13 March 2014

Tanzania: Crippling Poverty Threatens National Cohesion, Equality

MORE than 50 years after Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere declared poverty as one of the country's three major enemies (others are ignorance and diseases), the battle against this scourge remains one of the most embattled and least understood of the founder president's initiatives.

It's one of the political challenges that Tanzania faces today in the fight against inequality in the society. Ours is a nation with a relatively few wealthy people, and an extremely poor majority living below the poverty line of one US dollar per day.

As one travels from Dar es Salaam in the east, to Mwanza in the north west, he or she witnesses widespread crippling poverty and gross inequality as two parts of a dual legacy of colonialism in Tanzania.

At crossroads along the Dar es Salaam-Mwanza highway, vendors offer their limited goods to customers who seldom have enough money to buy. The collision of poverty and affluence is obvious in the countryside.

Along the highway, poor farmers struggle to succeed in poor soils using the antiquated handhoe -- a challenge that they did not choose, but that the colonial government assigned them.

Nyerere's broadest outlines on the war on poverty at the early days of independence were sketched out in his speech which, laid emphasis on a fast-growing, full employment economy; an all-out 'assault' on discrimination; investments in education, job training, and healthcare; and locally organised programmes of community action, planned with what would only later be added as the self-reliance spirit with the maximum participation of the poor.

Between 1962 and 1968 community action programmes encouraged poor people to organise for basic rights that better-off Tanzanians had come to expect as citizens of a welfare state: decent jobs and educational opportunities, fair labour standards, protection against economic insecurity, legal representation, and access to political participation, starting with the right to vote.

However, Mwalimu Nyerere's policies did not end poverty -- a fact his detractors, having long since argued that the government had no business fighting in the first place, have recently twisted into a narrative of failure.

But that shouldn't keep progressives from drawing lessons from its shortcomings as well as its accomplishments in building a campaign against inequality. One is the importance of fighting the battle at the level of economic policy and structural reform rather than relying on redistributive social welfare policies alone.

Our economists at independence recognised this in their push to move beyond budget-balancing orthodoxy to reduce unemployment to more acceptable full employment targets. But they held back by relying on growth-stimulating tax cuts while downplaying the need for strategies to generate jobs in the nation's urban and rural communities.

A second thought is that the problem of poverty cannot be resolved without addressing the deeper inequities of race, class, gender, geography, and power. We in Tanzania, must admit that we still have grinding poverty; we have diseases to fight and reform a health system to cater for the majority poor.

Even under our current enlightened leadership, Tanzania remains a nation with relatively rich minority and a desperately poor majority. The lavish lifestyles of the pampered minority mock the daily struggle of the impoverished masses as poverty and prosperity grow side by side in the Tanzanian society.

Poor farmers who still scratch out a living in poor soils with the use of the handhoe cannot overcome the central challenge of hopelessness. There's no gainsaying that in Tanzania today separation is growing day after day and will remain so for many years. In the urban setting, exclusive residential areas and resorts are hidden behind electrified fences patrolled by armed guards.

Private security is one of the fastest growing industries, and we're starting to see more of them with paramilitary training. One can dare call this as a new "form of separate development" as the national economy falls under the control of corporations, and economic elites not subject to the vagaries of politics.

In today's Tanzania, you don't need a tour guide to show you people afflicted by poverty and the yawning gap between the haves and the havenots. You don't even have to be awake to notice it. You can feel the difference in the quality of life between the super rich and the poor as you drive from Tandale kwa Mtogole to Oysterbay or Masaki in Dar es Salaam.

Oysterbay dwellers look ruddy and confident since there's nothing that makes a person's complexion like wealth. To the contrary, Tandale kwa Mtogole residents look emaciated as if God cursed them as they struggle to make ends meet. South Africa's antiapartheid icon, Nelson Mandela, once said: "Poverty is not an accident.

Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings". In Tanzania political will, commitment and dedication is badly needed to fight this detestable enemy if this great East African nation is to remain solid.

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