Chips for sex: Oxfam explores the lives of Kenya’s hungry millions

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 23 May 2013 15:18 GMT

A schoolboy eats a plate of food provided by the United Nations World Food Programme at the New Hope Kibera Bible Baptist Church Primary School in Nairobi's Kibera slum, June 2, 2009. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

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In the slums of Nairobi and the picturesque Kenyan coastal town of Malindi, researcher Grace Lubaale found ugly stories of child prostitution and government neglect

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the slums of Nairobi and the picturesque Kenyan coastal town of Malindi, researcher Grace Lubaale found ugly stories of child prostitution and government neglect. 

His research is part of a four-year project by Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies investigating the impact of high food prices in ten countries around the world. 

The first of four annual reports, Squeezed, was released on Thursday. It shows how rising food prices are impacting on poor families through domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse

Thomson Reuters Foundation asked Grace Lubaale about his findings. 

What kinds of people did you meet? 

The people we are talking about hardly make a couple of meals a day in a so called ‘normal time’ when the prices are low. We are talking about families that would make do with porridge for a day. 

If one is earning about 100 shillings ($1.18) a day with an average household of about five, your guess is as good as mine as to how much food they are able to get with that. 

How many million Kenyans struggle to eat, day in, day out? 

Conservative estimates are giving us about 46 percent of Kenyan population (of 42.7 million) being poor (defined as living on less than $1.25 a day). Not many people who are poor actually have food.  

It is taken as a normal phenomenon for people not to have food. It’s only when you have people dying or you have a serious famine or serious failure of rains (that it becomes news). 

What struck you most in the interviews you carried out? 

The loss of dignity. Poor people being forced to use unorthodox methods to get food. You have people coming from factories, giving young boys 50 or 100 shillings to go and buy a packet of chips, in exchange for sex. 

Isn’t Kenya the richest country in East Africa? 

Kenya in the region is comparatively richer than her neighbours … But how much of that wealth is spread out over the country? 

Inequality in Kenya is much higher than her neighbours. Maybe 60 percent of the wealth of Kenya is in the hands of about 10 percent of the population.  (In Uganda, 60 percent of the wealth is in the hands of about 50 percent of the population.)

Social policy (in Kenya is also lacking) – the extent to which the state provides health, education and subsidies on things that affect the poor and the needy. 

Isn’t the Kenyan government providing for the poor? 

For the kind of people we have been looking at, very little has been done by the government. 

What about safety nets, like cash handouts? 

About 65 percent of safety nets are supported by the European Union and British government. And those are mainly in the arid areas. 

It would seem to appear that the poor and vulnerable are really the business of donors. 

Why should the government care that 2 million Nairobians are going hungry? 

Two million people being at risk is more than just a food security problem. It can pose a national security concern. 

The city will begin to divert resources, to begin to, for instance, quell food riots as happened in Lusaka in 1991 (when the government of Kenneth Kaunda was toppled over food riots). 

We can no longer afford to ignore this. 

Is it realistic to expect the government to feed half of the population? 

Research like we are doing is beginning to explore the whole question of what would be the best way of dealing with this problem. But in the interim, people must get food. 

Yes, it is expensive. But the choice of leaving 20 million people without attention is much more expensive. 

It is unacceptable that we always have maize harvests that have so much of a surplus yet there are areas that are perpetually hungry – which means that our priorities have been a little bit misplaced. 

What do you hope to achieve at the end of this project?

We would like to see a more dynamic policy conversation taking place between the government and all the other actors. 

(We want to see) some exploration on … more durable ways of ensuring that people have got access to food, and that they are protected from the shocks that happen when we have increases in food prices. 

If a household is spending 80 percent and upwards of their income on food, while it is supposed to be their responsibility, I think the government has to begin to think of ways in which to address such problems.

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