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Fighting COVID-19: What Kenya Can Learn From Ghana

8 min read.

The difference lies in this: that as Mr. Kenyatta makes all the right moral pitches, Mr. Akufo-Addo canvasses all the right responses. If only Mr. Kenyatta would reach for the phone and give President Akufo-Addo a call.

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Fighting COVID-19: What Kenya Can Learn From Ghana
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What is Kenya’s strategy against the Coronavirus? Kenyans had hoped to get an answer when President Uhuru Kenyatta’s addressed the Nation last Monday. What they heard instead was a sanguine speech full of moral exhortation and equivocations.

The President announced some tax measures but these were the same middle-class sops that he had offered a fortnight earlier. He spoke expansively on the sacrifices that frontline staff make but gave no carrots that might actually enthuse them to make even more sacrifices, as they must in the coming months. He placed imperious restrictions on how and when people can move in Nairobi, Kilifi, Kwale and Mombasa but left vague much that really matters. His handlers have since been scrambling, trying to finesse his meaning. The President called for Kenya to tap “into the creativity of our people” but left it unclear what the country’s state of readiness for COVID-19 actually is. What, in other words, is the context for the exercise of creativity?

Mr. Kenyatta won’t say what budget re-alignments his government will make to free resources for the crisis. He won’t disclose what, if anything, his epidemiologists have told him about the evolution of the disease in the next few weeks. He won’t say what diplomatic efforts are underway to get help. He won’t reveal the status of our national stores: for food; for antibiotics and for drugs to manage COVID-19 symptoms. If restrictions are meant to make testing easier, Mr. Kenyatta gave no hint whether Kenya has adequate testing kits.

Mr. Kenyatta gestured faintly to the needs of the vulnerable but the paltry Kshs 2 billion shillings from anti-corruption earnings that he has set aside is a desperate drop in an ocean of destitution. What other monies he offered is laughably inadequate: Kshs. 10 billion for cash-transfers to the elderly and Kshs 100 million to musicians and artists, perhaps to lift the national mood out of COVID-19 gloom. Reviewed most charitably, President Kenyatta’s speech was like a fire-bell in a Stygian black-out of hopelessness: Kenyans have no idea whether the fire-brigade will come to the rescue; whether the fire-trucks have water to douse the flames and whether they themselves are safer inside their homes or outside.

Mr. Kenyatta won’t say what budget re-alignments his government will make to free resources for the crisis. He won’t disclose what, if anything, his epidemiologists have told him about the evolution of the disease in the next few weeks.

Even worse, the President’s measures are dangerous as well as weak and ineffectual. They are dangerous for giving the public false hope that there is meaningful action underway. And they are weak and ineffectual because none of what Mr. Kenyatta promises can be enforced. Landlords will puff out their chests with pride at the President’s praise but “compassion and understanding” are not incentives enough for them to forego rents. It is praiseworthy that the President has asked the Nairobi Metropolitan Service to supply water to all and to see to it that water vendors aren’t selling water to the needy. But what are the destitute to do if the vendors ignore Mr. Kenyatta’s pleas? The President has done well to request the Kenya Power and Lighting Company to indulge consumers in default. But what legal right does a presidential ‘request’ give those whose supply KPLC disconnects?

Mr. Kenyatta has two problems, both of his own making. One, since the crisis broke he has treated it as medical problem and farmed it out to Mr. Mutahi Kagwe, the Minister for Health. Two, Mr. Kenyatta appears to think that his government can fight this epidemic without a strategy. He is wrong on both fronts: the crisis he faces is one of governance not medicine and to lead on it is his job, not the health minister’s.

There are only three medical elements to this crisis: tests, treatment and quarantine. Everything else that is necessary to contain the disease: restrictions on movement; contact tracing; kiting out places of quarantine and testing; keeping supply chains for essential goods open; providing essential services in lock-down; protecting the vulnerable; managing food reserves as well as identifying food deficit areas and organizing logistics to supply food where it is needed; enacting special purpose laws for the crisis, say emergency appropriations; tax exemptions for critical businesses; measures to keep the general economy going; how and when to deploy the security forces, including the army; closing or opening borders and arteries of commerce, and much else besides, are all governance issues. The countries that have beaten back the coronavirus understood this from the very first.

