Calls to relocate Kenya’s capital city go as far back as the mid-2000s, taking on a new level of urgency after the 2007/2008 post-election violence. The logistical and security nightmare that could be occasioned by an easy-to-shut-down city with just five major exits underscores a vulnerability with which our organically growing urban spaces present a risk to state agencies, citizens, the diplomatic community, and the wider urban society.
Presciently, in the months leading up to the 2007 clashes, Gideon Mulyungi, the then Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) chair, had proposed the relocation of the capital as had University of Nairobi lecturer Dr Mumia Osaaji who argued that it was necessary for nation-state building. The proposal did not go far as the political class instead chose to prioritize bypasses as stop-gap solutions to supplement the five major trunk roads that serve this city of roughly four million people.
The AAK anchored their proposal on the fact that the master plan guiding the development of the city had expired, leading to poor and unplanned constructions. Consequently, both the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Master Plan 2013, and the five-year Nairobi Counter-Integrated Development Plans (CIDP) provided for incremental attempts at updating the initial master plan.
Still, the reality is that a consolidation of political, social and economic assets domiciled within one city, Nairobi, stifles development at the outer edges of the country in terms of income, wealth and opportunity.
The capital has absorbed satellite towns amid the frenzied desire for land and home ownership among the city’s middle and working classes. Places far outside Nairobi like Isinya, Magadi and Kangundo have ended up becoming the central focus based on the belief that they will one day grow into big settlements where the middle and working classes can live as they work in Nairobi.
This claim, however, is one that Martin Tairo of AAK strongly disputes. “Well, not in your lifetime. It may not even in your children’s lifetime. The growth of Kitengela, Ngong, Ruiru, and others had been anticipated in the 1970s. It is only that the information was not in the public domain. This was due to the fact that the city was to grow and nearby metropolis had to come up to support the cities.”
By the mere fact that it controls 21 per cent of the country’s GDP, houses 10 per cent of the national population, and is the place of residence for two-thirds of the country’s millionaires, Nairobi portends a risky and wasteful concentration of national resources within a relatively dense county.
The high cost of land in the city, and the low return on investment for most new real estate projects, discourages further development and expansion within Nairobi. The centralization stifles our national creative imagination, and institutionalizes the exclusion of the rest of the country. Sooner or later the demand for a new administrative capital away from the saturated Nairobi will precipitate the repurposing of Nairobi as a purely trade and transit city.
With regards to sanitation, mobility, security, and effectiveness, Nairobi is creaking under the weight of an over-centralized space that is perpetually strangled by navigation issues. This adds to the persistent problems for the capital such as overpriced property, political centralization, economic inequality, congested roads, a 60 per cent poverty rate, high unemployment, and poor housing.
Sooner or later the demand for a new administrative capital away from the saturated Nairobi will precipitate the repurposing of Nairobi as a purely trade and transit city.
As a capital city, Nairobi occupies a complex and central space for Kenya’s diplomatic missions, political vitality, state agencies and economic activity. Its choice by the government as the central urbanizing locale has led to the city controlling over a fifth of Kenya’s GDP.
Multiple trackers of the overall health of the capital have identified the following challenges:
|Drinking water pollution and inaccessibility||62.16||High|
|Dissatisfaction with garbage disposal||76.69||high|
|Dirty and untidy||76.01||High|
|Noise and light pollution||57.19||Moderate|
|Water pollution||83.90||Very High|
|Dissatisfaction with spending time||62.66||High|
|Dissatisfaction with green and parks||44.59||moderate|
|Drinking water quality||37.84||Low|
|Quality of green areas and parks||55.41||Moderate|
|Garbage disposal satisfaction||23.31||Low|
|Clean and tidy||23.99||Low|
|Serenity and night time lighting||42.81||Moderate|
|Water quality||16.10||very low|
An aggregated score of the above indices portrays a city barely able to manage its key health, social life and safety, liveability, and ecological pillars.
From a historical and functional perspective, the idea of a capital city as the commercial, legislative and political centre has often been subject to review. Between 1950 and 1990, some 13 countries worldwide moved their capitals. In Africa, Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Burundi and Tanzania have moved their capitals, as have Brazil, Indonesia, and Canada.
Scouting for alternatives
Eminent urban planning scholars give seven parameters that are critical to evaluating the proposal to relocate a capital: the objectives of the relocation; the transferred functions; and the condition of the former capital city after the relocation. Critical weight is also given to the geographical location of the new capital city; the distance between the former and the new capital city; the cost of the relocation; and the type of government at the time of relocation.
It can easily be argued that moving the capital to Isiolo, the preferred alternative, could help spur development in the whole northern corridor. A relocation generally offers better growth prospects nationally, mitigates the risk of widespread disasters, eases pressure on public services, and facilitates growth of otherwise neglected areas. In the immediate, a relocation would ease congestion, given the current capital’s high population density of 4,850 residents per square kilometre.
To evaluate the proposal to relocate the capital to Isiolo, a qualified reliance on an Inclusive Wealth (IW) model that includes human, geographical, natural and manufactured assets will be critical in taking into account the cumulative stock of the relocation, the shift in the national framing of the country’s spatial language, as well as the re-imagining of the nation’s power centres. The model also allows for the integration of non-linear behaviour of complex systems central to the relocation, their relations, emerging dialectics, and derivation of a new cumulative appraisal of the entire project.
