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How Kenya’s Anti-Intellectual Culture Impacts Public Health Policies

8 min read.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed anything, it is that health is a multi-faceted sector that requires the cooperation of people with specialisation in the humanities, social sciences, life sciences and physical sciences. In other words, every discipline has to be involved in the discussions, knowledge and politics of health.

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How Kenya’s Anti-Intellectual Culture Impacts Public Health Policies
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A few years ago, I noticed an interesting phenomenon in the profile of applicants for language faculty positions. A number of degree holders had studied, especially in the UK, language teaching, rather than linguistics or education. This meant that the interviews revealed gaps in the candidates’ theoretical and technical grasp of either field.

​An additional phenomenon, which was more worrying, was that when we asked some about their PhD aspirations, some of the applicants were not interested in pursuing their discipline. Some wanted to go into development and related fields, others into the more attractive degrees like communication. More disturbing among the literature aspirants was that some were not familiar with the latest fiction and other artistic output by Kenyans.

Because of Kenya’s anti-intellectual culture rooted in colonial rule and post-independence autocracy, most Kenyans reading this will collapse into the age-old narrative that Kenyan universities are at their usual game of producing graduates with “useless degrees”. However, I will argue in this article that these gaps are not just structural, but also neoliberal and global.

My interest in this issue has been ongoing. I am especially concerned that key professions in Kenya are being overwhelmed by administrative bloat, where the bulk of decisions are made by people who do not have the experience or training in the professional area they are making decisions about.

My concern got a boost recently during a conversation about the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and the current debates about privatisation of healthcare.  The thing that struck me about the conversation was the faith in policy to fix structural problems. This faith is not unique to health. However, I find it interesting that in several cases, many of these policies are foreign or “international” (to remove the overt Euro-American provenance), and Kenyans are taking the assumptions about the policies for granted. As such, people get surprised when I question the policy itself, or its ability to resolve the problems it claims to solve.

I therefore decided to sample the syllabi of postgraduate degrees in public health in universities in Kenya, the UK and the US. Of key interest to me were:

  1. Were these degrees for medical practitioners?
  2. Was there any unit that potentially tackles imperialism, capitalism and privatisation as a health financing model; non-Western forms of medicine; and the history of imperialism and medicine in the global South?

In answer to the first question, the degrees were open to graduates not just from medicine, but from a wide range of disciplines. I am not against this in principle, but I am concerned that in a country like Kenya where business graduates have colonised the professions, this degree baptises such graduates with healthcare qualifications they do not possess.

On the second question, none of the topics is explicitly addressed, but more interesting is that there is at least a unit or two on traditional economics and on management systems. With international pharmaceutical companies and financiers interested in commercialising health, the absence of units on racism, imperialism and neoliberalism raises a flag about the possibility that universities are creating a cohort of policy bureaucrats to infuse the neoliberal logic in public healthcare systems worldwide. This would explain the rise in such scholarships from Western government bodies to students in the global South.

I am especially concerned that key professions in Kenya are being overwhelmed by administrative bloat, where the bulk of decisions are made by people who do not have the experience or training in the professional area they are making decisions about.

And yet, if this pandemic has revealed anything, it is that health is a multi-faceted sector that requires the cooperation of people with specialisation in the humanities, social sciences, life sciences and physical sciences. In other words, every discipline has to be involved in the discussions, knowledge and politics of health.

So why do I question interdisciplinary degrees like public health? Am I against interdisciplinary studies in principle?

Interdisciplinary degrees are a luxury

In every conversation where we are reminded how pathetic we Kenyan academics are, there is a mention of the need for interdisciplinary research. African scholars abroad also emphasise the need for African universities to introduce more interdisciplinary programmes and do more interdisciplinary research.

