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From Game Changer to Railway to Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of Lunatic Line 2.0

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It goes without saying that the recently commissioned 120-kilometre Nairobi-Naivasha extension of the new railway line ending at Suswa is an economic puzzle, as the bulk of the cargo that comes through the port of Mombasa is either destined for Nairobi, or is in transit to Uganda and beyond. It is a misguided “if we build they will come” scheme since Suswa offers none of the advantages associated with a viable location for an industrial park.

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From Game Changer to Railway to Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of Lunatic Line 2.0
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Two weeks ago, Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the 120-kilometre Nairobi-Naivasha extension of the new railway line commonly referred to as Phase 2A. Phase 1, which runs from Mombasa to Nairobi, was completed and launched with great fanfare in 2017. Not so this time round. On the day of the launch, a local daily headlined its story thus: “Uhuru to launch expensive SGR [Standard Gauge Railway] train to ‘nowhere.’” The “nowhere” caught on, with one international media house carrying the headline, “The railroad to nowhere China built has opened in Kenya” and another, “Kenya struggles to manage debt for railway to nowhere.”

The “nowhere” refers to Duka Moja (literally meaning “one shop”), a sleepy trading centre on the Maai Mahiu-Narok road where the railway line comes to an abrupt end. Duka Moja lies about 20 kilometres beyond the last train station at Suswa, a slightly busier cattle market about five kilometres down the highway turn-off at Maai Mahiu. There is little to take commuters there, unless one is a cattle trader. Naivasha town, which would be the destination for commuters, is a good 30 kilometres by road from the train station at Suswa but only an hour and a half’s drive from Nairobi. There being no station at Duka Moja means that the stretch will lie unused until “Phase 2B” is built—if it ever is.

The entire Phase 2A extension is an economic puzzle. The bulk of the cargo that comes through the port of Mombasa is either destined for Nairobi, or is in transit to Uganda and beyond. In 2018, the port handled 21.8 million metric tonnes of dry cargo of which 9.6 million tonnes—44 per cent—was transit cargo. This suggests only two logical destinations for rail freight: Nairobi and Malaba. After offloading in Nairobi, the only other logical line for rail freight is one that serves transit cargo, terminating at Kisumu or Malaba as the case may be.

In October 2018, we were informed that the financing agreement for Phase 2B, the 250-kilometre stretch from Naivasha to Kisumu, would be signed at the margins of the China-Africa Summit (FOCAC). Upon his return, Cabinet Secretary for Transport James Macharia informed the country that the Chinese authorities had asked for a feasibility study “of the whole project”. He was quick to add that he was confident that they would be able to produce one in no time, since they now had data from the Mombasa-Nairobi line which had by then been in operation for close to a year. There are two observations to be made here. Firstly, it is the Chinese who have been running the railway, and it is they, and not the government, who have the data on its operations. Secondly, CS Macharia implies that no feasibility study had been undertaken. This is not quite true. There exists a feasibility study for the Mombasa-Nairobi line carried out by the contractor, China Road and Bridge Company. The economic evaluation—which takes up 17 pages of the 143-page document—is the shoddiest thing of its kind that I have seen.

In April this year, the Kenyan delegation left for Beijing amid much fanfare, again anticipating that they would sign the financing of Phase 2B at the margins of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Summit. This time China dropped the bombshell; the project would not be financed. The government had not been paying attention. A couple of weeks prior, China’s Ministry of Finance had released a document titled Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative. It was posted on their website, and was the theme of China’s Finance Minister’s speech at that BRI summit. The long and short of it was that the era of chequebook diplomacy was over. China was bringing sovereign risk assessment on board. More interestingly, China had not formulated its own framework, stating in the document that it was adopting the IMF/World Bank Debt Sustainability Framework for Low Income Countries. Evidently, the administration had missed that memo.