And so to Mr. Kenyatta’s second problem: trying to manage the epidemic the way he has managed dissimilar crises in the past, that is, by winging it. He will fail and Kenyans will die needlessly. As a governance problem, Kenya’s effort to fight COVID-19 fragments into many moving parts that span the boundaries of the bureaucracy. Yet ministries are often goal-incompatible: the one for industry might disagree with that for environment where factories should be built, for example. When there is goal-conflict or a problem calls for all of government to act- as COVID-19 does- it is the President’s job to make sure that all work to a common purpose. There must be clarity and co-ordination. That means that the President must set clear goals and frame objectives for his ministers that are clear and achievable. He must define the right actions to achieve the objectives, fund those actions, assign them to someone and make it clear to officials how they will be held to account. Thereafter, his job is to track progress against the targets and results that he wants and, if needs be, to knock laggards on the head and sack persistent failures. In short, Mr. Kenyatta must have a strategy. But, and this is the problem, Mr. Kenyatta acts as if he does not.

And so to Mr. Kenyatta’s second problem: trying to manage the epidemic the way he has managed dissimilar crises in the past, that is, by winging it. He will fail and Kenyans will die needlessly

That, unfortunately, is a deadly tryst with fate. If he is not sure what to do, he has piles of excellent ideas from his impressive Ghanaian peer, President Dankwa Nana Akufo-Addo. Mr. Kenyatta gets apoplectic when western examples are held to his eye but the experiences of a comparable African nation should give him pause. Like Mr. Kenyatta, Mr. Akufo-Addo initially failed to grasp the mortal danger posed by the Coronavirus to the health of his people and the economy of Ghana. Since he learnt the peril that Ghana faced, Mr. Akufo-Addo has shaken his government out of its torpor. He now provides decisive and visible leadership; keeps focus on the mission; constantly reminds Ghanaians of his five anti-COVID-19 objectives and gives regular updates on his efforts. Since the 10th of March he has made five national addresses, all of them matter-of-fact affairs admirably free of moral dross.

Mr. Akufo-Addo’s is clear where the buck stops and he explains it plainly: “The oath of office I swore on 7th January, 2017 demands that I dedicate myself to the service and well-being of the Ghanaian people. It is my job to protect you, and I am determined to do just that.” He has had his missteps. Some Ghanaian lawyers have, to give one example, questioned the constitutionality of the Imposition of Restrictions Act, a recently enacted law that Mr. Akufo-Addo has used to impose a mini-lockdown – apparently copied by Mr. Kenyatta- on the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area. Even so, Mr. Akufo-Addo has been careful to justify, plausibly, all the measures that he takes.

It helps that Mr. Akufo-Addo has framed a clear goal and spelt out some luminous and achievable objectives. His goal is to build the resilience and self-reliance of Ghanaians so that they can beat back COVID-19 and minimise its impact. He has five objectives to that end: to limit or altogether stop the importation of the virus; to contain its spread; to provide adequate care for the sick; to limit the impact of COVID-19 on the social and economic life of Ghana and to expand domestic capabilities to cope with its ravages as well as deepen Ghana’s self-reliance.

To meet the first objective, he closed down all of Ghana’s international borders on the 21st of March. But the numbers of the infected continued to press upwards still, particularly in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area, and so, on the 28th of March, Mr. Akufo-Addo imposed a two-week, geographically limited restriction on movement. The point was not just to halt the spread of the virus- which is critical- but also to scale-up contact tracing, ease testing and, as necessary, find out who to quarantine for observation and who to isolate for treatment.

Though Mr. Akufo-Addo expected everyone in the named area to stay home for a fortnight, the measures were carefully calibrated. People can still shop for essentials. Inter-city traffic is prohibited but not transport of essential cargo and for critical services. Members of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary are exempt from the restrictions as are those who produce and sell food and medicines. Certain sectors of the economy are excluded too: road and railway construction workers; petrol station staff; miners; fisher-folk and staff of Utilities: power, water, and telecommunications.

