MUTUA: Hunger is political rather than climatic - Daily Nation

Why hunger is political rather than climatic problem

Saturday August 27 2011



We live in a time of historic ferment. The world has been turned upside down. Perhaps it’s the right side up. The UK riots and the Arab Spring beckon a new era. In Kenya, a new Constitution is taking a hammer to the status quo. That’s why we must have a “new normal”.

And hunger — desperate starvation and death — cannot be a part of the “new normal”. Which one of us isn’t utterly ashamed — to their core — by TV images of starving Somalis and Kenyans?

How — in this day and age — can people die of hunger? How? Death from starvation is the most degrading failure of any country. That’s why we must demand accountability and say — never again!

I have four reasons why Kenyan hunger is purely political. But let me first dispense with some basics.

No country on earth solely consumes what it produces. Many countries produce what they don’t consume, and consume what they don’t produce. I am using “consumption” here to include food, goods, and services. Many countries produce very little food.

One word

But why don’t their populations starve to death? That’s because of one word — trade. It’s called the theory of comparative advantage. This is how it works.

Country A only produces what it can cheaply, and buys from Country B what would be costly to produce. Country B does the same. This gives each country comparative advantage in the market.

Every country must exploit its comparative advantage to “win” in the global market under the rules of the World Trade Organisation. The rules are cannibalistic, and woe be unto those who can’t, or won’t — for whatever reason — play by them. I don’t much care for the morality of the WTO legal regime myself.

It consigns some countries to perpetual poverty and solidifies geopolitical asymmetries of power. The system favours large developed economies and punishes small undeveloped ones.

But you can “break in” through technology and industrialisation — like the Asian “tigers” — to claim market share.

However, you stand no chance if you sit on your fanny, suppress entrepreneurship, develop a thieving and unimaginative elite, and run a corrupt economy.

Failure of imagination

Why are Kenyans starving? First, there’s been a failure of imagination. The obvious things don’t get done. I remember a harrowing road trip I took in 2003 with my family to the world-famous Maasai Mara. There was no civilised way to get there from Nairobi without flying. But we chose to drive because we wanted to “see the country”.

Little did I know that outside Narok the roads were impassable. That’s because they either didn’t exist, or had been washed away. We were “lucky” to have an SUV and a driver who had been a tour guide. Even so, it was a nightmare because he literally had to drive through the “bush” to get us there.

We had a similar horror going to Mt Kenya in the rainy season. The roads were a muddy mess. It felt like slow torture. I have chosen Mt Kenya and the Maasai Mara for a reason. These are two well-known tourist destinations.

What government worth its name can’t even develop a road network to its “cash cows?” We were tortured again on the way to Mombasa from Nairobi. After that I resolved to fly. But how many people can afford to fly?

If the Kenyan political class devoted as much time to imagining how to open up the economy — as it does scheming for State House — Kenya would be with Malaysia and Singapore. The Moi era squandered a quarter century.

Second, we don’t do the obvious. Why don’t we, for example, capture rain water and use it for irrigation? It rains in northern Kenya — sometimes in terrible floods.

But all that water washes out to the ocean through rivers. That’s exactly what happens to water from the highlands — it washes out to the Indian Ocean.

All that water can be captured and used to turn the arid and semi-arid lands green with pasture and crops.

There’s more. In the semi-arid lands — such as parts of Kitui County — fruit trees such as mangoes and citrus grow without effort. Why haven’t we turned such lands into agricultural zones for the production of fruit juices for export? This is our comparative advantage.

Third, we must exploit natural resources immediately. We know that many arid and semi-arid areas of the country are sitting on huge deposits of coal and other minerals.

I am told there are even huge deposits of oil and iron ore. Why is the government twiddling its thumbs while our wealth “rots” underground? Imagine what the people and the government could do with revenues and wealth created from exploiting natural resources.

It would transform the lives of folks in arid and semi-arid areas that can’t grow food because of vindictive rains.

De-marginalise people

Jobs created in mining activities and food from irrigation farming would wipe out hunger They would export and import products and food. Starvation would be history.

Finally, we need to de-marginalise people in areas prone to famine. We must invest in education, water supplies, and electricity. We must open up those areas through road and communication networks.

The county system in the new Constitution is a god-send for these solutions. I have heard it said that we need to move folks from arid or desert areas. That’s escapism. What we need is development there. If countries in North Africa and the Middle East — and Las Vegas in the Nevada desert can prosper — so can the driest parts of Kenya.

Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School and Chair of the KHRC.