Kenya is currently ranked among the top 50 countries in the world that fail to provide their people with enough food, according to the Global Hunger Index. Although spirited efforts to address hunger have been taken in the recent past, most of these have been restricted to drought-stricken rural areas.
The subtle forms of hunger in urban areas—such as the scores of casual labourers who routinely skip meals because of high food prices and low wages—have largely been overlooked. The primary reason why urban hunger has not received sufficient attention is that it has been eclipsed by the dominant and relatively old stereotype that cities are havens for social progress and economic opportunity.
It is true that urban areas, and especially capital cities, have the potential to positively transform lives. But a city’s irresistible glamour can easily mask deep inequalities. Quite often, only a handful of city residents enjoy a consistently high quality of life. The rest face many unfair deprivations besides hunger. These include lack of access to proper housing, quality healthcare and quality education, among others.
Glamorous city life often masks deep inequalities
Tellingly, an estimated 60 per cent of Nairobi’ residents live in slums. This needs urgent redress in view of the rapid pace of urbanisation—Nairobi now has around 4 million residents compared with 2.1 million registered in the 1999 census and 3.1 million in 2009.
Inequalities in cities can set the stage for political instability. After all, it was protests in North African cities such as Cairo and Tunis that forced the respective leaders out of those two capitals and triggered the infamous Arab Spring in 2011.
Moreover, when it comes to inequality, what is at stake is not just political stability, but human dignity. Promoting human dignity consists in recognizing that each and every human life, no matter the circumstances, is a sacred and unrepeatable gift, unique from all other lives that came before or will come after.
Consequently, we must improve access to the necessary material, cultural and spiritual resources that foster personal and communal growth, promote peaceful coexistence and allow all people to live full lives.
This is why inequality cannot be definitively addressed by sporadic donations to the needy. Although donations help build bonds of solidarity, they need to be accompanied by measures that strengthen individuals’ and communities’ capacity to be agents of their own development.
Broad-based policies that address the root causes of inequality and empower the marginalised are therefore necessary. Devolution, for example, by availing opportunities in counties, will ultimately help stem the tide of rural urban migration. We therefore need to jealously safeguard it. Policies aimed at creating quality mass jobs in urban areas are also necessary.
Ultimately, bridging inequality demands the right ordering of values. Very often lifeless economic statistics are given precedence over human dignity. This needs to be reversed. A just economic system is one which is at the service of every person, and indeed, every family.
Moreover, the dignity of human life depends to a great extent on stable families. Therefore, as far as the State is concerned, the welfare of the family needs to get special consideration in policy formulation and resource distribution. For instance, social goods like quality public housing should be equitably distributed, as good homes go hand in hand with good families.
However, before we ask what the State has done for our families, what have we done for our families? It all starts here as inequality cannot be addressed if citizens do not have a sense of duty towards those closest to them.
The State should not do what families can do themselves. But isn’t this case when the Government is compelled to cater for abandoned or orphaned children who have immediate family members with considerable wealth?
Especially worrying is the growing trend of urbanites who live in staggering opulence and dissipation while immediate family members, sometimes even parents, are conveniently forgotten and left at the mercy of poverty in rural areas or slums. Such regrettable behavior patterns perpetuate the cycle of inequality.
Though necessary in cases such as child support, forcing people to take care of their own families under threat of legal action ultimately achieves little. It does not reform the heart, the root of all human behavior.
Only when we believe in our hearts that human dignity is an ideal to be defended and promoted will all forms of inequality be truly addressed, starting in our families. The urgency with which we must act cannot be overstated as inequality, in the words of former U.S. President Barack Obama, is the defining issue of our times.