Mind this gap: Avoiding Toxic charity in our age

It would be difficult for anyone looking around the world today to resist the conclusion that something has gone very badly indeed with our attempts to eradicate poverty. This awareness tends to be distorted– if not obliterated – by the much-talked about recent economic prosperity and flurry of interventions, which in a way induce us to take for granted the continuingly explosive situation that confronts us on every level: the growing chasm between our country’s richest and the poor.
I will borrow the warning language of the London underground: “mind the gap” between the train and the platform, in our case between the rich and the poor!
The Greek myth of Sisyphus’ punishment, as originally told by Greek poet Homer, tells of having to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. It has become an analogy for our endless toil and failure to deal with poverty in Kenya.
We are not suddenly waking up to this reality. The UK based New World Wealth survey (2014), conducted over a span of five years, paints a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya where 46 per cent of the country’s 43.1 million people live below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day. This report showed that nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor.
Talking from a different time and continent, yet in a context similar to ours, the outspoken Archbishop Oscar Romero of El-Salvador (1970)reminded the Salvadoran élites that peace could not be achieved in an unequal society. He accused them of maintaining “insulting” privileges through repression. The ruthless oppression and power was deemed necessary to maintain the status quo.
Agreeing with Archbishop Romero, the World Economic Forum (WEF) recently noted that “the chronic gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest citizens is seen as the risk that is most likely to cause serious damage globally in the coming decade.”
Many more international organisations are now taking the position that extreme economic disparities within populations pose a great risk to their stability.
Without a clear understanding, it is difficult to evaluate the currents that are conducive to the widening of this gap as opposed to those that would bridge it. It is widely held in Kenya thatpast injustices have produced gross inequalities, and to some extent, State power is still being used to perpetuate differences in the sharing of political and economic welfare. (Okello, D and Gitau M. J., 2006 ).

Okello, in Reading on inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perceptions [2006], correctly argued: “In a country where for a long time economic and political power was/has been heavily, where the state appropriated for itself the role of being the agency for development, and where politics is highly ethnicized, the hypothesis of unequal treatment has been so easy to build.”

This suspicion is affirmed by the scope of the horizontal manifestations of inequality stemming from the role of state institutions and policies in creating or nurturing inequalities. They aptly state that “the tone of discourses on horizontal inequalities has assumed nearly ‘historical injustice’ ring to it and, in Kenya, it is not difficult to see why.”
Ours should not be a mission to make people equal, affirming what John Rawls, the celebrated political philosopher, had earlier articulated in his classical work, The theory of justice (1971). Rawls was obviously shy from taking a position where the distribution of social and primary goods was equal as a basis upon which people would have a fair chance at life prospects.
As in our case where gross inequalities in incomes, access to State institutions, power and their resultant impact in the operation of the market economy have produced a situation where even with equal opportunity, we still have differences arising in various dimensions of well-being. The Rawlsian distributive justice system acknowledges a requirement of some form of corrective measure.

Yet it is Amartya Sen in his monumental work, Inequality Re-examined, who profoundly nails this point when he acknowledges that public policy should concern itself not just in providing equal opportunities or freedoms to utilize one’s capabilities, but also in correcting inequalities. (Sen, 1992).
Jane Kiringai observes (2006) that inequalities in the fiscal space occur at different levels. Itis demonstrable how the nature of the public spending, operation of the credit markets, regional distribution of recurrent expenditures and public employment are all ways in which distortions in public spending can perpetuate inequalities.
She ably reveals: “When budget deficits are financed in a manner that favours those with high disposable incomes and capital, this effectively amounts to a redistributive transfer from the budget (in terms of future interest payments) to the wealthy. They are thus are able to plug budget deficits by lending at high rates.”
Minding this inequality gap is a Herculean task. It will require a fundamental reorganization of our current political and economic structures as a necessary condition for providing a sufficient basis on which long-term equitable development can take place. This is what the drafters of Kenya’s 2010 constitution had in mind when they made devolution the pillar of the constitution. The constitution gave the needed structural framework of spreading resources to the periphery not as favours but as rights of all citizens thereby addressing one aspect of regional inequality in Kenya.
There should not be any relapse in the reforms on direct targeting, decentralization and prioritization that have the potential of making national budgets and public spending more equitable.
Programmes like Constituency Development Fund (CDF) introduced about a decade ago have spurred development across the country, while creating new jobs ought to be seen in the light of this new reality. The CDF has been effectively challenged in court with the ruling that“any outfit that is composed of Members of Parliament and is charged with expenditure of public funds is commingling of roles of the different organs of state in a manner that is unacceptable…it would be against the constitutional principle of the separation of powers for Members of Parliament to take part in actual spending, then submit their annual estimates to themselves in Parliament through the Public Accounts Committee” (quoted in Ongonya et al2005).

