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Faulty Towers: Why Uhuru’s Housing Plan Is Dead on Arrival

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91 percent of Nairobians are tenants. WIth perhaps the best intentions – to turn slum dwellers and others into homeowners – Jubilee’s affordable low-cost housing agenda ignores a huge body of authoritative research that clearly demonstrates that for urban dwellers, home ownership at ‘home’ is eminently preferable to a house in the big city. By RASNA WARAH. 

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Faulty Towers: Why Uhuru’s Housing Plan Is Dead on Arrival
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The eviction of nearly 30,000 people from Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, in the coldest month of the year has left many wondering whether the Jubilee administration is serious about its “Big Four” agenda, whose key pillar is affordable housing, along with manufacturing, universal healthcare and food security. The evictions, which have been taking place to pave way for a road, have left more than 2,000 families homeless and have led to the destruction of eight schools and a children’s home, according to the Star newspaper. The heartless demolitions have laid bare the government’s lack of understanding of the nature of informal settlements and low-income housing in the city, and why solutions to the housing problem must be found within the beneficiary communities, and not in private sector-led initiatives.

As part of its Big Four agenda, the government says it has allocated Sh.6.5 billion to building 500,000 housing units for low-income households across the country; 100,000 of these units are categorised as “social housing” for households earning less than Sh14,499 a month and another 400,000 units are categorised as “affordable housing” for those earning between Sh15,000 and Sh49,999 a month. Housing for households in the Sh.50,000 to Sh99,999 income bracket will supposedly fall under some kind of mortgage scheme. Ten per cent of the funding for the programme is expected to come from the government, 30 per cent is expected to come from the National Social Security Fund and the rest (60 per cent) is expected to come from the private sector.

One of the fundamental problems with this ambitious programme is that it assumes that owning a home is a priority among low-income households in cities such as Nairobi. This has proved to be a wrong assumption time and again. Studies have shown that home ownership is usually at the bottom of the list of priorities among Kenya’s urban poor: most low-income city dwellers are more concerned about getting and keeping a job, and having enough money to pay for food, water, electricity, school fees and other necessities.

Besides, since a large number of low-income people living in Nairobi and other large urban centres are migrants from rural areas, their priority is not owning a home in the city but improving their homes and farms in their villages. Because of lack of adequate affordable housing for the poorest of the urban poor, a large majority of these migrants end up renting shacks (many of which are owned by middle class Kenyans or powerful individuals) in places like Kibera, where they pay rents ranging from between Sh500 to Sh3000 a month. Urban dwellers who view their stay in the city as temporary will not want to get into long-term repayment/mortgage plans that tie their income for lengthy periods.

One of the fundamental problems with this ambitious programme is that it assumes that owning a home is a priority among low-income households in cities such as Nairobi. This has proved to be a wrong assumption time and again. Studies have shown that home ownership is usually at the bottom of the list of priorities among Kenya’s urban poor: most low-income city dwellers are more concerned about getting and keeping a job, and having enough money to pay for food, water, electricity, school fees and other necessities.

While slum life presents several daunting challenges (Nairobi has even gained the dubious distinction of having among the worst slums in the world, with residents having access to few, if any, basic services, such as sanitation and water supply), it allows new migrants and older residents to pay less for housing than they would in an apartment in other low-income neighbourhoods where rents can range upwards of Sh15,000 a month. For a casual labourer earning less than Sh15,000 a month, the latter option is completely out of reach. Slums, therefore, fill a housing need that the government is unable to meet.

Moreover, as a recent World Bank study revealed, the majority of urban dwellers in Kenya rent their housing, and have neither the means nor the inclination to buy or build houses, especially in urban areas. In Nairobi, for instance, where the average monthly income is in the range of Sh26,000, the average household can only afford to pay a monthly rent of about Sh8,000 or about one-third of its income, which is way below what a mortgage would cost for a low-cost house costing, say Sh2 million. In Mathare, for example, ownership schemes have failed because the residents simply didn’t have the means to make the repayments.