The problem is that advocates for interdisciplinary research do not address the culture of the Kenyan university as it now stands. These days, each discipline and department is a competitor, not a collaborator. We are all competing for student numbers to avoid the risk of being shut down or losing our jobs. That means that people whose disciplines sound job-oriented, like media studies or conflict resolution, or even “public health”, attract more students than language, performing arts, history, political science or medicine. Departments would now rather create units in their departments that cover the necessary skills from traditional disciplines than allow their students to come study in the departments of traditional disciplines. Some faculty even go as far as telling their students that the units are not available in sister departments.

The problem is that advocates for interdisciplinary research do not address the culture of the Kenyan university as it now stands. These days, each discipline and department is a competitor, not a collaborator.

To compound matters, the managerial overload in Kenyan universities means that the spontaneous interdisciplinary conversations among academics have basically died. Large class sizes mean that we can afford little time to chat and think. When we meet, we are meeting to troubleshoot inefficient systems, or to discuss administration matters such as how to fulfill the government’s regulation requirements or which new programme would attract students.

This culture of self-consciousness and competition is carried into academic conferences. We don’t read or discuss each others’ work, partly because, as I noticed when I was researching on education, our research agendas are dominated by government policy and not by public conversation or challenges.

With universities divided like this into silos, students can graduate without ever hearing people from disciplines outside their degrees. The days when Anyang’ Nyong’o was a political science student publishing poetry, or when Kivutha Kibwana was a law student writing plays, have gone.

Education in the Age of Corona: Dr Wandia Njoya Speaks

Watch: Education in the Age of Corona: Dr Wandia Njoya Speaks

For those of us in the arts, the bulk of our students are now in our classes just to meet the bureaucratic requirements and to sign the attendance sheet. And when we try to tie our discipline to actual issues in society or to other disciplines, the students feel that we are deviating from the syllabus. We are asking them to think, but university education is not for their minds. University education is for employers.

This situation has been brought about by the failure of Kenyan academics to challenge the language of the market imposed by the government and the private sector, who often accuse universities of offering programmes that are “too theoretical” and which have no practical use in the market.

But a more serious problem is now gaining root. We have fewer workers in the fundamental areas because Kenyans are shunning arts and science-based courses and going for interdisciplinary degrees in the belief that they will pursue careers as policy makers in either government, business or the NGO sector.

This scenario has produced the frustration of professionals in the arts and sciences. As a literary scholar, for example, I was recently frustrated by journalism which collapsed melodrama into investigative reporting. Mordecai Ogada, an ecologist, writes of the strange situation of seeking an internship at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and being told by no less than the research director that KWS did not need research scientists but wildlife managers (who are often trained in business schools).

This situation has been brought about by the failure of Kenyan academics to challenge the language of the market imposed by the government and the private sector, who often accuse universities of offering programmes that are “too theoretical” and which have no practical use in the market.

Some time back, a medical doctor expressed frustration with public health graduates, saying that their top applicant for a job “couldn’t differentiate between airborne diseases and waterborne diseases. Or give an example of a bacterial STI [sexually transmitted infection]”.

Interdisciplinary courses are failing our students because they are teaching students to integrate and apply knowledge which the students have not mastered in the first place. It is my opinion that we need a moratorium on these programmes in Kenya until such a time that we have enough health workers to treat, enough teachers to teach, and enough professionals to practise their skills in the field. Interdisciplinary fields are flooding the market with health professionals who can’t or have never treated, with education bureaucrats who make policy that does not work in the classroom, and, as Ogada said, with research officers who are basically revenue collection agents.

Disciplinary healing

In his book, Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times, philosopher Lewis Gordon addresses this silo mentality of university departments, noting that disciplines have collapsed on themselves and stopped talking to each other. Instead, he notes, everybody attacks the other for not being them. For instance, philosophers attack religion scholars for not being philosophical, literature scholars attack medics for not being literary, and medics attack artists for not being medical. The economists attack everybody else for not being entrepreneurial. What is lacking, Gordon argues, is the recognition that education is necessarily interdisciplinary, and requires conversations across disciplines.

