UMass Economics

“Ending ‘poorism’ in Kenya” NYTimes Op-Ed cites study by Mwangi wa Githinji and Frank Holmquist

A column about “poorism,” where wealthy tourists visit slums in cities such as Nairobi, Kenya, notes that while Kenya has its share of extremely poor people, it isn’t really a poor country, it’s just that the top 10 percent of the population controls 40 percent of the country’s income, so wealth is poorly distributed. A 2008 study conducted by Mwangi wa Githinji, economics, and Frank Holmquist of Hampshire College, found that in Kenya, while agricultural production grew at 6.9 percent in 2006, 25 percent of that was attributable to growing flowers. (New York Times, 10/29/14)  From UMASS Amherst Daily News Summary 10-29-14

NAIROBI, Kenya — One of the thriving sectors of the tourism industry here is also one that no government would want to put on brochures inviting visitors to the country. For a small fee, companies operated by entrepreneurs like the young rapper Henry Ohanga (Octopizzo to his fans) offer guided walks through Kibera, a sprawling slum in the heart of the capital. Tourists get to see up close the mountains of garbage and dense rows of low-slung wattle-and-mud houses that have made that township one of the most notorious urban settlements on the continent.

Mr. Ohanga is an investor in “poorism” — the business of taking well-off tourists off the beaten track to see how the destitute of this world live. It is a market niche that has grown a great deal in the past 10 years, and not just in Africa. Visitors to Brazil can join guided walks through Rio’s toughest favelas; tourists in India get to see how Delhi’s street children spend their nights; and in Johannesburg, for a fee, a visitor can explore the inner reaches of Soweto, home to thousands of struggling mine workers and their families.

Poorism’s critics are many. Not least among them are the inhabitants of these hard-bitten urban enclaves. Lillian Wambua, who ekes out a living selling mandazi, a local doughnut-like delicacy, from a tiny shack in Kibera, detests having her young son photographed by tourists. But she says she dares not raise her voice because visitors are often accompanied by local toughs working as guards for the tour companies. “I feel bad when people come from other countries to see how poor we are,” she told the Daily Nation recently.

But Mr. Ohanga, who himself rose from one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods to become a popular rapper, offers a staunch defense of his tours: “We don’t bring people to Kibera to show how poor the residents are,” he told me. “We want them to see the other side of the slum. When they come they realize that locals are clean, hardworking, normal people who simply lack good job openings. As a result of these tours, many projects have been launched to improve their livelihoods.”

Both critics and defenders of poorism make fair arguments, but in many ways this debate is beside the point. Kenya isn’t a poor country, it’s the economic powerhouse of the Horn of Africa, with a gross domestic product of $55.2 billion in 2013, classified by the World Bank as a middle-income nation. But our national wealth is very poorly distributed and the political elites who determine national priorities have never made better housing standards a priority. Given that the urban poor, like most Kenyans, vote mainly along ethnic lines, there is hardly any political lobby to press the case for better housing.

Still, the Kenyan government has taken modest steps to make its urban slums a bit less distressing. In mid-September, hundreds of young people from the National Youth Service — a government program that offers high school graduates vocational training — were dispatched to Kibera to unclog drains, build communal toilets and set up a waste-disposal system. Residents largely welcomed the initiative. “Youths are kept busy,” Sheikh Yusuf Abu Hamza, told journalists, speaking outside a Kibera mosque. “We have seen a reduction in criminal activities here because the engagement with the N.Y.S. has offered the youth a source of livelihood.”

Laudable though that may be, the effort only scratches the surface of the real problem — a yawning gap between rich and poor.

The desolation in our slums is a graphic reminder that the boom that began in 2003 has not raised all boats. According to U.N.-Habitat, an arm of the United Nations that deals with housing, about 60 percent of Nairobi’s inhabitants live in informal settlements that together occupy only 5 percent of the land area of the Kenyan capital. Though new towers dot the skyline and a record number of students are pursuing higher education, Kenya and its neighbors have not managed to follow the trajectory of the many Asian nations that have lifted millions of people out of poverty by attracting industries that spur job growth. The Kenyan economy remains reliant on sectors like real estate and financial services that do not generate high levels of employment. Even earnings from agriculture, a major economic motor here, are primarily derived from a few large, mechanized farms.

The top 10 percent of the richest households in the country control 40 percent of the country’s income. A 2008 study by Mwangi wa Githinji of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Frank Holmquist of Hampshire College, found that while agricultural production grew at 6.9 percent in 2006, 25 percent of that growth was attributable to the flower sector, which is dominated by 10 farms, one of them producing over 50 percent of the output.

To address such problems, East African countries with good political and trade ties, such as Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, should pool resources to invest in the sort of major infrastructure projects — port expansion, efficient transport links — that attracted investors to Asia. Some efforts have been made in this direction, but clearly not nearly enough.

Many Kenyans in rural areas are subsistence farmers. Life on a hard-scrabble farm has little appeal for many young people. Every year, tens of thousands pour into the cities to find work. A visit to Kibera at dawn reveals throngs of workers traveling to low-paying jobs as laborers. Everywhere, there are signs of the bustling economic activity that prompted The Economist to declare that Kibera “may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet,” with peddlers selling everything from bananas to phone credit cards to water.

This enterprising bent has inspired people like Mr. Ohanga, who says his business is helping others climb out of poverty. “I try to impress upon visitors to start projects here and promote existing ones,” he told me.

It’s a worthy enough effort, but it would not be necessary if the government promoted more policies designed to make “poorism” a thing of the past, instead of a growing concern.

Murithi Mutiga is an editor at the Nation Media Group in Kenya.