Elsewhere, Albert van Zyl argues: “In federal countries with federal [local] governing structures, CDFs even run the risk of violating a ‘vertical’ separation of power by allowing elements of national government (the legislature) to implement programs at the local level.” Ongonya’s et al (2005) further add: “Involving the Members of Parliament who are at the national level, in the control and management of the CDF, which targets and is for the benefit at the local level is a violation of the… ideal of devolution.”

In the 2015-2016 Kenya budget, CDF and Uwezo Fund [which seeks to expand access to finances and promote women, youth and persons living with disability led enterprises at the constituency level], were allocated 35.2 billion and 53 billion respectively. Decisions about how these funds are allocated and spent are heavily influenced by elected members of parliament (MPs) and therefore political. Wouldn’t these funds been better allocated to county governments?

The most appropriate measure must be the implementation of a devolved governance system which will hasten the trickle-down of economic and social empowerment of the population.

The World Bank in October 2014 said Kenya’s poverty levels are likely to stand at 30 per cent of the population in 2030, citing historical growth of the gross national product per person. Involving more and more Kenyans in production remains the most viable measure to bridge this gap.

Inequalities will persist unless we prioritise dealing with endemic poverty. At Trafalgar Square in 2005, during the campaign to make poverty a history, Nelson Mandela said: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
Dead aid
The current energy driving human compassion in an effort to end poverty is at an all time high in this country. How effective this aid will be is another question. “It’s a kind of curse,” concludes Dembisa Moyo, a Zambian-born international economist and author of the best-seller, Dead Aid. Though intended to promote health, it becomes “the disease of which it pretends to be the cure”.
For all our efforts to eliminate poverty, we have succeeded only in creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures and eroding their ethic of work. And our poor continue to become poorer.
If the aid available is rightly deployed it can move intractable societal problems towards lasting solutions thereby shifting this awesome force away from toxic activities and into transformational outcomes. As it is, all our good intentions translate into ineffective care or even harm.
Robert D. Lupton correctly states, in his book Toxic Charity, when we do for those in need what they can do for themselves we disempower them. He further advises us never do for the poor what they have (or could have ) the capacity to do for themselves.
David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy, in the July-Aug 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs note:: “the majority of the global poor reside in stable middle-income countries, with a third in India alone. But in India, China, the rest of East Asia, and the more stable parts of Africa, aid is not the primary tool for tackling poverty; economic growth, domestic revenues, foreign investment, and remittances are. Rather than larger aid budgets, eradicating poverty there requires sharing the proceeds of growth more equally.”
They further added: “Aid will continue to play an important role, but the focus should go beyond aid to policy changes. Expanding foreign direct investment, removing international agricultural trade subsidies and tariffs, and facilitating migration and remittances would do far more to eradicate poverty than development assistance.”