He has five objectives to that end: to limit or altogether stop the importation of the virus; to contain its spread; to provide adequate care for the sick; to limit the impact of Covid-19 on the social and economic life of Ghana and to expand domestic capabilities to cope with its ravages as well as deepen Ghana’s self-reliance

President Akufo-Addo understands that without frontline staff, his best efforts will fall apart. He is implementing an array of impressive measures, first to keep frontline staff safe and second to fire up their motivation. As of last Sunday, when he made his latest national address, Ghana had purchased and distributed large stores of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs): 350,000 masks; 558,650 examination gloves; 1,000 reusable goggles; 20,000 cover-alls; 7,000) N-95 respirators (for close-fit facial and efficient filtering of airborne particles); 500 waterproof gumboots; 2,000 reusable face shields; 2,000 gallons of hand sanitizers; 10,000 100ml pieces of hand sanitizers, and 500 shoe covers.

To cope with anticipated staff shortages and ease communications, Ghana will recruit an additional one thousand community health workers and one thousand volunteers and provide a hundred pick-up trucks and two thousand, five hundred tablets.

Mr. Akufo hopes to keep frontline staff motivated: each health professional will get additional insurance for a total assured sum of US$60,000. Health workers won’t pay income tax for April, May and June. For four months starting in March, they will get 50 per cent of their basic pay as top-up. Contact tracers will be paid a daily allowance of US$25. Throughout the restriction period, the government will provide buses to transport medical staff to and from work.

There is more. Starting this week, Ghana will support local industry to produce Personal Protection Equipment – facemasks, head-covers, surgical scrubs and gowns. This will offset local needs against a growing global shortage. The plan is to produce 150,000 masks a day for a target of 3.6 million.

These measures are being implemented in lockstep with safeguards for livelihoods. This, the Ghana Coronavirus Alleviation Programme, has three aims: offset the disruptive effects of COVID-19; relieve hardships, and rescue and revitalize industry. Treasury will immediately release US$ 175 million to households and businesses. There is a soft loan programme to lend up to US$100 million to Ghana’s Jua-kali sector with one-year moratorium and two-year repayment. And now, the President said on Sunday, there is a US$500 million facility to support industry in the works.

Businesses in the airline and hospitality industries will be grateful for the 6-month moratorium on their loan repayments as well as the 2 per cent reduction in interest rates effective 1st April 2020 that all will enjoy. Amidst a still-growing crisis, many Ghanians will be happy that tax-filing dates have been moved from April to June. Mr. Akufo-Addo has also set up a private COVID-19 Fund, managed- as in Kenya by an independent board- but Ghana’s is chaired by a former Chief Justice Sophia Akuffo.

To give the poor some relief, Mr. Akufo-Addo has ordered utilities- Ghana Water Company Ltd and the Electricity Company of Ghana- to ensure stable supply and not to disconnect anyone in default. The government will pay all Ghanaians’ water-bills for April, May and June. Water tankers – whether public and private- must supply water to all vulnerable communities.

It is all a very impressive example of clear thinking backed by concrete action. Mr. Akufo-Addo has realised that Ghana faces an existential threat from which it may not emerge. The point, it seems, is that Mr. Akufo-Addo is like Mr. Kenyatta: He, too, can make a fine speech. The difference lies in this: that as Mr. Kenyatta makes all the right moral pitches, Mr. Akufo-Addo canvasses all the right responses. If only Mr. Kenyatta would reach for the phone and give President Akufo-Addo a call.

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Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Kenyans Need an Education That Is Human: A Call to Conscience

Colonial and post-colonial governments have worked to separate education from access to culture and information, and to isolate the school as the only source of learning.

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This is a call to Kenyans of conscience to step back and reflect on the lies about education that are circulating in the media, the schooling system and government. Foreign sharks have camped in Kenya to distort our education. Using buzzwords such as “quality” and “global standards”, these sharks seek to destroy the hopes, dreams and creativity of young Africans, not just in Kenya, but in the whole region, and to make a profit while at it. With the help of local professors, bureaucrats and journalists, they spread hatred for education among the population. At the same time, they ironically create a thirst for schooling that makes parents resort to desperate measures to get their children into school, going as far as accepting violence and abuse in schools that causes children to take their own lives.