The study, published in 2016, found that 91 percent of households in Nairobi are tenants and only 8 per cent of them either own the structure (but not the land) they live in or own both the land and the structure. The same study also revealed that about 60 percent of urban dwellers in Kenya live in one-room units that could qualify as a slum household as they lack one of more of the following: running water in the unit or building; permanent walls; a toilet shared by fewer than 20 people; and sufficient sleeping space. From a policy perspective, it is clear that what is needed is not more home ownership (which is in any case beyond the reach of the majority of people living in the city) but more affordable rental units that allow these people to move out of slum conditions.

Moreover, as a recent World Bank study revealed, the majority of urban dwellers in Kenya rent their housing, and have neither the means nor the inclination to buy or build houses, especially in urban areas. In Nairobi, for instance, where the average monthly income is in the range of Sh26,000, the average household can only afford to pay a monthly rent of about Sh8,000 or about one-third of its income, which is way below what a mortgage would cost for a low-cost house…

In most advanced industrialised countries, the shortfall in affordable housing is usually met by what is known as social or public housing, which is subsidised housing that is targeted at those low-income or vulnerable groups that cannot afford housing at market rates. In most European countries, social housing is subsidised and managed by the government or the local authority, which collects the below-market rents from tenants and which is also responsible for things like maintenance and cleanliness.

Although high-rise social housing in places such as London has often been referred to as “vertical slums” because of its poor quality and human-unfriendly designs – epitomised by the 24-storey Glenfell Towers in London, which burnt down in June 2017, killing 72 people and injuring several others – this type of housing has helped prevent many families from sinking into homelessness.

In the 1960s and ‘70s there were many such City Council housing units in Nairobi: the advantages of living in such accommodation included affordable rents and access to essential services, such as garbage collection and water. Security of tenure was also assured as the authorities had to make a strong case for evicting the occupants. Low or middle cadre civil servants, among others, were usually the main beneficiaries of such housing.

With the move towards privatisation and public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the 1980s and ‘90s, such housing lost favour in policy circles worldwide, mainly because of the costs involved and a general trend within international development agencies to promote free markets and liberalisation. Governments were encouraged to create “an enabling environment” to allow people to build and own their own homes by putting in place the policy and legal frameworks that would “enable” people to own houses with the help of the private sector – a concept encapsulated by Public-Private-Partnerships.

However, as a report commissioned and published this year by the NGO Hakijamii has noted, public-private partnerships carry enormous risks in a country like Kenya as they could ultimately end up benefiting the middle classes, not those who are most in need of low-cost housing. Corruption is another factor to consider in Kenya, where tenders for such large-scale government projects end up benefiting politically-connected individuals and their godfathers and where cutting corners is part of the deal. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where the proposed low-cost housing units will be allocated to politically influential individuals or will be “sold” to undeserving cousins, sisters and uncles of government officials in charge of the programme.

The 1980s also saw a rise in so-called “sites and services” and “slum upgrading” projects, most of which have a record of failure because they did not consider the priorities of the beneficiaries or because their designs were flawed. In Kibera, for instance, the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme, a joint project of the Government of Kenya and UN-Habitat, saw beneficiaries selling off their units and moving back to the shacks they came from. If the new home owners had been encouraged to form a cooperative that prevented them from selling off the units, this scenario might not have emerged. Those who are familiar with the project have also reported that many services, such as water, are not regular. It has also been reported that the Kibera slum upgrading project did not solve the problem of overcrowding as beneficiaries rented out some of the rooms in their apartments in order to afford the repayments – a practice that the project’s designers apparently encouraged.

