrumentally unworkable but also unjust.

Olu Timehin Adegbeye has written that the World Health Organization (WHO) is “promoting social distancing as an essential response to this pandemic, forgetting that there are many parts of the world where this single solution is contextually inadequate or even dangerous”. As Tshepo Mdlingozi pointed out when he wrote in relation to South Africa, “spatial colonialism makes it impossible and inhumane to enforce a lockdown in shack settlements”.

COVID has also thrown up critical existential questions about what we talk about when we talk about home. David Ndii has written that the Kenya authorities have an assumption that everyone has a true rural home. This has meant that working people and the urban poor are treated as temporary residents of the city who have no rights to the city – an assumption with deep colonial roots. In India, the authorities announced a lockdown that Arundhati Roy has described as “towns and megacities…extrud[ing] their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual”. (In contrast, India’s repatriation by air of its overseas citizens has been meticulously organised.)

Feminists have long argued that affective relations and the conditions under which reproductive labour is provided are neglected and under-researched. This failure risks making the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 not just instrumentally unworkable but also unjust.

When the stay-at-home orders were made, little thought was given to what it means to ask poor families to educate children from home in overcrowded conditions at a time when care work is itself risky, disproportionately exposing women to greater risks of the disease.

Our failure to imagine the homes of others is all the more striking because for those with access to technology, we are able to look into the homes of others for the first time. Virtual meetings challenge the notion of home as enclosed, private spaces.

Similarly, some of us have spoken frankly and sometimes for the first time about our family commitments and how our jobs are built on an unencumbered male breadwinner model now thrown into disarray. The instruction by our employers to “work from home” was striking: what do we imagine has been going on in homes other than work?

The pandemic has made responsibilities for care work more visible while increasing its quantity as women try to do their jobs whilst simultaneously looking after those in their home. The under-theorisation of what takes place in the home was evident in other ways, from the neglect of a shadow pandemic of domestic violence to the lack of awareness about the ways of life of multigenerational homes where shielding the elderly is not practical or where older people have long established roles in relation to care, quarantine and the dying.

Our failure to imagine the homes of others is all the more striking because for those with access to technology, we are able to look into the homes of others for the first time. Virtual meetings challenge the notion of home as enclosed, private spaces.

The pandemic should compel us to think more clearly about the home as a political economy. It has made visible and at the same time put under additional strain the work of social reproduction, that is, the socially necessary labour expended to provide food, clothing, and shelter. That little value is attached to this caregiving role is not natural but the outcome of political choices.

Caregiving and emotional labour are unequally distributed. They fall disproportionately on women and most of all on minority women, the poorly paid and the precarious. They subordinate women in society.

Women have, of course, struggled against that subordination. This is, for instance, richly evoked in Luise White’s study of early Nairobi, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, which showed how women provided care labour for men in return for pay “in imitation of marriage” and then went on to use the proceeds of that labour to become independent property owners in a growing city. As one woman quoted in the book stated, “I built this house on my back.”

The gulf between the homes of the rich and the poor in the cities of the Global South has meant that whilst many cocoon at home in safety, with adequate food and access to plentiful resources, (purchases of luxury cars in Kenya have shot up since the beginning of the pandemic: the car too functions as enclosed space), in other parts of the city, women are caring for people without pay, taking care of loved ones, “provisioning supplies, and finding ways to offset the enormous economic and social burdens of this time’”.

At the same time, women have borne the brunt of the violence directed towards their homes. The pandemic has confirmed Patrick McAuslan assertion that the bulldozer is often “the principal tool of planning’”. Evictions in Kenya have taken place in defiance of court orders.

The militarisation of cities such as Nairobi and Johannesburg has led to an increase in rape and sexual violence. Women are safe neither from intimate partners nor from strangers in the form of police prowling the streets during curfews.

Central to a just response to COVID must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home. Foremost amongst these is an economy that recognises, redistributes and compensates the labour that is essential to sustaining us. A better understanding of the labour needed to reproduce a home and ensure its survival during a pandemic must be carried forward into the future to ensure that the home thrives. A starting point is to recognise the differential impact of violence, repression, precarity, sickness and domicide on women in a time of COVID.

Central to a just response to COVID must be the work of reimagining what is needed to sustain a just home. Foremost amongst these is an economy that recognises, redistributes and compensates the labour that is essential to sustaining us.

Recovery should not mean a return to normal but should entail thinking about the ways in which the normal of others has been invisible to us, as Hannah Cross and Leo Zeilig remind us by asking: “Is not the experience of life with the Covid-19 outbreak, now being felt for the first time in many generations in the Global North, the common experience of life and death in the South?”

The Hawai’i state commission on the status of women, presenting its proposals for a feminist economic recovery from COVID-19, argues that we must speak “not only about response and recovery, but also of repair and revival: repair of historic harms and intergenerational trauma playing out as male domination, gender-based violence, economic insecurity, poor health and mass incarceration”.

What might a just home in a post-COVID future look like?

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy journal

Continue Reading

Trending