This insanity must end.

We must accept that education is a life endeavour through which people constantly adapt to their social and natural environment. Education is more than going to school and getting the right paper credentials. Education occurs anywhere where human beings process what they perceive, make decisions about it and act together in solidarity. That is why education, culture and access to information are inseparable.

However, since colonial times, both the colonial and “independence” versions of the Kenya government have worked hard to separate education from culture and access to information. They have done so through crushing all other avenues where Kenyans can create knowledge. We have insufficient public libraries and our museums are underfunded. Arts festivals, where people come together and learn from unique cultural expressions, have been underfunded, and by some accounts, donors have been explicitly told not to fund creativity and culture. In the meantime, artists are insulted, exploited and sometimes silenced through censorship, public ridicule and moralistic condemnations in the name of faith.

All these measures are designed to isolate the school as the only source of learning and creativity, and this is what makes the entry into schools so cutthroat and abusive.

But entering school does not mean the end of the abuse. Once inside the schools, Kenyans find that there is no arts education where children can explore ideas and express themselves. In school, they find teachers who themselves are subject to constant insults and disruptions from the Ministry of Education and the Teachers Service Commission. Under a barrage of threats and transfers, teachers are forced to implement the Competency Based training which is incoherent and has been rejected in other countries. Many of the teachers eventually absorb the rationality of abuse and mete it out on poor children whose crime is to want to learn. This desperation for education has also been weaponized by the corporate world that is offering expensive private education and blackmailing parents to line the pockets of book publishers.

Education is more than going to school and getting the right paper credentials. Education occurs anywhere where human beings process what they perceive, make decisions about it and act together in solidarity.

By the end of primary and secondary school, only a mere 3 per cent of total candidates are able to continue with their education. This situation only worsens inequality in Kenya, where only 2 per cent of the population have a university degree, and where only 8,300 people own as much as the rest of Kenya.

But listening to the government and the corporate sector, you would think that 98 per cent of Kenyans have been to university. The corporate sector reduces education to job training and condemns the school system as inadequate for meeting the needs of the corporations. Yet going by statements from the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) and the government, there is no intention to employ Kenyans who get training. The government hires doctors from Cuba and engineers from China, and then promises the United Kingdom to export our medical workers. KEPSA is on record saying that we need to train workers in TVET so that they can work in other African countries.

It is clear that the Kenya government and the corporate sector do not want Kenyans to go to school and become active citizens in their homeland. Rather, these entities are treating schooling as a conveyor belt to manufacture Kenyans for export abroad as labour and to cushion the theft of public resources through remittances.

The media and the church also join in the war against education by brainwashing Kenyans to accept this dire state of affairs. The media constantly bombards Kenyans with lies about the composition of university students, and with propaganda against “useless degrees”. The church has abandoned prophecy and baptizes every flawed educational policy in exchange for maintaining its colonial dreams of keeping religion in the curriculum to pacify Kenyans in the name of “morality”.

The government is now intending to restrict education further through the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) which seeks to limit education through pathways that prevent children from pursuing subjects of their interests, and by imposing quotas on who can pursue education beyond secondary school. At tertiary level, the government is devising an algorithm that will starve the humanities and social sciences of funding. It claims that funds will instead go to medical and engineering sciences, which are in line with Kenya’s development needs.

But recall that foreigners are doing the work of medical professionals and engineers anyway, so “development” here does not mean that Kenyan professionals will work in their home country. They will work abroad where they cannot be active citizens and raise questions about our healthcare and infrastructure.

The proposed defunding of the arts, humanities and social sciences aims to achieve one goal: to reserve thinking and creativity for the 3 per cent of Kenyans who can afford it. This discrimination in funding of university education is about locking the majority and the poor out of spaces where they can be creative and develop ideas. It also seeks to prevent Kenyans from humble backgrounds from questioning policies and priorities that are passed under dubious concepts such as “development needs” that are largely studied in the humanities and social sciences.

