A few miles from the resplendence of Kenya’s Parliament House where the finance minister delivered his budget on Thursday, Deborah Mwandagina, deputy principal of a primary school in Nairobi’s Mukuru slum, is unimpressed.
Her dilapidated, overcrowded and underresourced Kwa Njenga school has around 2,000 pupils from the sprawling informal settlement in the Kenyan capital, but for years she has struggled to provide the quality education they deserve.
Finance Minister Henry Rotich may have announced increased spending on education on Thursday, she said, but his other policies could make the impoverished families her students come from more vulnerable.
“It’s good for the school if more funds are given. We have over 100 students in each class and need to build classrooms. We need trained staff for our children with special needs and secured funding for lunchtime meals,” said Mwandagina.
“But if the prices of basic items goes up, it makes you worry. Already these children are from poor families, often they have single mothers or their parents are HIV positive, and the grandparent is looking after them.”
Rotich announced increased investment in four priority areas in his 2018/19 budget speech – manufacturing, food and nutrition security, affordable housing and universal health coverage.
The education budget will rise by 17 percent, and the rich will help fund spending to help the poor through a “Robin Hood tax” of 0.05 percent on financial transactions of over 500,000 Kenyan shillings (about $5,000), he said.
But Rotich also proposed a 16 percent VAT on basic goods such maize flour, kerosene, cooking gas and bread and announced plans to toll roads and raise licence fees for small businesses.
Newspaper headlines said the government was raiding “poor pockets” and called the budget “Kenya’s most painful“, while citizens have taken to social media complaining of public corruption and the failure to target Kenya’s most wealthy.
“Robin Hood robbed the rich to give the poor. He didn’t rob the poor to give the rich, nor rob the rich to pocket the cash,” tweeted one user under the handle @AlfredKOmbudo.
Kenya’s economy has grown on average by 5 percent annually over the last decade, but the benefits have not been equally distributed, and the gap between rich and poor is rising, say campaigners.
The number of super-rich in Kenya is among the fastest growing in the world, and the charity Oxfam predicts the number of Kenyan millionaires will grow by 80 percent over next decade.
Yet while a minority of Kenyans are accumulating wealth, the benefits of economic growth have not trickled down.
And Mukuru slum – located on the outskirts of eastern Nairobi – lays bare these stark inequalities.
Mukuru houses more than 100,000 people who work in nearby factories, or as drivers, housemaids, gardeners and security guards in the city’s suburbs, and faces the same challenges as informal settlements the world over.
Families live in tiny one-room shacks made of wood and corrugated iron, there is no piped water meaning residents must buy it from private tankers, and a lack of toilets means nearby streams and rivers are filled with sewage.
Poor-quality education and a lack of job opportunities have bred high rates of drug and alcohol abuse and crimes such as robbery, rape and domestic violence are common.
“If we want to grow Kenya and we want all our people to prosper, it’s not going to happen through investments in big infrastructure projects like railways and highways, it’s about investing in the people,” said Nelmo Munyiri, a musician and social activist who lives in Mukuru.
“We need to make sure that our kids get a quality education, that basic foods are affordable for all, and that the poor get proper medical attention when they go to the hospital. We want a more equal country.”
“Budget for the Rich”
According to Kenya Fight Inequality Alliance, just 8,300 individuals in Kenya own the same wealth as the rest of the country’s 44 million people – and the richest 10 percent earns 23 times more than the poorest 10 percent.
The alliance – a coalition of 50 international and local charities focusing on issues from land rights and food security to curbing violence against women and youth crime – said the budget would push the poor to the brink.
“The budget being proposed is a budget for the rich, which will do little to reduce the growing gap between the richest and ordinary Kenyans,” the group said in a statement.
“Faced with a fiscal crisis, caused by corruption and over borrowing, the government is choosing to balance the books on the backs of the poor, by increasing the cost of the basic goods like food.”
The government of the East African nation has been criticised in recent years, including by the International Monetary Fund, for ramping up borrowing for infrastructure investments, including a new railway completed last year.
A recent corruption scandal related to the theft of nearly $100 million from the Kenya’s National Youth Service has also shaken public confidence, with dozens of senior officials facing charges.
The charities – which include Oxfam, ActionAid, Wangu Kanja Foundation, Mukuru Youth Initiative – said the government should instead increase revenue by cracking down on graft and by taxing the richest more.
The top income tax bracket, they said, should be increased to 45 percent from 30 percent, which applies to most Kenyans.
“The government is there to serve the people – all the people and not just the rich,” said Wanjiru Njoroge of the Daughters of Mumbi Global Resource Center, a women’s rights organisation and member of the Fight Inequality Alliance.
“If it does not serve the needs of all the people, then what is their job?”
This article was written by Nita Bhalla and edited by Claire Cozens.
Nita covers disasters and conflicts, development, womens rights, climate change and governance for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She is a former Reuters political and general news correspondent and has worked in India, east and southern Africa and the Indian Ocean region. Nita started her career in 1999 with the BBC in Ethiopia