Social Inequ(al)ities will Drown Us All: Rich or Poor.

In Kenya today as in just about every other part of the world, we face a multitude of threats to human development and co-existence. Every country bears unique difficulties whose solutions are without saying, equally unique. However, on a general assessment, a number of challenges have been surmounted by solutions that appear quite similar overall if for a tweak here and there. Specifically, we face significant challenges in internal security, road safety and public sector services and utilities (health, education, housing, electricity and water). Given, a few Kenyans enjoy first-rate quality of these services but majority of the nation still live in low quality dwellings lacking the most basic utilities.

A dichotomy exists in which state-run services targeted at the masses are invariably inferior to their privately run counterparts targeted at those able to pay market prices. This is most evident in the health and education sectors. In other key public sectors like transport and the utilities, state divestiture is now mature with only regulatory functions and minimal shareholding left over. Even then, the entirely private road transport sector is one of the most chaotic and inefficient sectors. It is therefore apparent that ownership – state or private – is no panacea to inefficiency, rather policy and management.

According to the UNDP, the Human Development Index (a composite of three factors: education, income and life expectancy) is a fair measure of the quality of life and potential in a nation. Western European countries have consistently topped the world HDI rankings with Norway coming first 8 times in the last decade. Save for a few, nearly all the highly developed countries have programs that attempt to guarantee every citizen access to quality health care, education and decent employment. The hand of the state is heavy on these sectors in terms of both investment and regulation. In addition, these countries have social safety nets that encourage nearly all citizens to achieve their individual potential. Public transport for instance runs as the economic engine that it is: delivering workers to their jobs across the country efficiently – in comfort, safety and on schedule. Regulation and enforcement of fair employment practices on the other hand guards against poor pay, unfair working conditions and the vagaries of unemployment. The goal of these programs is to transform individual needs and aspirations into national goals to which everyone contributes according to their ability and enjoys according to their need.

In contrast, our undoing in Kenya is entire systems, institutions and sectors whose singular goal is to achieve the best interests of a select few at the expense of the public. Like the colonialists, many of our leaders see their positions as an elevation above the masses and therefore an entitlement to special benefits and treatment. It is the reason we spend more on chase cars, outriders and elite police for a few persons and leave the rest of the public at the mercy of police officers lacking the most basic crime deterrence and quick response tools! For the same lack of a public focus, we have set the minimum wage at a sorry $100/month when a few public officials draw $1000/sitting as allowances for meetings that are part of their regular work. Even though we know most road deaths occur among pedestrians and cyclists (70%) partly because they have to share the highways with high-speed motor traffic, we still build the same types of roads with no considerations (special lanes, crossings and footbridges) for this most-vulnerable majority. Food remains the major budgetary expenditure for most households due to the lack of concerted efforts at helping farmers produce cheaper and better food. Until recently, major highways would be shut down for hours for the president who would not show up after all!

Whatever the justification, these scenarios reinforce inequalities and limit the number of Kenyans actively participating in national development. These lopsided choices further hinder the achievement of individual aspirations of the majority and therefore keep the whole country in a perennial state of insecurity, increasing poverty and dwindling quality of life. It is high time focus shifted from ‘big man’ first to ‘common man’ (read everyone) first.

When we make our public schools the best schools, our public hospitals the best and develop a public transport that actually works, we shall be firmly on the path to real economic growth. Assuring every citizen a chance at proper education, health and an enabling environment to earn an income are probably the reasons for the existence of government. As of the moment, an unacceptably large swathe of the population is labeled as informal. Their children attend low quality public and shadowy private schools, they go to backstreet private clinics or the constrained public ones, they earn inhuman wages, they can barely afford good food and they are a security risk to everyone else including themselves. On the flip side, a much smaller number of citizens under the guise of state officers are feted and pampered at every turn. They do not care of a public transport system because in addition to their state-issue limousines they can choose which of the other two or three cars to use, they have their health insured, their children attend exclusive private schools and the walls around their homes are too high for any peeping Toms. Unfortunately, this class of Kenyans – the policy makers, political leaders and social elite – is like the dog running away from its own ugly tail. Their penchant at eating the state is a risk unto themselves and everyone else.

rich-vs-middle-class

To improve the quality of life in our country, we will have to focus on public good. The letter and spirit our policies will have to seek to impress the public rather than a select few. A focus on common good will achieve benefits for everyone while a focus on individuals will leave those same individuals exposed to the very ills they attempt to escape. The elite and middle-class have their place in every society but that place is really small and uncertain if the rest of society has no place.

Rather than each build walls round our homes and grab 5 or so officers to keep guard, it would be safer for us all to have the police equipped with the skills and tools to not just deter crime, but also apprehend nearly all criminals every time. We may have the option to take our kids to the best private schools but at the end of it all, those who miss a good education in the public schools will still be our collective problem to face. And however healthy one may be … complete with a private health insurance, doctor and all … the health problems of the rest of the public are as much your own as they are theirs. The minister who can halt all traffic and have his way to the office in time achieves nothing if the rest of the workers remain held in a gridlock.

While true leaders would naturally focus on satisfying the aspirations of their people rather than themselves, it is also a civic duty of citizens to demand of better from their leaders. In a situation where both leaders and citizens have sat on their laurels, the consequences are dire: continued depravation and disempowerment of the masses as leaders plunder and amass ever more wealth. In the long term something gives: a revolt by the masses due to difficult and poor living conditions may force a reformation of leadership. The leadership on the other hand may be forced to transform itself for better when the effects of their actions (and inaction) begin to bite them.

We can have a voluntary leadership reformation and put everyone (and the nation) on the path to sustainable economic success. Kenya is in the company of only a handful of nations in which public service is the most lucrative economic activity. For most developed countries, public service is a dedication and commitment to serve – the benefits of which are nowhere close to those of for-profit operations. Remuneration in the Kenyan public sector today does not reflect expertise, experience or value. If it did, doctors, teachers, police and nurses would not be the lowest paid in spite of the fact they offer key professional social services. It cannot be lost to policy makers that the services of medics, teachers and the police are so key to a sustainable economy and that there can be no meaningful development in the absence of security, good health and proper education.

As the name suggests, public goods achieve good for everyone; those who pay for them and those who do not as well as those who use them and those who do not. The outlay costs for most are prohibitive but in the long run, the efficiency and multiplier effect on individuals, economies and nations are worth every penny spent. When everyone has the opportunity to participate in nation building, the task of nation building becomes lighter, faster and better. Every one of us should focus on the greater good at whatever activity we engage in.

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