It is clear that the Kenya government and the corporate sector do not want Kenyans to go to school and become active citizens in their homeland.

Clearly, there is a war against education and against Kenyans being creative and active citizens in their own country. For the 8,300 Kenyans to maintain their monopoly of resources, they need to distract Kenyans with propaganda against education, they need to limit Kenyans’ access to schooling, and they need to shut down alternative sources of training, information and knowledge. By limiting access to schooling and certificates, the 8,300 can exploit the work of Kenyans who have not been to school, or who have not gone far in school, by arguing that those Kenyans lack the “qualifications” necessary for better pay.

We must also name those who enable this exploitation. The greedy ambitions of the political class are entrenched by people who, themselves, have been through the school system. To adapt Michelle Obama’s famous words, these people walked through the door of opportunity, and are trying to close it behind them, instead of reaching out and giving more Kenyans the same opportunities that helped them to succeed. This tyranny is maintained by a section of teachers in schools, of professors in universities and of bureaucrats in government, who all fear students and citizens who know more than they do, instead of taking joy in the range of Kenyan creativity and knowledge. The professors and bureaucrats, especially, are seduced into this myopia with benchmarking trips abroad, are spoon-fed foreign policies to implement in Kenya. They harvest the legitimate aspirations of Kenya and repackage them in misleading slogans. For instance, they refer to limited opportunities as “nurturing talent”, and baptize the government’s abandonment of its role in providing social services “parental involvement”.

These bureaucrats and academics are helped to pull the wool over our eyes by the media who allow them to give Kenyans obscure soundbites that say nothing about what is happening on the ground. They also make empty calls for a return to a pre-colonial Africa which they will not even let us learn about, because they have blocked the learning of history and are writing policies to de-fund the arts and humanities. We must put these people with huge titles and positions to task about their loyalty to the African people in Kenya. We call on them to repent this betrayal of their own people in the name of “global standards”.

We Kenyans also need an expanded idea of education. We need arts centres where Kenyans can meet and generate new ideas. We need libraries where Kenyans can get information. We need guilds and unions to help professionals and workers take charge of regulation, training and knowledge in their specializations. We need for all work to be recognized independent of certification, so that people can be paid for their work regardless of whether one has been to school or not.

We need recognition of our traditional skills in areas like healing, midwifery, pastoralism, crafts and construction. We need a better social recognition of achievement outside business and politics. It is a pity that our runners who do Kenyans proud, our scientists, thinkers, artists and activists who gain international fame, are hardly recognized in Kenya because they were busy working, rather than stealing public funds to campaign in the next election. Our ideas are harvested by foreign companies while our government bombards us with useless bureaucracy and taxes which ensure that we have no impact here.

We need for all work to be recognized independent of certification, so that people can be paid for their work regardless of whether one has been to school or not.

Most of all, we need an end to the obsession with foreign money as the source of “development”. We are tired of being viewed as merely labour for export, we are tired of foreigners being treated as more important than the Kenyan people. We are tired of tourism which is based on the tropes of the colonial explorer and which treats Africans as a threat to the environment. And the names of those colonial settlers who dominate our national consciousness must be removed from our landmarks.

Development, whatever that means, comes from the brains and muscles of the Kenyan people. And the key to us becoming human beings who proudly contribute to society and humanity is education. Not education in the limited sense of jobs and certificates, but education in the broader sense of dignity, creativity, knowledge and solidarity.

