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MWANGI: Is East Africa becoming even poorer?

By For Citizen Digital

MWANGI: Is East Africa becoming even poorer?

By Isaac Mwangi, East Africa News Agency

The year 2016 is still young, and various verdicts on the past year and forecasts for 2016 are still flowing fast and furious from all directions, albeit with one resounding conclusion: That our leaders have failed miserably.

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One such verdict that should be of great interest to leaders and policymakers alike comes from the World Bank. Its Global Monitoring Report for 2015/2016 titled, “Development Goals in an Era of Demographic Change,” and has just been published this month. According to this publication, Sub-Saharan Africa was the only region in the world that did not meet any of the targets set by the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

No doubt poverty is a global problem, but even here, the assessment by this report that, “Sub-Saharan Africa is home to most of the deeply poor,” is troubling. To put these figures into context, it is important to understand that global poverty has for decades been concentrated in three main areas: East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. This is now changing, with Africa being left behind.

The new measure of extreme poverty is USD1.90 a day, with about a billion people around the world falling into this bracket. Over time, however, East Asia and the Pacific have registered a spectacular decline in poverty. South Asia saw an initial increase and a later decline. Sub-Saharan Africa, unfortunately, has defied the trend elsewhere in the world and recorded a steady increase in its share of poverty, becoming home to 43 per cent of the global poor by 2012.

This is a very worrying trend. It is often recalled that at independence, Kenya was at par with such Asian Tigers as South Korea and Singapore. Gradually over many years, the difference between the corrupt policies of the independence ruling clique in Kenya and those of the Asian Tigers started becoming clear. Today, Kenya’s economy is nowhere comparable to these Asian economies.

Are we seeing a repeat of this phenomenon? It will not be surprising, given current trends, that we shall one day in the coming decades be looking at South American and Asian economies and wondering how they escaped the poverty trap. And this is a possibility that raises a fundamental question: While leaders in other regions around the world are working hard to lift their citizens out of poverty, what is it that ails African leadership?

After the hype over the New York summit last September that ushered in the Social Development Goals, these have now been all but forgotten. Africa’s leaders are back to what they do best: Amassing illicit wealth for themselves, harassing opponents, and basically destroying their own economies.

South Sudan has experienced conflict since December 2013. Burundi is today in turmoil. In Kenya, the cycle of ethnic violence – now almost a ritual that occurs every five years as elections approach – has already started. These conflicts destroy livelihoods, create internally displaced persons and refugees for those who flee across borders, and diminish investor confidence. But do those in power really care?

Because of the failure to address issues of injustice in the distribution of wealth and the means of production, rapid economic growth in East Africa has not led to a general rise in standards of living. Rather than industrialization leading to greater social progress, it has instead led to the proliferation of slums. This has happened despite the presence of huge pieces of idle land, most illegally acquired, in the areas surrounding our major urban centres.

At a regional level, it is no secret that a larger East African market will help us in competing with the rest of the world; this realization is behind renewed efforts at hastening the regional integration process. Unfortunately, myopic thinking by leaders is killing this dream: Nationalistic sentiments, protectionist policies, and a never-ending list of non-tariff barriers have stalled efforts to create a vibrant regional market.

For those who care to find out more about how we got ourselves into this deep hole and the solutions that we could turn to, there is a treasure trove of information available from the reports of the World Bank as well as from our own economic research institutions. But the biggest problem obviously has to do with poor leadership and bad governance. That’s where we must start from.

Economically, Rwanda and Tanzania are not far from the right path, but even these countries need to do more. For the rest of the region, the story is one of bad leadership and missed chances. And for the whole of East Africa, it’s a sad march to deeper poverty.

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