Once the financing fell through, a hastily conceived “Plan B” proposing to revamp the old meter gauge line and integrate it with the new railway was unveiled. The initial announcement indicated that the revamped line would terminate in Kisumu at a cost of Sh40 billion ($400 million). Within days, this plan was abandoned in favour of another routing terminating at Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border. It was to be a public-private partnership (PPP) project costing Sh20 billion ($200 million). The latest on these “Plan Bs” is that the Chinese contractor’s quotation far exceeds the government’s preliminary estimates.

In April this year, the Kenyan delegation left for Beijing amid much fanfare, again anticipating they would sign the financing of Phase 2B at the margins of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Summit. This time China dropped the bombshell; the project would not be financed.

From the outset, the public has been led to believe that the SGR train has a freight capacity of more than 22 million metric tonnes. This column has challenged the operational feasibility of carrying this much freight on a single-track railway line, particularly one that is also used by passenger trains. A paper prepared for the Kenya Railways Board by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), a government policy think-tank, puts the actual operational capacity at 9.75 million metric tonnes. These cargo capacity numbers imply that the railway is capable of carrying only transit or domestic cargo but not both (in 2018 the port handled 9.6 million tonnes of transit cargo).

If the extension to Naivasha is to be of any use, it stands to reason that the railway should prioritise transit cargo. And if transit cargo can utilise all of the railway’s capacity, why then is the government hell-bent on forcing Nairobi-bound freight onto the railway? In order for it to comply with the terms of financing entered into with the lender, the Exim Bank of China, is the readily apparent reason. The loan is secured with an agreement referred to as “take or pay” which obliges Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) to deliver to the railway enough freight to service the debt, failing which KPA will cover the revenue deficit from its own sources.

According to a schedule attached to the agreement, the freight required to service the loans averages 5 million tonnes a year, equivalent to five trains a day between 2020 and 2029 when repayment of the first two loans for the Mombasa-Nairobi section will be completed. The freight comes down to two million tonnes a year thereafter, equivalent to two trains a day until 2034, the completion date for the second loan. A third loan, which financed Phase 2A, does not feature in the agreement as it had not been negotiated, but it is possible that the agreement was revised to factor it in.

Whatever the case, the contract is moot; the revenue streams are calculated at a tariff of $0.12 (Sh12) per km/tonne, which works out to $870 (Sh87,000) per 20-foot container of up to 15 tonnes from Mombasa to Nairobi, compared to the $500 that the railway is currently charging which translates to a rate of $0.069 per km/tonne. Even at this cost the railway cannot compete with trucking because of additional handling charges and “last mile” transport from the railway depot to the owners’ premises which, according to a government report, increase rail freight costs to US$1,420 (Ksh.142,000) compared to a total trucking cost of $850 (Sh85,000). If we use the current rate of $500 to calculate the freight required to pay the loan, KPA needs to deliver 10.4 million tonnes a year, which is more than the 9.75 million tonnes operational capacity given in the KIPPRA report.

On the ground, things are different. According to data published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the railway earned Sh4 billion from 2.9 million tonnes of freight last year, a rate of Sh2.91 per km/tonne. In the first two months of this year, it earned Sh959 million from 662,000 tonnes, a slight improvement in revenue yield to Sh2.99 per km/ton. Either way, the actual revenue per km/tonne is still just a quarter of the rate used to calculate the loan repayments. As this column has maintained from the outset, there was never a likelihood that the railway was going to pay its way. The debt was always going to be paid by the taxpayer. It is difficult to fathom why the government and the Chinese lender bothered with this shoddy securitisation charade for debt that has an implicit sovereign guarantee anyway.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the “railway to nowhere” epithet seems to have stung Uhuru Kenyatta: “Let me tell you. Mai Mahiu… Suswa is not nowhere. This is Kenya. And let me tell you. Whether you like it or not, once I am done with my work and go home, after 20 years when I come back here, Maai Mahiu and Suswa will be more developed than Nairobi.”

