23 March 2011

Kenya: Involve People in the Poverty Fight


It is a scandal that as the world 'progresses' and 'develops', with advances in science and technology, the rates of absolute poverty globally have continued to rise. Millions of people in Africa, Latin America, and Asia are still very poor.

The key focus of the humankind in the past millennia has been how to make life easier, better and happier. But still millions of people are poor. Is this because of the failure of systems of economic production and distribution of goods and services? Could it be that many governments do not deliver what they promise their citizens? Or is it a general failure on the part of the people to address the circumstances that lead to poverty? Could it be that the economic systems have suffered, for a long time, a serious moral deficit in terms of responsibility? There are hardly ready made answers to these questions.

Poverty alleviation is the objective of many governments and institutions throughout the world. Besides, thousands of NGOs across the world are engaged in projects to address poverty. However, many of the 'projects' simply treat the symptom rather than address the causes of poverty.

More sadly, many programmes have turned poverty alleviation into a money-making business that does benefit the poor.

The annual United Nations Development Programme annual Human Development Report offers little consolation to those engaged in the fight against poverty.

So, is there a way out of the poverty conundrum? Or is it that the way we think about and act on poverty are outdated and simply inadequate?

Dealing with poverty from an entrepreneurial spirit is one of the possible solutions to this problem. This approach will be the focus of a conference at the Strathmore Governance Centre tomorrow. The conference is organised by the Acton Institute, a Michigan based Think Tank, and hosted by the SGC. The theme of the conference is Economic and Cultural Transformation: Breaking the Shackles of Poverty.

The objective of the conference is "to discuss the role played by particular ethical systems, cultural habits, and institutions in allowing human creativity, entrepreneurship, and spiritual capital to diminish poverty at an unprecedented rate."

The fight against poverty needs to be holistic. There is need to consider the mix of elements that contribute to poverty. Many cultures, even in fairly egalitarian communities, still deprive women, girls and unmarried young men from inheriting property.

Do such cultures limit the entrepreneurial capabilities of their people? Can women, girls and boys in such communities do business? Are there particular cultural ethos favourable to the entrepreneurial spirit that have been neglected?

What about the role that the spiritual dimension plays in the efforts against poverty? Can people who do not have a sense of spiritual wellbeing, who are beset by worries or fears all the time prosper? Material wellbeing and wealth are directly and indirectly tied to the spiritual happiness that an individual or community enjoys.

For a developing country like Kenya, one way out of poverty is to start thinking creatively. Policy efforts to address poverty must harness local energies and creativity.

Many people are acutely aware of what it takes to 'work' one's way out of the poverty trap. Yet government and NGOs, philanthropists, antipoverty programmes and projects tend not to recognise the individual human capacity for self-improvement. Such programmes ignore or just do so little to harness the cultural, ethical and spiritual capacities that are found within the poor communities. Consequently the poor communities feel alienated from even the programmes with the best intentions.

It is not just enough to institutionalise good governance in the fight against corruption. It is more productive to make citizens appreciate the fact that it is in their interest to make government business their business.

A people who can guard and profit from collective resources are likely to fight poverty successfully.

Dr Kankindi is the director of the Strathmore Governance Centre and Dr Odhiambo is an associate researcher at the centre.

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