It’s not the numbers nor family size that fail us, but planning

Monday October 11 2010

By JOHN MBARIA

Listening to a number of people comment on the recently-released population census, one would be forgiven to think that Kenya is bursting at the seams with people, where life might soon come to an end because we have exhausted the country’s carrying capacity.

This is “grandfather’s mentality” and has little to do with global reality.

With about 583,000 square kilometers of land, we are ranked 34th globally as far as population sizes are concerned.

With less than half of Kenya’s total land area, Britain has 248 per square kilometre, Japan has 337 while Bangladesh has over 1,000 people.

Some would say it is wrong to compare ourselves with countries like Britain, France or Spain because though their populations are large, they have more than they need to feed, clothe, house as well as afford significant luxuries for their nationals with GDPs ranging in size from $1.5 trillion to $2.7 trillion contrasted with Kenya’s $32.7 billion.

This brings us to the question: Why is it that countries that are so small in size continue to hog disproportionate market values of all goods and services they produce?

Why have we have lagged behind others?

Is it us or the politics?

The standard explanation is that there is something wrong with our politics or that we do not have enough resources to drive us ahead.

The other side of this argument is that we have a short history of “development” compared with Britain or France; or that we have not developed enough capacity to convert the “physical stuff” in the countryside into usable resources.

Some even ask us to look inwards: That there is something wrong with our different ethnic cultures; that we have stuck too much to the traditional, the “tested” and the known to seize emerging opportunities or embrace a radical shift in our productive endeavours.

Few people ever say, in any meaningful way, that we are just too few to fill “Wanjiku’s” shopping bag with all that she needs to lift herself from poverty and sheer deprivation.

Given the day-to-day exposure to media advertisements glorifying small families and taking into consideration how easy it is for our economy to exclude those who do not fit within pre-defined limits, it is easy not to blame a married couple that feels a family of six is too big.

Warped argument

I term this argument warped much as it has sunk so deeply into our psyches that we can no longer see these issues in any other way.

The thinking is: If you tell somebody the truth every day for seven years, you stand an almost 100 per cent chance to be believed if you tell them a lie on the first day of the eighth year.

What would one make of TV advertisements that repeatedly depict a family of four having a nice breakfast, stepping out of a comfortable home and hopping into a new convertible BMW?

To me, this makes a small family so attractive that when those behind it later introduce a grand national population-control scheme, not even those we pay to think for us question the merits and demerits of controlling the population in a country yet to emerge from traditional enclaves or from a cesspool of politics-driven fatalism.

Equally, when “poor” couples are bombarded with a daily dosage of the warped reasoning that they are poor because they bear too many children, or that they are poor because they are poor, they are bound to start believing it.

They might even start reasoning thus: “Yes, it is true, we are where we are because we go to bed too early and make too many pleasurable mistakes.”

Then everybody starts to believe that human numbers are the problem without questioning the global system of how wealth and poverty are created.

As Kenya embraces the new Constitution, this is a mentality that will need to be interrogated.

The new Constitution opens new horizons, not only for us to think for ourselves, but also to question why we have held on to some of the notions that have guided our policy and use of resources.

From many accounts, we have not yet realised a quarter of our potential as a nation.

For instance, like our grandfathers, a disproportionate percentage of us consume resources in their raw state.

Every day, thousands of us turn up in forests either to collect firewood or to burn charcoal.

No change

In 2002, the respected environmental magazine Ecoforum published an investigative story that said 82 per cent of Kenyans depended on charcoal for fuel.

Nothing much has changed. In a way, this means that like millions of their poor, semi-literate counterparts, lawyers, judges, journalists, politicians economists, NGO workers and members of other elitist groups who use wood or charcoal to warm their living rooms are still locked in this “grandfather’s” web.

Outdated charcoal technology

The difference between the elite and the poor, rural folk is that while the latter walk to the forest to cut trees or collect firewood, the former pay others to cut trees or produce the charcoal for them.

The “technology” we employ to convert the wood into charcoal has not changed since the Second World War.

The highly inefficient traditional kiln that has an unbelievably low wood-to-charcoal conversion rate is still in use today.

This is because apart from modern kilns developed on experimental basis, those we pay to think for us (our engineers, for instance) are still safely stashed in the “grandfather’s” web.

As a result, even when most of our forests have been going up in smoke, we still go on to consume charcoal without a thought for what else it at stake.