Kenyatta was alluding to the plans to set up industrial parks in that locality, some of which we are told will take advantage of the proximity to the geothermal power and steam resources in the region. This is another one of the administration’s misguided “if we build they will come” schemes. Before any further comment, it is worth remarking that Konza Technocity—which is also smack on the railway line—remains a field of dreams. The viability of locations for industrial parks is determined by their proximity to big markets, or raw materials, or labour. It is far from evident that Suswa offers any of these advantages. If we think about export processing for overseas markets, the most cost-effective location is at the coast. It does not make sense to transport raw materials hundreds of kilometres inland and the finished goods back to the port. This is one of the reasons why Athi River has struggled as an Export Processing Zone.

But even were Suswa a most inviting location for industrial parks, the Sh150 billion price tag is exorbitant. The first three berths of the Lamu Port—one of which has been completed—carry a price tag of $480 million. The cost of Phase 2A is enough to build another three (which would put Lamu port’s capacity on a par with Mombasa), plus a highway connecting Lamu to the interior; and you could throw in an airport together with all the housing and social amenities Lamu needs to become a viable port and industrial city.

There is reason to suspect that Mr. Kenyatta reacted in one of his uninhibited moments. The land at Suswa on which the railway terminates is part of an expansive holding—over 70,000 acres—known as Kedong Ranch. Owned by a company of the same name, Kedong Ranch Ltd, the land was expropriated from the Maasai community in the colonial era. Like many other holdings, it was not restituted to the community but instead became available for purchase under Jomo Kenyatta’s willing buyer-willing seller policy. In 1963, Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta had given an undertaking to the Lancaster House constitutional conference that “tribal land” would be “entrenched in the tribal authority” and it would not be possible for anyone to “take away land belonging to another tribe.” He reneged on this undertaking.

In the Kedong case, the principal beneficiary was Muhotetu Farmers Company, a land-buying entity from Nyeri (Muhotetu is an acronym for “Muhoya” and “Tetu”, both localities in Nyeri County), which until recently owned 40.66 per cent of Kedong Ranch Ltd, according to documents filed in one of several court cases involving the company. Other shareholders include Family Circle Investments—with 6.83 per cent—Jackson Angaine and Jeremiah Nyaga. Angaine and Nyaga were respectively Minister for Lands and Settlement and Minister for Education in Jomo Kenyatta’s first post-independence government. It would have been very unusual in those days for people like Angaine and Nyaga to partake of such largesse without there being a share for the Kenyatta family.

But even were Suswa a most inviting location for industrial parks, the Sh150 billion price tag is exorbitant. The first three berths of the Lamu Port carry a price tag of $480 million. The cost of Phase 2A is enough to build another three plus a highway connecting Lamu to the interior

Two years ago, Muhotetu Farmers Company’s shareholding was acquired by a company going by the name of Newell Holdings Ltd. for Sh2.1 billion in a transaction that some shareholders have challenged in court as highly irregular. They claim that the company did not hold a general meeting to approve the deal, and that shareholders were not offered the right of first refusal (pre-emptive rights) as required by law. Suspicion is heightened by the claim by some shareholders that they were credited with the proceeds of the sale well before the date of the transaction. The import of this is that Muhotetu Farmers Company shareholders will have been excluded from compensation for the railway line terminating on the land, and from benefitting from the appreciation of value that may accrue from the proposed industrial parks—if they ever take off. We need not go to the trouble of sleuthing to establish who the owners and/or beneficial interests of Newell Holdings are as we can confidently surmise that they are powerful people within the government.

Not too long ago we saw Uhuru Kenyatta personally propositioning the leaders of Uganda and South Sudan with land grants in Suswa to build dry docks for their countries. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, what else could it be but a duck?

As we say in Gĩkũyũ, ona ĩkĩhĩa mwene nĩ otaga (if a burning house cannot be salvaged, the owner might as well enjoy the warmth of the fire).

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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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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