Kenya: Ngilu Pursues Presidency on Pro-Poor Platform

interview

Photo: Tami Hultman/AllAfrica
Kenya's water and irrigation minister, Charity Kaluki Ngilu, will run for president as the leader of the National Rainbow Coalition party.

Kenya's water and irrigation minister, Charity Kaluki Ngilu announced her bid for the presidency this week as leader of the National Rainbow Coalition. She calls it the "party of development" and unveiled a five-point agenda to promote economic growth while addressing inequalities in the way the benefits of growth are distributed.

Ngilu recently sat down with AllAfrica to discuss Kenya's pressing development issues, including access to clean water and sanitation, health care and family planning.

The conversation took place on the sidelines of the Reinvent the Toilet Fair, held in Seattle, Washington at the headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Before announcing her candidacy, she told AllAfrica why she would like to make the run for president.

I would like to, because I know what can be done to ensure that people are out of poverty.

You must, first and foremost, feed your own people. We rely too much on food imported from developed countries.

My party focuses mostly on the poor and on development - how people can develop themselves. We talk about the poor in rural areas and the poor in informal settlements within urban centres.

As the elections draw near, we are mobilising people to see what we have got to do - not necessarily by giving the poor handouts, but in showing that we can actually make the poor work for themselves to develop themselves.

What will you take back to Kenya from this visit to the Reinvent the Toilet Fair?

I should have come with our technical people from the University of Nairobi to see what is happening here, so they can see what they can actually invent for our country and for East Africa. I am going to encourage our universities to get more money from the government for research, so that we do not just remain stagnant with the old technology of the toilet - 200 years old!

Is access to clean water and sanitation an important issue in Kenya?

Yes. We have a serious problem of lack of sanitation in the country. Sometimes we are able to provide clean, safe drinking water, but we are not able to provide sanitation.

You still have a lot of people who go for open defecation. They just don't have latrines or toilets. We are raising a lot of awareness - through the schools, in the marketplaces, in the homes, and this is because we so realize the danger. If we provide people with safe, clean drinking water, obviously we would avoid so many diseases.

I look at the amount of resources that we spend to treat people who get sick because they lack water and sanitation. That is what needs to be spent to prevent - to provide people with safe drinking water and sanitation, especially within the slums in Nairobi, and there are very many.

What does it mean for urban poor people not to have clean toilets?

It is really terrible in the sense that we then have to deal with diseases that can be prevented. But there is hope! With the Reinvent the Toilet exhibition, I feel so happy that I have been able to see for myself, so that I can be part of this and help more and more people. But it is a big, serious problem, for sure.

All over the world, people don't usually like to talk about toilets. Do we have to learn to do that?

We may as well accept it, because failure to talk about toilets - we will be talking about the number of lives that we lose every day due to lack of them.

Besides a humanitarian impulse, why should people elsewhere in the world care about clean water and sanitation in the developing world?

Up to this day, most African governments have not understood the importance of water and sanitation.

Look at the number of people, especially women and girls, who spend many, many hours looking for water for domestic use for their families. Most African governments are taking this for granted. They do not realize the number of hours that are lost by women, by young girls who are not going to school, and the dangers that they are exposed to when they walk these long distances.

Similarly, and this is a researched document from the World Bank, every year the government is losing 324 million dollars to treat people who are sick due to lack of sanitation and clean, safe drinking water. I would prefer that we spent much more money on prevention than in curing the people when they get sick.

As Kenya enters the ranks of middle-income countries, it will begin to lose some of its international support. What will that mean for water, sanitation and health?

If Kenya were to lose the support that they get from the international community, it would be a big blow. Our budget cannot sustain the services that we are giving to the people.

Within our budget, we are able to do just so much, but with the support that we get from the international community, we are able to do much more.

But does the Kenyan government have responsibility to do more within its constricted budget?

As a person in charge of water, irrigation and sanitation, I feel that government should do much more. I sometimes believe that there isn't the political will and the commitment to do so.

Priorities are wrong. As long as you have sick people, they cannot be productive. You cannot achieve development. There cannot be economic growth. It's people who develop a nation, and people must be kept happy and free from diseases so that they can produce for the nation.

Kenyans now have a myriad of constitutional rights. How does this pertain to development?

This is one of the best things that has happened to an African country, and Kenya in particular, that you have a constitution that now recognizes the rights of the people - recognizes the rights of women, recognizes the rights of children, recognizes the rights of the poor. The government, through the constitution, must provide safe drinking water as a right, sanitation as a right, food as a right.

We need to continue creating awareness and telling Kenyans to continuously demand these rights, for the government to put forth more resources. Then the international community can also put forth more money.

It is up to business and the government to show results. Once we show results, then we know that we can get more resources to do our work.

You are a former minister of health. What progress has been made on child survival?

While I was the minister of health, a report by the World Bank showed that we reduced child mortality, infant mortality, by over 50 percent. Out of 1,000 children a year we used to lose 47 of them. This has reduced to 22.

It's not good enough. I wish we reduced that absolutely, so that we would not have infant mortality.

We also have reduced [maternal deaths] because we provided for safety for the mother and child. We provided bed nets, and we drastically reduced the number of women who died of pregnancy-related complications due to malaria.

Is access to contraception important for Kenyan women?

Yes, this is very important. But this is the one area that I must say we have not done well at all. For poor women who cannot afford reproductive health care services and who cannot get access to the pill or another form of service, then they just continue to have babies.

That is what we see every day. The women of Kenya would like to have access to these services, and services are not available. Sometimes they have told me, 'Can you just put more money [towards family planning]? Because as long as we cannot access this and we cannot afford this, then the alternative is to have a baby.'

In the budget, the government rarely puts any money [toward family planning], and we have to rely on international development partners for supporting this area.

What will it take to get services to all of the people who want them?

I think the first thing developing countries need to understand is that we need to put more resources toward human development.

The other area where African governments must spend money is in the production of food.

In Kenya, for instance, we are importing foodstuffs to a tune of 844 billion shillings [USD 100 million]. In Kenya we buy, for instance, oranges from Egypt. The reason given is we do not get enough rain to grow our own oranges. The rain that falls in Kenya goes to Egypt in the river Nile. They grow the oranges, and then they bring them back to Nairobi.

We import maize, we import wheat. We import things like eggs, which is just what women in the village should produce to use locally!

Are you hopeful?

I am hopeful that these are some of the things that will be addressed in the coming general elections. This is what my party will be talking about.

We are not encouraging our people to produce as much as they should. Governments are to blame for not facilitating for their people to be more productive.

We import equipment, we import chemicals. We import clothing. We import cotton. As long as we are a net importer and not exporter, we do not expect to ever get our people out of poverty. They will forever be poor.

So we need to put our act together and ensure that we can use resources for our own people.

The leadership must learn to serve much more than to be served.

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