Month: March 2015

Race and Development: Why Kenyans are Livid with the Chinese Restaurant

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This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on March 29, 2015

Last week, Kenyans were outraged when it came to light that a Chinese restaurant in Nairobi had a policy of denying black people entrance into the establishment after 5pm.

Of course fury and outcry ensued and the restaurant has since been closed for allegedly failing to comply with various rules. But frankly, why are Kenyans surprised?

Racism has always been a prevalent theme in relations between African and non-African nations. Tensions even exist among Kenyans of different races and although we can all claim to be one nation and one people, the reality is starkly different.NIGGER-KING-STORE

But this Chinese Restaurant fiasco is important as it brings to light the unspoken racism narrative embedded in economic and social development efforts in Africa by non-African actors.

Africans are routinely infantilised in development circles with the default position often being that Africans cannot quite seem to figure out how to ‘develop’ and need external (read non-African) help.

Although one would assume that the “Africa Rising” narrative would challenge notions of African inferiority by demonstrating that the continent houses intelligent and innovative individuals, a closer analysis of this narrative reveals its flaws.

Africa is only ‘rising’ because it’s catching up with the rest of the world. Although there can be nuanced, ‘Africanised’ manifestations of this rising such as M-Pesa, essentially it’s a catch up game.

The symbolic representation of authority, expertise and knowledge are still non-African in origin. Indeed, the distinction between ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ is often framed in terms of EuroAmerican yardsticks of levels of industrialisation, gross domestic product and democratisation. In the past EuroAmerica was the sole fount of wisdom but now with the economic rise of China, they too have become ‘experts’ from whom Africans can learn.

maxresdefaultNow there is no problem in learning from others. Indeed, it should be encouraged but if distinctions between those who possess expertise and those to whom it should be imparted are based only on where they come from and the colour of their skin, that’s a problem. Perhaps part of the outrage with the Chinese restaurant incident is that Kenyans expected citizens from a nation that has been subjected to racism itself to be repulsed by racism.

Indeed, perhaps a silent bond between Africa and China, especially at government levels, is that both parties ‘get’ how annoying racism can be when dealing with certain EuroAmerican delegates.

Despite what has been vociferous Sinophobic commentaries of China’s ‘neo-colonial’ and ‘imperialistic’ march into Africa by some quarters, a sense of solidarity between China and Africa persists. Perhaps Kenyans, like other Africans, felt that although China’s involvement in the continent has serious problems and drawbacks, at least racism is not the infuriating invisible elephant in the room.

Maybe Kenyans felt that China, and therefore the Chinese, are development partners that genuinely respect them. The Chinese restaurant fiasco busted this myth and feelings of solidarity. Kenyans felt deeply violated. Because this blatant act of racism occurred here, the audacity of the disrespect was incredible. But to the point made at the start, Kenyans may be outraged but they should not be surprised by what happened.

china_africa_1107 (1) Why? Because, despite the fact that we live in a multipolar world with multiple centres of power, Kenya (and indeed Africa) has largely failed to use this to our advantage.We don’t seem to be too intelligent. We still export raw materials and import manufactured goods — they just come from China now.

This incident may be the much needed wake-up call for Kenyans to realise that the perception persists that we need to work smarter and earn genuine respect. Maybe now we get it.

Ms Were is a development economist. Email: Twitter: @anzetse


Economic case for cushioning Kenyans with social security

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This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on March 22, 2015

Often discussions around social security and welfare in Africa are grounded in the narrative of human rights: the right to health, food, employment, and so on.

Kenya should seriously consider putting more public funds into social security because of the economic benefits it can catalyse.

Social security can be loosely defined as the provision of a steady stream of income to replace lost wages due to unemployment, retirement, disability, or death.

In Kenya, social security is weak and only limited to free primary education, a presidential bursary scheme, retirement funds, insurance for work-related injuries, limited cash transfer programmes and the National Hospital Insurance Fund.

Implementation of these benefits, however, is mired in bureaucracy, corruption and poor implementation. The urgency of expanding social security protection is dire given that 46.7 per cent of Kenyans have difficulty getting food.


Let’s look at poverty, the ironies therein and how social security resolves the mess. Low income people have a high propensity to consume; meaning they want to buy goods and products but lack the means to do so.

Ironically, those with the highest hunger to consume are often unable to do so.

By providing income support, social security provides a means through which the poor can meet their basic needs.

This bolsters the economy because beneficiaries spend their monthly benefits, which in turn boosts the economies of counties in which the money is spent.

Remember that often those who receive social security benefits are unable to save. Kenya’s savings rate is 13 to 14 per cent of the gross domestic product.


Beneficiaries spend the money on goods and services, pumping it back into the economy. Clearly, this leads to the next point, the multiplier effect of social security

Income used to buy goods and services allows companies to register more profits and hire more employees who then spend their wages on more goods and services. This creates a virtuous cycle of increased spending and income for more Kenyans.

Thirdly, social security is a massive employer. In the US alone, for example, nine million jobs are linked to the social security system. The flip side of this is that, if done carelessly, it could add to the already onerous public wage bill.

However, this needn’t be the case as a creative reorganisation of the current public office positions could surely reallocate thousands of shillings to meet the needs of the most poor within a social security mandate.

Also, is something to be said for tapping into the skills of employable individuals, engaging them in meaningful work and lowering unemployment rates.

Further, Kenya arguably has a problem with labour oversupply giving rise to high unemployment, wages are often low, interest rates are high and therefore aggregate demand is muted. Social security provides an injection of capital that boosts aggregate demand.

sovereign-wealth-fund0Finally, social security strengthens savings and lowers dependency rates. This dependency dampens the ability of Kenyans to save and invest. Once relieved of the high levels of dependency, those earning an income can plan the use of their capital in a more productive manner.

Ms Were is a development economist. Email: Twitter: @anzetse

Economic benefits of decentralisation won’t be immediate

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 15,2015

What will be the impact of the introduction of political, administrative and fiscal decentralisation in Kenya? More importantly, what are the pros and cons of decentralisation with regard to economic development?

How Male Psychology affects Economic Performance

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The race for Regional Hub status in Eastern Africa

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