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UN Panel of Experts: Kenya Urged to Back Former CJ Willy Mutunga Candidacy

Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

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UN Panel of Experts: Kenya Urged to Back Former CJ Willy Mutunga Candidacy
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On 28 June 2021, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations called on the UN to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent. This call came one year after the police murder of George Floyd in the United States. The UN panel of three experts in law enforcement and human rights will investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing, including the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and make recommendations for change. Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

The government of Kenya is strongly placed to support the nomination of its native son, an internationally respected jurist. Kenya is currently a member of the UN Security Council and an influential member of “A3 plus 1”, the partnership between the three African members of the Security Council and the Caribbean member of the UNSC, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Last week on 7 September, President Uhuru Kenyatta co-chaired the African Union, Caribbean Community summit. This meeting between the AU and the Caribbean states agreed to establish the Africa, Brazil, CARICOM, and Diaspora Commission. This Commission will mature into a politico/economic bloc embracing over 2 billion people of African descent. Kenya, with its experience of reparative justice from the era of the Land and Freedom Army, has joined with the Caribbean to advance the international campaign to end the dehumanization of Africans. African descendants around the world have lauded the 2021 Human Rights Council Report for calling on the international community to “dismantle structures and systems designed and shaped by enslavement, colonialism and successive racially discriminatory policies and systems.”

Background to the nomination of Hon Willy Mutunga

The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 led to worldwide condemnation of police killings and systemic racism in the United States. The African Members of the UN Human Rights Council pushed hard to garner international support to investigate systemic racism in policing in the United States. In the wake of the global outcry, there were a number of high-level investigations into police killings of innocent Blacks. Three distinguished organizations, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild convened a panel of commissioners from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean to investigate police violence and structural racism in the United States. Virtual public hearings were held in February and March 2021, with testimonies from the families of the victims of some of the most notorious police killings in recent times.

In its report, a panel of leading human rights lawyers from 11 countries found the US in frequent violation of international laws, of committing crimes against humanity by allowing law enforcement officers to kill and torture African Americans with impunity and of “severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution and other inhumane acts”.

Among its principal findings, the Commission found the US guilty of violating its international human rights treaty obligations, both in terms of laws governing policing and in the practices of law enforcement officers, including traffic stops targeting Black people and race-based stop-and-frisk; tolerating an “alarming national pattern of disproportionate use of deadly force not only by firearms but also by Tasers” against Black people; and operating a “culture of impunity” in which police officers are rarely held accountable while their homicidal actions are dismissed as those of just “a few bad apples”.

After the Commission’s report was published, the convening organizations’ Steering Committee mobilized international public opinion to publicize its findings. Former CJ Willy Mutunga was one of the jurists in Africa who worked hard to publicize the report’s findings and recommendations.

It was in large part on the basis of these findings that the Human Rights Council issued its own report at the end of June. The United Nations decided to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent, adding international weight to demands in the United States for accountability for police killings of African Americans, and reparations for victims. The panel of three experts will have a three-year mandate to investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing. Many organizations have submitted names for suggested panel members. Legal experts from Global Africa and international jurists have recommended Willy Mutunga to be one of the three panellists. Thus far, the following organizations have endorsed the candidacy of Willy Mutunga:

  1. The African Bar Association, with membership in 37 African Countries.
  2. The United States Human Rights network (USHRN), a National network of U.S. organizations working to strengthen the Human Rights movement in the US.
  3. International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Decent in the United States.
  4. Society of Black Lawyers of the United Kingdom
  5. Bandung Conference, a Diaspora Human Rights network based in Nairobi, Kenya.

There are now calls for the government of Kenya to step forward to be more proactive to lobby the Human Rights Council and to write letters to its President, H.E. Nazhat Shameen Khan (hrcpresidency@un.org), endorsing the candidature of Dr Mutunga. His CV is included for those who want to write to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Kenya to lead the endorsement of Willy Mutunga.

The Steering Committee of the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States is coordinating the campaign for Dr Willy Mutunga to be appointed by the UNHRC as a member of the International Expert Mechanism to monitor compliance of the UNHRC findings and recommendations.

The Government of Kenya and Human Rights groups are kindly asked to send copies of their endorsements to the Coordinator, International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States, lennoxhinds@aol.com.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?

More than 500 indigenous and farmer organisations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the UN’s Food Systems Summit as only advocating one food system—so they’re being silenced.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?
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The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) invokes the UN Sustainable Development Goals to demonstrate its purpose—namely, goals 2.1 and 2.2 (to end hunger and malnutrition). At the same time, however, the summit is obstructing another of those goals: goal 2.3 (to increase resources for smallholder farmers).