These silos need to be replaced with the “teleological suspension” of our subject areas in our pursuit of knowledge. Teleological suspension, Gordon explains, “is when a discipline suspends its own centering because of a commitment to questions greater than the discipline itself.” We implement this suspension because it is more important to answer real life questions using knowledge from various disciplines than it is to be a stickler for rules and insist that a question can only be answered by one’s own discipline, and that people who are not trained in that area cannot participate in the conversation. Just like we suspend reality when we read fiction or watch a play, we professionals and academics should be able to suspend our professional titles and training as doctors, philosophers, literary scholars, scientists or anthropologists, and be able to talk to people in other disciplines over the common issues confronting all of us.

What is lacking in Kenya is not graduates; it is real education in its true interdisciplinary character. Kenyans are unable to talk with each other across the disciplines because they have been compartmentalised by the market logic imposed by the private sector, enforced by the government and popularised by the media.

We need to return to true education because education is the space in which society suspends disciplinary boundaries and discusses real life issues. Instead of bureaucratising interdisciplinary-ness through degrees, we should reconstruct the university to become a community where the public – not just academics and students – come together from across the disciplines to discuss issues facing all of us. Education needs to return to being the public space through which, as Gordon says, “the unpredictable can leap forth and the creative can shine”.

Achieving such an education system requires the following:

  1. Constant debunking of the market logic that is imposed on education. Academics need to stop bowing to the private sector’s demands for employees who subsidise company profits by paying for their own specialised training. In its demands for work-ready graduates, the private sector behaves as if the entire society must revolve around it. We need to resist this abuse.
  2. A university environment that creates the opportunity for conversation and human interaction because the supremacy wars between departments and disciplines will have ended together with the market logic. With more academic faculty and a lower teaching load, departments can invite people outside their discipline to give lectures and debates on real-life issues which can be attended by students and the general public. The discussions and questions from the audience will nurture interdisciplinary thinking without universities needing to invent interdisciplinary degrees for the students. And students will get to build inter-professional relationships with their classmates, relationships which they can use once they are working in the larger society.
  3. Revive theoretical studies in universities. The popular idea of “theory” as irrelevant has scared academics away from theoretical engagement and towards interdisciplinary degrees to display their “relevance”. However, theory is, simplistically put, a story, no matter which discipline the story is told from. Different disciplines unite when they discuss theory. For instance, the work by Frantz Fanon is relevant to his professional training in medicine, and to education, literature, politics, psychology, environmental studies and so many other disciplines. And yet Fanon is little spoken about in Kenyan academic spaces.

The war against theory, Gordon says, is in reality a war against truth and reality. In fact, one striking feature of the public health programmes I surveyed is that there is no unit dedicated to theory. How are the students able to talk across diversity of disciplinary backgrounds with no theory?

Life and reality, in and of themselves, are already interdisciplinary. There is therefore a need to heal Kenyan higher education so that it reflects life itself. Universities need to be communities

Kenyans are unable to talk with each other across the disciplines because they have been compartmentalised by the market logic imposed by the private sector, enforced by the government and popularised by the media.

COVID-19 raises questions about interdisciplinary degrees where skills are taught in the classrooms for professionals to practise in society, but interdisciplinary thinking is practised through collaboration facilitated by the institutional culture. With only 2% of the Kenyan population having attended university, and with the number of health workers way, way below minimum per population, we cannot afford to pour resources into interdisciplinary degrees, especially not for health.

Let us emulate the Cubans and train and employ more health workers who actually treat Kenyans, and who can resist being outnumbered and overpowered by bureaucrats implementing the neoliberal and bureaucratic logic that is destroying our healthcare. The health workers can then team up with the “useless” graduates in the arts and social sciences to come up with an experience-based, technically robust and human response to health challenges such as pandemics. That way, we would not rely on bureaucratic and “policy” responses that are proving to be more neoliberal than anything else.

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger 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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