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Poverty in Kenya and Nicholas Kristoff

September 15, 2011

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff offers us a particularly grating and absurdly simplistic view on poverty in Kenya today in his article entitled “Sewing Her Way Out of Poverty”.

Kenya is an ex-colony of Great Britain that achieved its independence in 1964 and, like much of Africa, is a broken outpost in the global political economy.  Per the World Bank, the poverty rate in Kenya is measured at about 50% and it’s one of the most unequal societies on the planet.  35% of children are either stunted, underweight or wasted and half the population has no access to water or sanitation services meeting minimal quality standards.

Some of the wealthiest Kenyans live in and around the capital city Nairobi, yet 70% of its population live in slums as defined by the United Nations.  Per the above cited report, in two large informal settlements, just 3% have access to private latrines and 10% to garbage disposal, leaving open spaces flooded with human excreta.

What possible excuse can there be for such conditions given our vast technological capacity?  Surely the cause rests largely in inequality, corruption, ideologies of individualism, and the artificial limits to prosperity imposed by orthodoxies of the global and local financial system.  Kenya like most poor countries has been under IMF austerity agreements for much of the past few decades and the ongoing pressures to limit deficits and maintain currency values are key impediments.

Completely ignoring the vast structural and historical issues that are perpetuating poverty in Kenya, Kristoff outrageously implies the solution is something down the lines of creating a small sewing business and he provides a story of one successful woman.  The moral of the article: it’s not the system, it’s the individual – quit drinking and start a business, damn it!

Regular jobs are rare, and many men self-medicate in ways that perpetuate self-destructive cycles of hopelessness. Social workers estimate that one-third of the slum’s men get drunk every night — spending about $1.50 an evening, which could otherwise finance their children’s education. Poverty becomes self-replicating.

There’s a tendency these days to give up on poverty, to dismiss it as a sad but inevitable feature of humanity, particularly at a time when we have deep economic problems of our own. (But) it’s worth remembering that sheer grit, and a helping hand, can sometimes blaze trails where none seem possible.

There are many development workers and scholars in the world that could provide valuable insights into the deep structural problems of global poverty.  What a shame the NYT wastes its space on someone as unqualified as Kristoff.

From → Africa

2 Comments
  1. Andrew permalink

    This persistent idea that education (meaning schooling) is the solution to all problems has to have a stake driven through it. Also pernicious is the idea that most who fail to help themselves and their families do so is because they are morally bankrupt rather than due to the fact that they are depressed because they have no opportunities.

    From your description, wastewater engineering might be a more important occupation than sewing around the Nairobi slums. Perhaps the rich of Kenya could bring in some people who could help the residents address this most basic of problems and provide the necessary resources?

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Agree completely about education and the bankruptcy of the “self-help” mythology.

    It amazes me that the solutions one so often reads for poverty is to try to increase employment in such meaningless things as say constructing 5 star hotels or in this case a sewing business. Isn’t it blatantly obvious that the solution for inadequate food and inadequate sanitation is to grow more food and build better sanitation? The whole logic of our capitalist world is upside down but it’s blindly accepted by so very many!

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