KWAME: Government incompetence, not a lack of rain, is why Kenyans starve


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I recently sat in an informal meeting at a lounge, where about a dozen people pontificated on the primary challenges for Kenya in 2017.  

One guy pointed at me, asking in a sneering tone that I name the issue of the time, in the belief that issuing predictions of economic and public affairs is a signal of superior intelligence or mastery of economics.

My refusal to take the cheap bait was interpreted as evidence that I didn’t understand my subject well enough, and further that I am averse to risk.

I do not recall this incident because it shows how the posh and serious in Kenya, who include some in the Executive arm of government, display confidence that is often unwarranted.

To my mind, the greatest reason policy-making and its execution in Kenya achieve mixed and often poor results is that many professionals take the “Trumpian” gung-ho attitude, which holds that strong belief in an idea is enough to validate it, and that admission of ignorance is shameful.

Looking back to the failed rains, drought and now famine, it is impossible to believe that this situation deteriorated while we watched.

Consider that Kenya has had regular droughts and famine that have recently recurred in shorter cycles.

There is enough information, available since the 1930s, showing that failure of rains usually escalates quickly to serious famines in Kenya.

Thus the disaster that the drought of late 2016 and 2017 has wrought was wholly avoidable and shows nothing but policy incompetence.

That some Kenyan children and adults have starved in the last few weeks is not a matter of our bad fortune for this year but a reflection of state institutions unable to read clear signals from the meteorological department.

Preventing starvation is a critical marker for a democracy. Citizens do not starve, even in times of drought and famine, because information moves quickly enough and the republic is prompted to act.

Let’s take a short break here and examine what this means. Here is a government officer who represents the country’s largest purchaser of grain by far, begging farmers and millers to sell maize at reasonable rates.


Is the issuing of pleas to these farmers part of the disaster management and food emergency plan?

This proves not only that the so-called food emergency policy is dangerously removed from reality, but also that the government is mollycoddling maize farmers by assuring them of above-market prices when there is a maize glut, only for these farmers not to return the favour

A basic reading of the economics of food supply shows that a drought need not lead to starvation. In Kenya’s case, no policy has built a wall between those two.

These starving families in arid parts of the country are vulnerable, not necessarily because of a failed harvest but because they cannot purchase food. Some of them have seen their vast livestock herds depleted over the last four months.

They are starving today because they have endured steady depletion of household resources over around for months.

They have suffered without both levels of government being the wiser to this inexorable slide to poverty and death.

It’s a tragic event to see government planning to hire trucks to transport grain through vast distances and only because kids are lying on the dirt unable to move and mothers openly confessing that once the last goats are dead, then they too will accept their fate and die.

That a government with a vast reserve of maize in silos and a cash balance of billions of shillings for drought response allowed this to happen is nothing but incompetence.

This disaster happened, not because anyone willed it but mainly because here is a government that is unable to put together varied sources of information and forestall such a serious occurrence.

Policy competence is being able to extinguish risks that make drought lead to starvation. The historical information is in government hands and the response required is very basic.

If after 50 years of independence, Kenya’s government preaches sovereignty but cannot forestall famine, even with information that the last year’s floods would be followed by drought, then we deceive ourselves by thinking of pipelines and new railway lines.

If we cannot contain a drought, we should be less confident that we can successfully build and run a new railway line and making a technology city flourish.

Those are lies coated with public relations talk.

Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame

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