Barack Obama the president of the United States made profound observation during his address to the Kenyan Nation at Safaricom Stadium in Kasarani Nairobi. The glaring regional inequalities stating that, “a Child from Nyanza is four times more likely to die than one from Central province.”
He rightly pointed out that this is due to bad governance and corruption the country lost 250,000 jobs annually which would go along way in dealing with poverty.
Obama shared a stage with innovators, at this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, including Kenya’s Judith Owigar, whose company offers technology training to young women in deprived areas.
Unlike his predecessors, who offered charity and aid, he sought a different solution to Africa’s and the global poverty problem. He saw entrepreneurship as a vehicle to deliver this prosperity. Obama proclaimed at the GES summit that Africa’s time had come as a place of innovation, with young people, and especially women, poised to transform the continent.

As a proof to his commitment, he offered the young entrepreneurs, start up capital. “We’ve secured more than $1US billion in new commitments from banks, foundations, philanthropists, all to support entrepreneurs like you.” he said.

And looked further to connecting them with the world’s top business leaders and innovators. There were present at the Summit more than 200 seasoned investors and entrepreneurs, brought to support the young and emerging ones from Africa.

Yet this transformation would not be complete without addressing the need to step up support for women entrepreneurs. Obama believes that women are powerhouse entrepreneurs. For this reason, he said, “We’re launching three women’s entrepreneurial centers; one in Zambia, one opening later this year here in Nairobi and I’m proud to announce that the third center will be located in Mali.”

As the conscience of society, the Church in Kenya cannot sit on the sidelines of history, particularly in this struggle against poverty. We cannot remain neutral. I am disappointed that the church has not provoked action in favour of the poor. It has been easier for her to embrace affluent and political donors ostensibly to aid Church programmes and ‘support for the poor’ yet in essence it has shackled herself and the poor. We must learn from the monumental work of the Latin American Church.
For centuries, the Church had been tranquillising the poor that their sufferings were God’s will. But this changed when they informed the people that poverty and hunger were preventable. They felt that the poor were the blessed people and that the church has a duty to help them.
At the Conference of Latin American Bishops held in 1968 in Medellín, Colombia the bishops agreed that the church should take “a preferential option for the poor.” The bishops decided to form Christian “base communities” in which they would teach the poor how to read by using the Bible. The goal of the bishops was to liberate the people from the “institutionalized violence” of poverty.
The consequent movement allowed for the poor to object to the hegemony and hierarchy they had been subjected to for past centuries and demanded for more.
No. God was not to blame for their miserable condition. God wanted them to live decent lives in this world, before they went to Heaven.
We must heed the wise advise of Dom Helder Camara, the late Brazilian Catholic Archbishop of Recife, (1909 – 1999). He was one of the great prophets of the twentieth century, living through an era of military dictatorship. He championed the poor of Brazil and the rest of the world, and influenced the Second Vatican Council and subsequent gatherings of Latin American Bishops, even the latest papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.
Dom stresses the need to work for dialogue between rich and poorsaying “does not mean spurning the rich”. “The Church’s only engagement and solidarity should be with people,” he said.
Camara wrote: “Don’t think that the government is going to come here and solve your problems for you. You’ve got to think for yourselves, act for yourselves; later perhaps, when the government sees you all united, it may come and help.”

The writer serves with the All Saints Cathedral Diocese, in
Nairobi. The views expressed here are his own.


Foreign Affairs: Making aid more efficient and effective ; David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy … July/August 2015.

Lupton Robert D. Toxic Charity; how churches and Charities hurt those they help, 2011.

McDonagh, F., Camara, Dom Helder: Essential Writings, 2009.

New World Wealth report of 2014 UK.
Ogonya Z.E. and Lumallas, E., “A Critical Appraisal of the Constituency Development Fund Act,” 2005.

Rawls J., A Theory of Justice, Oxford UK, 1971.
Sen, Amartya (1992) Inequality Reexamined, New York: Oxford University Press.
Society for International Development (SID), Readings on inequality in Kenya: sectoral dynamics and perceptions, East Africa, 2006.
Zyl , Albert ; BUDGET BRIEF NO. 10 – WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE CONSTITUENCY DEVELOPMENT FUNDS? available at [http://internationalbudget.org/publications/brief10/#ftn1]