Moreover, the design and construction of these high rise multi-storey apartment buildings did not consider that home-based enterprises are the livelihoods of a majority slum dwellers, so open areas and street-level stalls should have been part of the design and architecture. In cities such as Mumbai, beneficiaries of housing projects have been known to move out because they cannot sell their wares, such as cooked food, vegetables and other items, from the third floor of a building. (This is why a high-rise market proposed for hawkers and petty traders in Nairobi is likely to fail.) Slum upgrading programmes in other countries have also not been successful because they failed to consider that residents want to live near where they work – if they are moved to peri-urban areas that are far from where they work, they tend to move back to slums that are near their place of employment.

Many urban poor communities, especially in low-income countries, prefer housing that allows them to conduct business as well. Single-storey housing with shared courtyards are, therefore, preferred. This type of housing was very prevalent in Asian-dominated neighbourhoods such as Pangani in Nairobi decades ago. Several families would rent rooms situated around a common yard where all the families could cook, wash clothes and carry out other household chores. Open spaces are also important to reduce indoor air pollution caused by the use of charcoal or kerosene for cooking – a common practice among low-income families in Kenya. This is why community participation and involvement is critical before such projects are initiated.

Slum upgrading in places such as Kibera and other slums in Nairobi is further complicated by the fact that the majority of the residents are tenants, not squatters i.e. they did not invade public or private land and did not build the structures they live in. In Kibera, most of the land is public and the structure owners are private individuals who obtained permission to build on the land through patronage networks involving local chiefs. In such cases, the question arises of who should benefit from the slum upgrading project: the government (which could recoup its slum upgrading investments through rental income), the structure owner (who should ideally be compensated for the loss of the structure, even if it is just a mud-and-tin shack) or the tenant (who may or may not want to own a home in the slum because he or she has aspirations to move out of the slum eventually or to go back to his or her rural home)?

In Kibera, most of the land is public and the structure owners are private individuals who obtained permission to build on the land through patronage networks involving local chiefs. In such cases, the question arises of who should benefit from the slum upgrading project…

A study in the UK in the 1990s found that “cooperatives provide more effective housing management services with usually better value for money and deliver wider non-quantifiable social and community benefits”. Cooperatives also foster consultation and public participation, core values of Kenya’s constitution.

One of the reasons put forward by international development experts for encouraging home ownership is that it is the most reliable way of ensuring security of tenure, and encourages home owners to invest in and improve their houses. (Yet, it is important to note that even in the most advanced countries, such as Germany and Sweden, the majority of people rent rather than own their housing.) In his book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, Hernando de Soto argues that because property ownership is the foundation upon which capitalism thrives, the poor must be encouraged to own their assets (namely, property) which they can then use to invest in businesses (for example by obtaining a loan against the title deed). This thinking is what has probably propelled the government of Kenya to take the home ownership route to affordable housing.

To bring down the cost of such housing for both rent and ownership, housing units could be made of low-cost materials rather than the expensive stone and concrete that is demanded by Kenya’s ridiculously high housing standards. People could be encouraged to form cooperatives so that the costs are shared and to ensure that the housing benefits the real beneficiaries, not others.

But, as I have tried to argue, home ownership is not the top priority among low-income urban households. Social housing provided by county governments could be an option but the cost of subsidising such housing could prove to be unsustainable in the long term. However, if properly managed, this option is practical if rental income from it can bring in steady and substantial revenue for county governments – and if corruption is not allowed to derail the project. But for this to happen, the right policy and legal frameworks need to be in place, both for county and national governments.

On the other hand, if public-private partnerships remain the most viable option, then the emphasis should be on low-cost rental housing or cooperative housing, not individual ownership. The longer term aim, of course, should be to improve the incomes of all Kenyans so that city dwellers are able to afford the the kind of housing they choose to live in, and are not forced to move into shantytowns because there are no other affordable options.

We must also consider that the government’s ambitious housing project may become a victim of Kenya’s deadliest disease – corruption – which could stall or distort efforts to make affordable housing available to those who need it most.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy

If Rwanda is to attain its stated ambition to become of a middle-income country by 2035 driven by the knowledge economy, then it must inject significant investments in the education and related sectors.

