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Friday, June 14, 2013

The Real Tyranny Of Numbers

Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury, Henry Rotich, yesterday unveiled a budget which included measures to reintroduce the controversial VAT Bill which, he says, seeks "reduce the cost of compliance" with our tax collection mechanisms. This Bill, which will likely see a large increase in the price of basic commodities including food, sanitary towels and books, is presented by a government that during the election promised to lift 10 million people out of poverty.

How this is achieved by making everything from sanitary towels to food and books 16% more expensive and driving up the cost of living sounds very much like modern-day alchemy. But that is until you consider how our system works. You see, in Kenya, policy is not about helping human beings -individuals or even communities. It is about the statistics and indices whose upward or downward trend is a measure of our success or failure as a society.

These figures and averages, instead of providing insight, are now used to mask reality. The joke goes, when Bill Gates walks into a bar, on average everyone there becomes a millionaire. Similarly, the growth in averages like GDP, is used to hide the fact that much of society is still actually deeply steeped in poverty and that much of the increase in wealth is concentrated at the top. We define poverty by how much disposable income a family has, not by, for example, whether they can access a decent hospital and how far they have to walk to get there. Thus our solution is not to build more health centers, but to grow the economy.

This tyranny of numbers, the triumph of neo-liberal thought, is having a real and disturbing effect on how we understand ourselves and our society.  We have been transformed from wananchi to taxpayers, from citizens to consumers. The economic relationships have been privileged above all others. It is of course reflective of a global trend where entire countries and regions are now referred to as nothing more than markets.

We are encouraged to think of ourselves as disposable units of production; our land, history, art, culture, and even education as nothing more than repositories of monetary value. Thus we prostitute our traditions for the sake of a few tourist and politician dollars. Art becomes investment, not a means for society to understand itself. Wildlife is not a heritage to be studied and understood but a resource to be sustainably monetized.

Journalism is today about performance and entertainment, not information and education. The news is a show and the electorate little more than a passive audience. Why would they be expected to be interested in, much less understand, the nuances of something as boring and undoubtedly complex as voting systems or the VAT Bill? Leave it to the pundits, lawyers, politicians and economists. They know best.

We are even passing this on to our children. Earlier this week, Cabinet Secretary for Education Jacob Kaimenyi, announced that engineering and medical students in public universities are to pay more than their counterparts in the humanities. Lecturers' pay is to be similarly differentiated. The message is crystal clear. Some university courses are more preferable and profitable. Some knowledge, especially sciences and tech, is more desirable. Education is not about molding minds and unleashing creativity. It is about generating a globally competitive workforce. Students are future workers not thinkers.

A lecturer in Makerere University describes it as the “marketization” of education. “Our society has lost track of the meaning and value of knowledge and education,” says Mwambutsya Ndebesa, who teaches History. In fact, many universities have already started operating, in the words of Christopher Lucas, author of Our Western Educational Heritage, as “an appendage to the world of business.” A study carried out a few years ago revealed that although courses such as agriculture, conflict resolution, criminology, disaster management, literature, poetry, and ethical education, though more relevant to sustainable development, are being relegated to the back burner.

This contraction in our imagination of what it means to be a human being, or a citizen, explains why we are so easily bought off, so easily "misled" by our politicians. It explains why our idea of Kenya is more akin to a cake than a country; why we speak of turns to eat; and why governance is about sating appetites, not service. It is why we continue to be ruled by the demagogue, the tribalist, the mendacious and the kleptomaniac.

It is why we are content to reduce our citizenship to mere economic participation and condition fundamental rights on economic status. Why we are happy for poor kids to attend free schools without asking about the quality of the education they are getting. Why we are blind to our history, and the history of that history. Why we fear to ask difficult questions and are constantly terrified by the violence we believe simmers under the surface of our otherwise "peaceful" political life.

The fact is, we will not grow our way out of these issues. Economic growth will not be a panacea for the inequality and poverty that afflicts our society. On the contrary, it will exacerbate them. We must rethink the rationale of the state, the why of Kenya. We must break out from the tyranny of the numbers and realize that the economy and the market exist to serve us, not the other way round.

1 comment:

FRANK ROCKHARD LEE said...

you are right man we must redefine Kenya and what it means to be a kenyan.