In The Shackled Continent journalist Robert Guest outlines various reasons for African poverty. He refers to a Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto. This man has estimated that the value of what he calls ‘dead capital’ in poor countries, property that can not be capitalised because there are no title deeds, is roughly forty times the foreign aid received throughout the world since 1945. He also estimates that in Africa alone this amounts to almost a trillion US dollars and, at the time he wrote, that was about three times the GDP of the entire sub Saharan African countries.
Lack of structure and systems like this are very odd to someone brought up in the organisationally obsessed western world. It’s not just that people can’t prove a legal right to the house they live in or the land they cultivate. They can’t prove who they are either. Round here few people have birth certificates, most people, though not all, have an ID card. However with no record, and sometimes nobody with a memory of, your birth the details you enter on that card are pretty much made up at the time. There are different practices between tribes about names, which is personal or family and in what order they come. In the very worst cases children have been orphaned from an entire family and have had to invent everything, name, date of birth, place of birth. If you can’t prove who you are then you can’t get a bank account or a passport or get married or a visa or any of the things we take for granted at home. Well, that’s not strictly true, the banks would have no clients if they were actually rigorous in whom they opened accounts for, here they require your ID number and a reference from somebody who has banked with them for a period of time. The potential for fraud is obviously great.
The problem is that here is a society that is not, never was, based on a western structure but which has to try to fit into that structure in order to interact with the western world. I wonder why we are not more open minded or flexible. Has it been attempted and failed?
Why must the rest of the world kow-tow to our standards and procedures? Is that really the best thing for them or us?
Well there is no option for the people here, they either continue to live in poverty or they try to make themselves fit into systems demanded by their government, western inherited and modelled systems. Their attempts to fit into the system are hampered along the way by government offices staffed with people who have little understanding of the systems themselves. In a recent example I went to the same government office in Nairobi, Nanyuki and Isiolo, in each office I asked the same question and in each office I was given a completely different set of instructions on how to achieve a particular legal document. Even when the offices are staffed by intelligent graduates they are still people who have grown up in a system that has never really worked and therefore have no experience of how it is supposed to work.
I have the benefit of a good education and thirty odd years of living in the very set of procedures that this country is trying to emulate. If I found it so difficult to find out how to get this document, to which everyone in the country is supposedly entitled, no wonder so many people here find it impossible. How is an ordinary Kenyan citizen, with only primary education, limited English and absolutely know knowledge of how the government works expected to be able to get themselves the necessary documents to identify themselves and any property they own.
I have heard many people mention how Africans rarely seem to plan for the future, that they live for today and don’t even plan for two or three years from now. I wonder if this is part of the reason why. In times past when who you were or what you owned was determined in different ways, ways they knew about and had access too, like the knowledge and memory of elders, these issues did not arise. People knew who they were, what they owed and could plan accordingly. Now their traditional rites to land or a name or a status no longer have any value. People who claim a land because they have lived on it for as long as anyone can remember find that with out a title deed they have no rights to that land, they can’t get a title deed for the land because to do so require proof of purchase, the name and particulars of the previous owner, proof of their own identity, or any combination of things they are completely unable to provide.
When we, in the west, live in rented accommodation it is widely accepted that we are not as good at looking after that accommodation as we are if we own it, it is human nature. If it doesn’t belong to you it can be taken away from you and so there is little point in making a long term investment in something that you may not have in the future. This kind of poverty trap is well recognised, now extend that to a person’s identity and add the frustration and sense of complete injustice felt that what they believed was theirs, both in belongings and identity can be so completely disregarded and it is very easy to see why people in Africa make no plans for tomorrow. They only plant what they can harvest in a matter of months or keep what they can take with them at short notice. It is more important to eat a lot today than to ensure there is food for an uncertain tomorrow.