Based on the above assessment, relocating the capital to Isiolo County would in all likelihood be a 10 to15-year project requiring wide consultations, and proper planning that might take years to properly frame, account for, and actualize. Thankfully, devolution has accelerated the pace of rural modernization in many parts of Isiolo, Marsabit and Wajir counties. The modernization in these counties provides a crucible for gauging the potential of Isiolo County to absorb the massive urban planning necessary for the establishment of a new capital.
Isiolo, a strategically located, sleepy, dusty town 285 kilometres north of Nairobi in north-central Kenya, is often touted as the gateway to northern Kenya. Kenya’s recent development plans, have effectively placed Isiolo at the heart of Kenya’s Vision 2030 and the northern transport corridor, alongside Lamu and Turkana.
Why northern Kenya?
This central northern corridor around Laikipia, Marsabit, and most vitally Isiolo, offers the best prospects for a new capital. Besides the region’s geographical centrality, the area offers space for expansion, ease of access, prospects of economic boom, and space for real estate development. It is a failsafe chance to facilitate expansion outward and northwards, gut the Nairobi-centric focus of our public policies, and shore up mobility along the new Lapsset corridor.
Establishing the city on the corridor alone taps into the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) Corridor, eastern Africa’s largest infrastructure project. However, concerns remain regarding the ecological impact and human-wildlife conflicts in the event of such a relocation to Isiolo.
Devolution has accelerated the pace of rural modernization in many parts of Isiolo, Marsabit and Wajir counties.
A case in point is the request by the Friends of Isiolo Game Reserves (FIGARE) who have proposed the relocation of the proposed Isiolo Resort City from Kipsing Gap in Isiolo North to Kulamawe in Isiolo South.
The lobby group says that the current location could restrict the movement of wild animals between Buffalo Springs and Shaba, the two main game reserves, concerns that are echoed elsewhere with regard to wildlife migratory corridors.
The generational dimension
The on-going Lapsset Corridor mega-projects, and the possible relocation of the capital, will have a critical role to play in how the country manages income, wealth, and opportunity across generations. The 1999-2014 boom not only fixed the economic fortunes of those born in 1960s and 70s after the stifling 90s, but it also provided critical socio-economic mobility for those born in the early 80s as they reached adulthood and entered the workforce.
A marginally lower rate of economic growth of 3 per cent from (2-5 per cent in the 2000s) precipitated a disproportionately higher drop in unemployment by 6 per cent from (15 per cent to 9 per cent), as the growth was focused on inclusive, people-centred economic sectors such as agriculture and hospitality. Available data shows that the economy increased steadily then plateaued after the 2005 referendum fallout, but continued to increase at a decreasing rate until 2014. In particular, the PEV debacle and the 2008 global recession slowed the economy, mainly for the lowest economic classes with a mini-recession in 2008, after which inflation averaged 40 per cent for the upper clusters and a staggering 70 per cent for the lowest economic classes.
These prospects, combined with a shifting focus from high jobs multiplier sectors such as hospitality and agriculture, and a refocus towards low jobs multiplier sectors such as construction, doomed the job prospects for those who graduated after 2012.
Despite a diversion of attention, cash, and policy focus from job creating and poverty reducing sectors such as education, agriculture and hospitality, the education sector stayed fairly steady and continued to churn out more trainees into the workforce.
The result has been a surge in unemployment rates, and a 15 per cent increase in poverty rates since 2014, to the current national average of 63 per cent, despite the cumulative KSh7 trillion debt created by the Jubilee regime. Kenya is staring at a massive gap in the absorption of a significant chunk of trained Kenyans who graduated between 2012 and 2021.
The urgency of a northward expansion through the relocation of the capital cannot be understated. Research on the economic prospects of those leaving school and entering the job market during an economic downturn, as we have experienced since 2014, is fairly depressing.
Research findings show that graduating and transitioning into adulthood under such a tough economic climate has negative consequences later in life with regards to social status, income, health, and mortality rates.
In particular, death rates are higher among those who graduate during a recession as this cohort is more likely to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle. This group is also at higher risk of dying from drug overdoses and other so-called “deaths of despair”. Dropouts and those graduating from high school under the current conservative economic policies face lower starting incomes and higher income losses which stunts their overall pay progression for up to 10-15 years.
A new capital along the Lapsset corridor would provide a critical rejig for our political-economy, a shift in economic fortunes for a sizable pool who have sunk into poverty, and those dented by the high cost of living in current urban set-ups. It will likely shore up job growth for those who have been affected by the mismatch between the education economy and the labour market returns between 2007 and 2016.
Kenya is staring at a massive gap in the absorption of a significant chunk of trained Kenyans who graduated between 2012 and 2021.
Of even more critical importance, the move will situate the capital within the pastoralist zone which has the highest job creating potential in the agricultural sector, specifically cattle and goat rearing.
But as natural resource and conflict expert Guyo Haro explains, a move towards the north along the ongoing mega-projects risks exacerbating latent ethnic, resource, and historical tensions.
Still, given the fact that six of the ten counties around Isiolo, fall into the bottom fourth of Kenya’s GDP per capita rankings, an integration of the next capital in the area will provide a lifeline for local populations, regional dynamics, and greater flexibility in national priorities for this century.
Alternatively Isiolo could become the commercial capital and Kisumu the logistical hub for the expanded East Africa (a role that it played until 1986), maintaining Nairobi as a political capital and transferring and building Mombasa as the cultural capital.
Such a diversification of the functions central to the designation of a capital, will spread income, wealth and opportunity across the country. Additionally, a multiplicity of capitals each taking up a decentralised function makes the country much more politically agile, economically steadier, and minimizes the pressure and focus on the centre. These variables will be critical as Kenya’s population increases, and resource demands rise steadily through this century.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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