Is Kenya Starving the Poor to Play Politics?

With Sammy Ndirangu and some of ACORN Kenya Korogocho leader

Nairobi      Talking to ACORN Kenya organizers and leaders, one thing jumped to the top of the conversation quickly when education was raised, and it was not the poor quality of the books and classrooms this time, it was food, specifically school lunches.    Everyone from slumdweller to education expert agrees that a child’s ability to learn is improved by whether or not they are receiving adequate nutrition, and in slums like Korogocho where ACORN works, the meal at lunch and any leftovers sent home by the school are often the real meal of the day.  How could this situation have worsened?

It turns out that with the installation of a new government this year after the 2017 election, the incoming Interior Department minister announced a change of policy on school lunches.  After a 40-year partnership with the World Health Organization, which was paying the bulk of the cost of over $1 billion dollars to provide school lunches in Kenya’s lowest income communities and elsewhere, the minister declared the time for “dependence” on outside interests and donors had ended, and that Kenya would feed the million school children itself effective January 2018.   The WHO in the face of this opposition withdrew its funding.  The January date turned out to be too ambitious so the implementation policy for the new school lunch policy or what might be know as the “no school lunch policy” became May 2018.

David Musungu with some of the leaders

The legislature only appropriated the equivalent of $24 million to support the feeding program.  The potential beneficiaries were reduced from one-million children to half-a-million.  In the new “independence” program, parents were then assessed a fee for the lunches to offset the cost of local authorities providing them of roughly 800 KS per term or $8 USD, leaving the children of many poor parents to withdraw from school as well.

We asked the chief of Korogocho, who is appointed by the national government, about this policy change and its impact.  He argued that Korogocho and other slums needed an exemption.  The average income in the slum is only the equivalent of $70 per month so losing $2 for the lunches per month during the school term is not trivial.  He went into some detail about what he argued were the 60% of residents who depended on the city dump that abuts the slum by scavenging waste food.  He believed the government needed to act to continue the lunches.

 

At the same time, when we argued that our members were demanding that ACORN initiate a campaign to restore free school lunches and that in talking to our members, we were finding variable costs, some of which were significantly higher, his advocacy pivoted with concerns that our raising our voices in protest might put pressure on his political position as well.

As we left the meeting, we looked at how tall and strong the tree had grown on the chief’s compound that we had planted when launching ACORN eight years ago in 2010.  We knew the leaders felt there was not choice but to do everything possible to change this policy, and their will be done.

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Detroit Housing Crisis, Progress but a Long Way to Go

Detroit    The panel organized by the Detroit School at the University of Michigan – Dearborn had an ominous title: “Post Crisis Housing Markets and Housing Insecurity.”  In Detroit, not unlike so many other cities around the world now, when you couple “Post Crisis” and “Housing” in the same phrase you are definitely either very hopeful or asking for trouble.  The housing crisis in Detroit as been horrid for half-a-century at the least, so post-crisis referred to the 2008 national meltdown of course.

The crowd on a miserable winter night in Detroit, which is to say, a normal winter night in Detroit, was deeply informed and hugely engaged.  The panel was authoritative.  Christine Macdonald of The Detroit News and Allison Gross of the Free Press had both deeply reported on housing issues, were well versed and knew the players on all sides of the field.  Professor Josh Akers from UM-Dearborn and his colleague Eric Seymour, a PhD now at Brown, had deeply researched the housing market and the level of insecurity for families.  Both had been wildly helpful to the ACORN Home Savers Campaign in getting a handle on companies operating in the margins with sometimes questionable and often predatory products often contributing to housing insecurity.

Professor Akers, as the moderator, gave the background and the numbers of foreclosures, the impact of subprime lending, and the level of continued abandonment were unsettling, no matter how often I had heard them.  The reporters unpacked the impact of recent programs like the “right of first refusal” which allowed the city to pick up homes in foreclosure and potentially offer them back to families at real or current market value, rather than the pre-2008 recession levels.  They shared the problems they faced in keeping these stories flowing in the exhaustion of their editors, and perhaps the public, felt in facing this continual train wreck.  Eric Seymour filled in the gaps that both he and Akers had worked on to supply both reporters and ACORN with the raw data to fuel their reporting and our work.

As Greg Markus, a retired professor and key organizer with Detroit Action Commonwealth, pointed out in the question & answer after the panel, the twin crises of mortgage foreclosures from the banks and tax sales triggered by the government had deepened the crisis in Detroit.  He argued as well that the ACLU suit that upbraided the city for not allowing low income families to take advantage of the tax exemptions that has now slowed the auctions as well as the work being done by reporters, scholars, activists, and community organizations showed real progress moving forward.  Christine Macdonald nodded but pushed back that none of these things repaired the damage to families who had already lost and been ejected from their homes or the permanent scars it created in the neighborhoods.

It was an excellent conversation without real joy.  There is great work happening in Detroit, but too much of the effort for too many decades has been Sisyphisian with the rocks almost getting to the top of the hill, then pushed back down again.  I mentioned a memorandum I had stumbled on in the ACORN archives from 2003 from the Detroit ACORN office on a collaboration with the City and its financing to allow families to rehab houses and then waive taxes and purchase requirements.  Then the numbers of houses abandoned was 30,000.  Now, the land bank alone has perhaps 80,000.

This is where the fight has to be joined, but whether a model for the future that would assure housing stability can be found without a radical rethinking that puts families and not realty interests and developers first is still very much in doubt.

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