Making Hay while Draught Bites

By Mbugua Muchoki
Nothing excites corporate profiteers and humanitarian organizations than a complacent government in times of crisis, or when one is manufactured. Such, I believe, is the situation obtaining in Kenya today after the “on-going draught crisis” in some parts of the country. Millers and other grain importers are busy lobbying the government to declare the draught a national disaster, humanitarian organizations have already put in place structures to move in and assist.
But why is there so much pressure on government to declare the current situation a national disaster? Draught in this country is big business. As it kills the ordinary citizens, these organizations are equally making a kill; through tax-free imports, funds mobilization and shameless conspicuous consumption in the name of feeding the hungry. Government officials also get an opportunity for rent seeking and rewarding cronies with tax-exempt imports and tax rebates.
The current food situation in Kenya offers us an opportunity to examine the role of each of these organizations in creating the crisis. Questions emerge of whether there is shortage of maize in the country to warrant the skyrocketing food prices, especially maize floor. In the North Rift and some other maize producing parts of the country, farmers have for the last five months been embroiled in a price dispute with the Cereals Board over maize purchases. Millions of bags lie in granaries due to deliberately suppressed maize prices by the Board and corporate organizations that are hell bent on precipitating a crisis to create a loophole for cheap low quality imports. And with the ensuing food crisis, their desires have been met.
Why, for example, would the government not purchase high quality maize from Kitale, only a few kilometers from draught stricken Turkana, and opt to wait for genetically modified relief maize and split peas being offloaded thousands of miles in Mombasa? Why, again, even with the food in relief stores, would humanitarian organizations stall distribution over the rights to distribute the same?
Two years ago, in 2009 when the country experienced a real draught, I had an opportunity to participate in food distribution exercises in the country. And the lessons learnt were plenty, even to the most of casual observers. These charity missions afford many an organization an opportunity to participate in charity catwalks. The amount of money spent on “logistics” and corporate branding dwarfs that spent on humanitarian operations. Few, if any, are interested in long-term solutions for the victims. In places like Turkana, and some parts of Eastern Kenya, women dig watering wells with bare hands and sustain their families and livestock. Yet, little effort is put to build capacity for the local populations to be self reliant. A culture of food dependency and external intervention is nurtured to create a permanent partnership with the humanitarian organizations, corrupt government and political leadership. Worse, statistics are manipulated to cunningly prick the appetitive conscience of the conspirators; government, humanitarian organizations and their benefactors!
Interestingly, majority of political leadership from the draught prone areas in Kenya are former employees of humanitarian organizations. Having cut their teeth through a dependency creation culture, many lack any long-term policy initiatives and are usually the first to appeal for aid. Where any innovations are introduced to build capacity, a deliberate attempt is made to make them either too sophisticated for the populations, less sustainable, or are geared to even further perpetuate the dependency on the organization introducing them. Rarely are they tailored to meet the local needs, hence a cycle of poverty and hopelessness.
When the government declares the food situation a national disaster, as it likely will do, it will be affording the politicians an opportunity to make millions from unscrupulous deals with corporate profiteers – in the process guaranteeing them campaign funds, giving the humanitarian organizations a more acceptable justification to mobilize and solicit for funding that will be mainly spent on logistics, and the millers will enjoy a healthy bottom line.
In the meantime, the farmer in the North Rift will remain economically strangled, the draught victim in arid parts of Kenya more emaciated, deprived, shamelessly used an object of enrichment and ensnared into a culture of dependency and self-worthlessness. It is high time the government exhausted all the maize rotting in farmers’ granaries before embarking on a morally rotten importation scam. And, a synchronization of the objectives of humanitarian organizations with the needs of the people they serve will be a better way of shedding the unfavorable tag of the Lords of Poverty.

(Mbugua Muchoki is Communication student at the University of Nairobi)

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