Once we have cleared most of the forests, we then wonder why the rains are beating us…literally.

Nowadays, whenever different parts of Kenya receive heavy rains, this almost certainly leads to devastating floods.

Then, like our grandfathers, we engage in a long, national debate on why it is happening.

The media leads the way; the environmentalists capitalise on the catastrophe.

Again, like our grandparents, the affected go to the nearest church to plead with the gods of rain not to send more.

On their part, government ministers promise food handouts. After a week or so, the media moves on to other stories, everybody loses interest and life continues until another flood turns up in a different corner of the country.

Few of us see the connection between the floods and the bags of charcoal Bwana Njoroge piles in the neighbourhood market or the stacks of firewood in our backyards.

Fewer still know that once thousands of trees are cut down to make charcoal, this destroys the natural buffer that absorbed torrents of rain thus rendering vast areas prone to floods.

Like our grandparents, we are used to drawing water from the local stream or river.

In many rural areas, the women are burdened with this tiresome duty.

But even here, water is no longer easy to come by since many of the streams are either dry or have polluted water flowing in them.

People living in our cities and urban areas consider themselves lucky that clear water flows from taps making it very convenient to cook, bathe and drink.

Their luck evaporates each time a normal drought translates into a nationwide water scarcity.

Believable view

When to the tally of all these natural calamities is added such “truths” about the inadequacy of Kenya’s economy to create a significant number of jobs for millions of people, poor farm outputs and low incomes for those lucky enough to be employed, then the too-many-people argument starts to appear believable.

Billions of dollars are spent to drive the point home as well as to make sure that everybody has the wherewithal to prevent the birth of an additional child.

The tone of the campaign to our women folk assumes a surreal character.

They are told that having few children gives them the opportunity to take good care of themselves and their families.

They are reminded of the poverty at home; the fact that they cannot adequately feed, or afford good medical care, or take their children to good schools because they gave birth to just too many children.

Soon, people become the problem. No one mentions that each human being is as good or as bad as the other and all deserve equal chance to be able to take care of their own needs.

This falls flat on its face whenever the “undesirable’ children in the slums get an opportunity to go to school.

Most end up making it in life, sometimes better than their counterparts from richer neighbourhoods.

So, for me, the size of a family, or a population for that matter, does not matter.

What matters is the system we have put in place to ensure that most, if not everybody, get a chance to prove that they can make it in life.

Of course many might ask how we can make opportunities available to everybody and particularly when we consider the finite nature of most of the resources humans depend on.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said that the world has enough for everyone’s needs but not for some people’s greed.

But as a physical planner, I would like to take the Mahatma’s argument further and say that what we lack, as a country, is respect for the role that planning, and particularly forward planning, has in meeting everybody’s needs or addressing what appears like insurmountable challenges.

I repeat that we are the proud owners of more than 582,000 square kilometres of real estate.

It is true that only 20 per cent of the land is suitable for farming and that this is where the biggest percentage of the population lives.

But how much of the remaining 80 per cent of the land have we put to optimal use?

At a time when we are putting under a microscope how we relate with each other and with all the organs of the state, we need to unleash the potential that good planning poses to our emergence as a true African powerhouse.

With good forward planning that is backed up by political will and adequate resources, we can stem the onward progress of the chaotic urban scene or at least redirect it to more marginal areas as opposed to having it eat into the lands we rely on for agriculture.

Intelligence services

In more significant terms, we must fortify, finance and reshape our intelligence services in a way that allows them to become capable of marshalling, recruiting and sustaining adequate intellectual manpower and technological input capable of redefining where Kenya wants to be in the next 50 years.

This is too important a task to be left to “mere” government departments.

Though I do not wish to underestimate the threats we are facing from external terrorism, internal organised gangs or political misfits, the bigger threat to our common survival emanates from a combination of global warming, loss of natural cover, trends in destruction of biological diversity as well as a penchant to remain holed up in the “grandfather mentality.”

To this, we can add the emerging geopolitical trend that silently requires those sitting on natural resources to cede them to the ultimately powerful.

Further, we are too few to be capable of winning international respectability or even to adequately demand goods and services produced internally.

We must also stop paying undue attention to noisy NGOs, particularly those that owe their existence and survival to external philanthropy.

Many NGOs have done a commendable job of filling the gap, particularly in cases where the state had failed to do its work.

But many of the NGOs are happy to frustrate sound schemes particularly if the donor happens to dislike them.