Who answers to the hungry? Claiming the right to food in Kenya
Carolyne Gatimu Development and Social Science Researcher
3rd Jul 2014
In Kenya poor households are struggling to afford food and government schemes are not doing enough to prevent people going hungry. Carolyne Gatimu introduces a study of food rights in Kenya as part of our research project on the impact of food price volatility.
"The government has a mandate to feed its citizens, but how can citizens claim this right? Even if the chief is the government's representative here, he also has problems of his own to address. After all, people have always known that one must work to eat. So making claims on the government to feed you will most likely not work"
Mr. M, forty year old artisan in Mukuru, Nairobi.
Last year (2013), we set out to investigate poor people's experiences of food price volatility in Kenya. We focused on two communities in Mukuru (Nairobi) and Lango Baya (Malindi) specifically selected as representative of the poorest urban and rural areas. The research was a follow up to a similar study
conducted in 2012 in the same areas with the same people and it sought to find out what had changed since then. This year we also asked our respondents about local accountability for food security.
Last year they skipped more meals than they ever did before...Overall, we found that the prices of food and other essential commodities increased throughout the year, largely as a result of levying Value Added Tax (VAT - 16%) on food commodities that were previously exempt, in addition to high fuel prices and insufficient rainfall. This pushed up the cost of living, making life unbearable for the poor and vulnerable. Respondents told us that prices for some of the commonly consumed food types had
increased, including maize flour (the staple food), milk, bread, vegetables and cooking fat and oil, among others. Other essential living costs such as kerosene, charcoal, pesticides, diesel and rent had also increased.
As a way of coping, people in Mukuru and Lango Baya are eating the same kind of food everyday (which gets really boring). They also eat reduced portions of food, substituting the "expensive" food with less expensive ones (mostly of poorer quality), and doing away completely with certain types of food, mostly animal protein which they all love and enjoy. Although our
respondents were already used to skipping meals, they reported that last year they skipped more meals than they ever did before and overall they felt that they were not eating well.
Do they know that they have rights to food?
So, does anyone care about their plight? Do they know that they have rights to food? Who is to blame when they and their children sleep
hungry? What is striking is that most people demonstrate high awareness of rights to food. They acknowledge that everyone has a right to food. This awareness has to a large extent been ignited by the passing of a 'new' constitution (Constitution of Kenya, 2010) which is very progressive in terms of recognizing the rights of the poor and marginalized for example the right to food and other socio-economic rights. Although
progressive, since its passing, the constitution has so far remained only a document especially when it comes to making the right to food a reality. Therefore, even though people are aware of their right to food, they do not know who to claim the right from. This is why Mr. M in Mukuru (quoted above) has lost hope in the government.
People expect the government to be the most responsible in protecting its citizens against hunger (this responsibility is its official mandate) followed by NGOs and local churches. However, they feel that these institutions have not performed well in ensuring food security or curbing hunger so far. Actually, NGOs and churches are considered much more reliable than the government; but they have not managed to reach a large majority who are in dire need of
Does it mean that the government does nothing? In the past, the government has responded to hunger through emergency food aid. This food aid is usually given in response to droughts or floods. School feeding programmes are also a common type of food assistance by the government especially in the arid and semi-arid parts of the country. Our respondents however feel that what the government is doing is just a drop in the ocean. Emergency food aid, for example, while important, is sporadic, unpredictable and ineffective in reducing chronic
"You cannot report because they will not give you anything the next time some food is brought."A forty year old woman fish vendor in Mukuru observed the following:
"No one will tell you that food aid can be found in this particular place. One must struggle to get it. After the general elections in March 2013, some cooking fat and rice was brought by the government for the sick people. It was distributed at the chief's office. I saw some administration police carry up to four boxes of cooking fat per person while the sick were given just one box to be shared among four people. You cannot report because they will not give you anything the next time some food is brought"
The Kenyan government needs to do much more to prove to its citizens that it is committed to upholding the right to food. The government is trying to lay the foundation for a future free from hunger by investing more in irrigation and expanding the cash transfer programme. We can only hope that these efforts will bear fruits sooner rather than later.
- Salome Ntui outside her home and shop in Mukuru, Kenya. Credit: Andy Hall/Oxfam
- Jane Grace, 48, mother of three, who also looks after an orphaned nephew, stands in the doorway of her home in the Lunga Lunga area of the Mukuru informal settlement, holding a bag of sugar and a bag of flour: all the food she had in her house when visited by Oxfam on April 1st, 2014. Credit: Andy