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Rwanda has shown commitment to bring improvements to its education sector. The development of Human capital that involves the enhancement of the education and health sectors was one of the main pillars of Rwanda’s development programme launched in 2000 to transform the country into a middle income state driven by the knowledge economy by 2020. Many developed countries joined in to financially support Rwanda to fulfil its development ambitions.

But while Rwanda did not meet its target to transform into a middle-income state by 2020, it has nevertheless made progress in the education sector that should be recognised. The country has now near-universal access to primary education with net enrolment rates of 98 per cent. There are also roughly equal numbers of boys and girls in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in Rwanda. Compared to other sub-Saharan African countries, Rwanda has made great improvements in the education sector based on the gains made in primary school gross enrolment, out-of-school and retention rates and considering that the country came out of a genocidal civil war in the 1990s. Those of us living and travelling across the country can also see that the government of Rwanda has built more schools across the country to address congestion in classrooms.

However, education in Rwanda is faced with serious challenges which, if not addressed, the country will not attain its ambition to become a middle-income by 2035 and a high-income by 2050. The World Bank’s comparison with middle- and high-income countries, to whose ranks Rwanda aspires to join, shows that Rwanda lags far behind in primary and lower secondary school completion levels.

The gains made in education are not equally distributed across Rwanda. There are, for instance, wide disparities in lower secondary education by income and urban–rural residence. Whereas lower secondary school gross enrolment ratio level is 82 per cent in urban areas, it is only 44 per cent in rural areas. Moreover, transition rates between primary and lower secondary education are 53 per cent in urban areas, and 33 per cent in rural areas. School completion is 52 per cent among the richest quintile while it is 26 per cent among the poorest. Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

The standard of education in Rwanda is another major challenge. At the end of Grade 3, 85 per cent of Rwandan students were rated “below comprehension” in a recent reading test, and one in six could not answer any reading comprehension question. In my view, the quality of education has been partly affected by the abrupt changes in the language of instruction that have taken place without much planning since 2008.

Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

Learning levels in basic education remain low in Rwanda.  Children in the country can expect to complete 6.5 years of pre-primary and basic education by the age of 18 years. However, when this is adjusted for learning it translates to only about 3.8 years, implying that children in Rwanda have a learning gap of 2.7 years. This is a concern.

Education in Rwanda is also impended by high levels of malnutrition for children under 5 years. Although there have been improvements over time, malnutrition levels remain significantly high at 33 per cent. Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings. It also deprives the economy of quality human capital that is critical to Rwanda attaining its economic goals and sustaining its economic gains. In 2012, Rwanda lost 11.5 per cent of GDP as a result of child undernutrition.

Because of low learning levels and high levels of malnutrition in children under 5 years, Rwanda has consistently ranked below average on the World Bank’s Human Capital index since 2018, the year the index was first published. HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens.

If Rwanda is to develop the competent workforce needed to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy and bring it into the ranks of middle-income states, the government must put significant public spending in basic education. This has not been the case over the past decades. According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s public spending on primary education has been significantly lower than the average for sub-Saharan African countries with similar coverage of primary school level as Rwanda. This low spending on primary education has translated into relatively modest pay for teachers and low investment in their professional development which in turn affects the provision of quality education in Rwanda. The government recently increased teachers’ salary but the increment is being eroded by, among other things, food price inflation in Rwanda.

Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings.

Going forward, Rwanda’s spending on education needs to be increased and allocated to improving standards. Considering that the underlying cause of the high rate of malnourishment in children is food insecurity, the government needs to spend more on the agriculture sector. This sector employs 70 per cent of the labour force but has received only 10 per cent of total public investment. Public investment in Rwanda has in the past gone to the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions sector rather than towards addressing pressing scarcities. This approach must be reviewed.

