Life | Killing Poverty

Three years ago, President Kibaki came to power in Kenya promising to end the corruption endemic in the previous regime. Popular jubilation endorsed this policy. But how much have things really improved? Life follows the fortunes of a family afflicted by AIDS and talks to ministers and anti-corruption officials who suggest that the Government needs more international aid to help it stamp out corruption. And Deputy Environment Minister Wangari Maathai, who was tortured by the former regime and won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, says that Western governments need to face up to their own responsibilities for shoring up President Arap Moi.

Kenya is potentially a prosperous country, but today it’s caught squarely in the poverty trap, saddled with debt and struggling to win support from international donors. HIV/AIDS has made matters much worse. The Oyoo children are struggling to survive. Their mother is HIV-positive and is in hospital with TB; their father died of AIDS four years ago. They are typical of 1.8 million children in Kenya who have to look after themselves. Twelve year-old Dennis is now responsible for both his eight year-old sister Florence and his two year-old sister Diana, who is also HIV-positive.

under a dollar a dayThis family is among the 16 million Kenyans who scrape by on under a dollar a day – the UN’s definition of absolute poverty. Mercy Oyoo, the children’s mother, discovered she was HIV-positive a year ago. She’s now in Mgabathi District hospital, sharing a bed with another AIDS patient.

International donors are giving over 200 million dollars for AIDS programmes every year. But like many Kenyans, Mercy believes that funds meant to help people like her are not getting through. ‘I feel personally if I am to get that kind of assistance I would rather they put it in my hands directly. It will really help me,’ she says.

Under President Moi, corruption was rife. Experts believe that under his government over three billion dollars of public money was squandered. Professor Michael Chege of the Ministry of Finance and Development says: ‘Between 1983 and 2002 we had a corrupt, callous and uncaring government, which did everything it could to enrich a few and not to address the problems that we’re facing. Yet at the same time this government was working with international development partners who knew very well that the country was going down the tubes, that the people were getting impoverished, and yet kept pouring money into this country.’

Donors did eventually stop giving aid, and the Kenyan people voted President Moi out. His successor Mwai Kibaki swept to power in December 2002 pledging that the National Rainbow Coalition would end government corruption.

Finance Minister David MwirariaBut ministers in the present government admit that corruption hasn’t been entirely wiped out. As Finance Minister David Mwiraria puts it: ‘We know from experience that a country like this loses a very large proportion of the budgeted funds through corruption. If we really have to serve this nation properly we must give the citizens who pay the taxes and the citizens of the world who assist Kenya, value for their money.’

And Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, Deputy Environment Minister in the Kibaki government, adds: ‘As we all know corruption is everywhere and corruption is also present in developed countries. And much of the corruption that is actually done by African leaders is done with the full knowledge and co-operation with leaders and business people from developed countries.’

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Millennium Project, agrees: ‘A lot of the corruption in Kenya and other poor countries actually comes from the outside, not just from the inside. Corruption does weigh on development, but I believe that it is not the overwhelming obstacle that it’s sometimes seen to be. If we think practically about how to target aid and make the aid accountable, we can help address the underlying factors of extreme poverty.’

Kenya was one of the countries which signed up to a global partnership deal aimed at halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015. In return for more foreign aid, Kenya promised to govern itself more openly and honestly. But even in the nursery school where Dennis Oyoo’s sister Diana goes every day, corruption means that there are fewer resources available. When the nursery receives its funding, the teacher says that 30% of it is kept back by corrupt officials but the staff are expected to pretend they receive all of it.

Anti-Corruption CommissionKenya’s answer to weeding out corruption is the Anti-Corruption Commission, established in May 2003. According to a recent World Bank survey, half of the companies they spoke to said they had been asked for bribes. But the government’s initiative has been heavily criticised by three key figures who have all resigned, frustrated by its lack of powers.

Gladwell Otieno, former Head, Transparency International, Kenya, comments: ‘I think people do want investigations, they do want punishment. Instead of that, what you have is the government turning to citizens and saying, ‘Well, give us the proof,’ which I think is the height of cynicism and not at all a demonstration of political will to attack corruption.’

The price of the government’s apparent unwillingness to tackle corrupt officials head on has been that donor funding for Kenya is scaled right back. And yet at the same time Kenya’s government is calling for debt relief on its $600 million annual debt repayments. Wangari Maathai argues: ‘The Kenyan government is spending 40% of its revenue to service those debts. That is money we could have used to send the children to secondary high school, to send the children to technical schools, to give them skills so that they can be more useful to the nation. That is money we could have used to give our people decent housing so that they get out of slums, where we know diseases like malaria and AIDS are endemic.’

Alexander Omondi, a teacher in Nyanza Province, says that hunger is a major problem in his region. Villagers struggle with poor access to water, sanitation, fertilizers, transport, healthcare, and high rates of malaria, AIDS and water-borne diseases. And poorly-paid doctors sometimes ask for fees before they will treat patients.

Kenyan Anti-Corruption CommissionBut Smokin Wanjala, Assistant Director, Kenyan Anti-Corruption Commission, doesn’t believe that low salaries are a major cause of corruption. ‘In fact, in this country some of the most corrupt people are the wealthiest people, they are the well-paid people, and if we argue that if you don’t pay people well then they have a right to be corrupt we shall be sanctioning corruption.’

Wangari Maathai says that debts should be removed, aid should be doubled and rules of trade should be improved, ‘so that we can invest this money in our people.’

Jeffrey Sachs adds: ‘In general I think it’s wrong when donors say, ‘You get your house in order, we’ll wait, and when you do that, we’ll come in and help you.’ That’s almost always an impossible bit of advice because impoverished governments need help along the way even to get their house in order.’


To find out more about the Millennium Development Goals, visit the Development Goals website, and the UN Millennium Project, where you can read Prof. Jeffrey Sachs’s biodata.

An earlier Life programme was entitled Millennium Goals – Dream or Reality?

For Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Prize page, go here. See also the website of the Green Belt Movement which she founded.

For information on Kenya, read the Kenyan Daily Nation on the web, Kenya Now , or Kenya Web.

Transparency International, where Gladwell Otieno used to work, raises awareness about the damaging effects of corruption, advocates policy reform, works towards the implementation of multilateral conventions and subsequently monitors compliance by governments, corporations and banks.


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