Because of this contradiction, the summit, planned since 2019 to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York, will now be exclusively virtual (September 23), a measure intended to maximize control and minimize dissent. During the last year, more than 500 indigenous and farmer organizations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the summit as advocating only one food system, the one that is polluting the soil, water, and air, and killing vital pollinators.

In contrast, the food system that feeds 75 to 80 percent of the human population—smallholder farmers practicing biodiverse cropping (in line with the principles of agro ecology)—was only added to the agenda after months of criticism. Those in opposition to the summit say it is advancing industrial agriculture, which is the core problem, not solution, for addressing climate change, malnutrition, and hunger.

A second criticism is that corporations are trying to replace the UN system of one country-one vote with “stakeholders,” a euphemism that may sound inclusive but really only invites those “who think like us” to the table.  Smallholder farmers, who produce the majority of our food, are not invited.

This food summit is about the global business of agriculture, not the livelihoods of those who produce nutritious, biodiverse foods. Governments’ attempts to regulate global food corporations (e.g., labeling unhealthy foods, taxing sugar products) meet strong opposition from these industries. Yet the corporations profited massively from the 2008 food crisis and strengthened their global “food value chain,” contributing to the consequences that over 23 percent of Africans (282 million people) still go to bed hungry every night.

This focus is in stark contrast to the stated aims of the summit. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food explained in August 2021:

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are caused by political failures and shortcomings in governance, rather than by food scarcity ….. How will the [Summit] outcomes identify the root cause of the crisis and hold corporations and other actors accountable for human rights violations?

A third criticism of the UN Food Systems Summit is that it heralds technological advances as the primary answer to overcoming continuing hunger in an era of climate change. Most of us applaud multiple revolutions in genetics while we queue for vaccines, but genetic manipulation of seeds threatens the future of food, because ownership of the technology controls ownership of the seed. Industrial agriculture expands corporate profits from commodification of seed (beginning early 20th century), from the financialization of seed (speculative trading, late 20th century) and continuing today, through the digitalization of seed.

To the industry, a seed is merely a genome, with its genes representing digital points. The genes can be cut and pasted (by enzymes, e.g., CRISPRcas9), much like we edit text.  A seed is no longer a living organism representing thousands 1000s of years of careful selection by expert farmers. For example, biologists today say they no longer need the germplasm of Oaxacan corn from Mexico to access its drought-resistant characteristics.

Promoters of these technologies rarely admit that they are very imperfect, with uncontrolled “off-target mutations.”  Further, a seed variety needs its biome to flourish. It is farmers who understand the intricate interactions, who experiment with changing micro-climates (often in one field) to cultivate adaptive seed varieties.

No farmer denies the importance of scientific advances. But industrial agriculture giants are denying the value of farmers and their knowledge, saying they no longer need them: digitalized seed can be planted, watered, fertilized, and harvested by machines, run via satellites (this is called “precision agriculture”). Taste is irrelevant, because it is chemically added as crops are processed into food products.

Success in derailing the “corporate capture” of UN processes (e.g., UN Committee on World Food Security) to address increasing hunger arises from global, organized resistance by smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and fisher folk. After appeals to transform the agenda, many of these farmers and advocates decided to boycott the summit. This “outside resistance” included African voices, who stated:

The current UNFSS process gives little space to traditional ecological knowledge, the celebration of traditional diets and cuisine . . . ….Indigenous and local community Africans have experience and knowledge relevant to the current and future food system. Any process or outcome that does not recognize this is an affront to millions of African food producers and consumers.

The “inside resistance” worked to advance farmers’ voices within the official pre-summit dialogues, holding a series of webinars among the farmers in Southern Africa, and then globally (July 28).  This trajectory was possible because of allied support within the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.  As stated by one of the convenors of these official dialogues, Andrew Mushita,  “African smallholder farmers are not beneficiaries of the corporate [agriculture] industry but rather co-generators of innovations and technologies adaptive to ecological agriculture, farmers’ needs—within the context of sustainable agriculture.”

To follow the end result of the summit, go here.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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