Increasing public expenditure in education and connected sectors should also be combined with strengthening accountability in the government institutions responsible for promoting the quality of education in basic schools and in promoting food security and livelihoods in Rwanda. This is because not a year goes by without the office of the Rwanda auditor general reporting dire inefficiencies in these institutions.

Strengthening institutional accountability can be achieved if the country adapts its consensual democracy by opening up the political space to dissenting voices. Doing so would surely enhance the effectiveness of checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda, including in the education sector, and would enable the country to efficiently reach its development targets.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States

Adam Mayer praises a new collection, Liberated Texts, which includes rediscovered books on Africa’s socialist intellectual history and political economy, looking at the startling, and frequently long ignored work of Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu and Makhan Singh.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
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Liberated Texts is a magnificent, essential, exciting tome that feels like a bombshell. This incredibly rich collection is a selection that is deep, wide, as well as entertaining. The book focuses on twenty-one volumes from the previous one hundred years, with a geographical range from the UK, the US, Vietnam, Korea, the Peoples Republic of China, the Middle East, Ireland, Malaysia, Africa (especially East Africa), Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, focusing on books that are without exception, foundational.

The collection is nothing less than a truth pill: in composite form, the volume corrects world history that Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States offered for the sterile, historical curriculum on domestic (US) history. The volume consists of relatively short reviews (written by a wide collection of young and old academics and activists from every corner of the globe) but together they reflect such a unified vision that I would recommend Liberated Texts as compulsory reading for undergraduate students (as well as graduates!) Although the text is a broad canvas it speaks to our age (despite some of the reviewed book having been written in the 1920s).

Each review is by default, a buried tresure. The writer of this very review is a middle-aged Hungarian, which means that some of the works and authors discussed were more familiar to me than they would be to others. For example, Anton Makarenko’s name was, when the author grew up in the People’s Republic of Hungary, a household word. Makarenko’s continued relevance for South America and the oppressed everywhere, as well as his rootedness in the revolutionary transformations of the Soviet experiment, are dealt with here marvellosly by Alex Turrall (p. 289). In loving detail Turrall also  discusses his hero the pedagogue Sukhomlinsky’s love for Stalinist reforms of Soviet education (p. 334).

There is one locus, and one locus only, where death is given reign, perhaps even celebrated: in a Palestinian case (p. 133) the revolutionary horizons are firmly focused on the past, not on any kind of future. The entire problematic of Israeli society’s recent ultra right-wing turn (a terrible outcome from the left’s point of view) is altogther missing here. Yet it is difficult to fault the authors or editors with this (after all, they painstakingly included an exemplary anti-Nazi Palestinian fighter in the text, p. 152) but it might be in order to challenge a fascination with martyrdom as a revolutionary option on the radical left.

In every other aspect, Liberated Texts enlightens without embarrassment, and affirms life itself. Imperialism is taken on in the form of unresolved murders of Chinese researchers in the United States as a focus (p. 307), and in uncovering the diabolical machinations of the peer-review system – racist, classist, prestige-driven as it is (p. 305).

The bravery of this collection is such that we find few authors within academia’s tenure track: authors are either emeriti, tenured, very young academics, or those dedicated to political work: actual grassroots organizers, comrades at high schools, or as language teachers. This has a very beneficial effect on the edited volume as an enterprise at the forefront of knowledge, indeed of creating new knowledge. Career considerations are absent entirely from this volume, in which thankfully even the whiff of mainstream liberalism is anathema.

I can say with certainty regarding the collection’s Africanist chapters that certain specialists globally, on African radical intellectual history, have been included: Leo Zeilig, Zeyad el-Nabolsy, Paul O’Connell, Noosim Naimasiah and Corinna Mullin all shed light on East African (as well as Caribbean) socialist intellectual history in ways that clear new paths in a sub-discipline that is underfunded, purposely confined to obscurity, and which lacks standard go-to syntheses especially in the English language (Hakim Adi’s celebrated history on pan-Africanism and communism stops with the 1950s, and other works are in the making).

Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu, Makhan Singh are the central authors dealt with here. Rodney is enjoying a magnificent and much deserved renaissance (but this collection deals with a lost collection of Rodney’s 1978 Hamburg lectures by Zeilig!) Nabolsy shows us how Nyerere’s Marxist opposition experienced Ujamaa, and Tanzanian ’socialism’. Nabudere – a quintessential organic intellectual as much as Rodney –  is encountered in praxis as well as through his thought and academic achievements in a chapter by Corinna Mullin. Nabudere emerges as a towering figure whose renaissance might be in the making right at this juncture. Singh makes us face the real essence of British imperialism. Nabudere, Babu and even Hirji’s achievements in analysing imperialism and its political economy are all celebrated in the collection.

Where Shivji focuses on empire in its less violent aspect (notably NGOs and human rights discourse) powerfully described by Paul O’Connell, Naimasiah reminds us that violence had been as constitutive to Britain’s empire, as it has been to the Unites States (in Vietnam or in Korea). An fascinating chapter in the collection is provided by Marion Ettinger’s review of Richard Boyle’s Mutiny in Vietnam, an account based entirely on journalism, indeed impromptu testimony, of mutinous US soldiers tired of fighting for Vietnam’s landlord class.

Many readers of this anthology will identify with those veterans (since the collection appears in the English language) perhaps more than with East Asia’s magnificent, conscious fighters also written about in the book. Even in armies of the imperialist core, humanity shines through. Simply put, there are no imperialist peoples, only imperialist states.

Zeilig’s nuanced take on this important matter is revealed in Rodney’s rediscovered lectures. Also, the subtlety of class analysis in relation to workers versus peasants, and the bureacratic bourgeoisie profiting from this constellation (p. 219) brings to mind the contradiction that had arguably brought down Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist president who nevertheless found himself opposing working class demands. Rodney’s politics in Guyana invited the same fate as Sankara, as we know.

Nabolsy’s review on Hirji’s The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher touches on very interesting issues of Rodney’s role especially in the context of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s idiosyncratic version of African socialism. Nabolsy appreciates Nyerere efforts but analyses his politics with great candour: Ujamaa provided national unification, but failed to undermine Tanzania’s dependency in any real sense. The sad realization of the failure of Tanzania’s experience startles the reader with its implications for the history of African socialism.

On an emotional and personal level, I remain most endeared by the Soviet authors celebrated in this text. So Makarenko and Sukhomlinsky are both Soviet success stories and they demonstrate that this combination of words in no oxymoron, and neither is it necessarily, revisionist mumbo-jumbo. Their artificial removal from their historical context (which had happened many times over in Makarenko’s case, and in one particular account when it comes to Sukhomlinsky) are fought against by the author with Leninist gusto.

Sukhomlinsky had not fought against a supposedly Stalinist education reform: he built it, and it became one of the most important achievements of the country by the 1960s due partly to his efforts. The former educational pioneer did not harm children: he gave them purpose, responsibility, self-respect, and self-esteem. The implication of Sukhomlinsky and Makarenko is that true freedom constructs its own order, and that freedom ultimately thrives on responsibility, and revolutionary freedom.

As this collection is subtitled Volume One, it is my hope and expectation that this shall be the beginning of a series of books, dealing with other foundational texts, and even become a revolutionary alternative to The London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, both of which still demonstrate how much readers crave review collections. Volumes like Liberated Texts might be the very future of book review magazines in changed form. A luta continua!

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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We Must Democratize the Economy

In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.

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Jeremy Corbyn: We Must Democratize the Economy
Photo: Chatham House, London
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On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.

People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.

For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.

Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.

However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.

From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?

As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.

Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.

Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.

To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.

Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.

Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.

This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.

Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.

This article was first published by Progressive International

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