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Ten years and ten priorities to eliminate extreme poverty in Kenya


3.9 million Kenyans, some 8% of the population, face the stark reality of living in extreme poverty. They have been left behind whilst the living standards for many in Kenya have improved. Only an organised system-wide approach with proactive collaboration by many stakeholders and committed leadership can potentially eliminate extreme poverty in Kenya within a decade. Indeed, the country’s Vision 2030 sets out a determined effort to eradicate extreme poverty.

Wasafiri has been working, alongside others, to form a new collaborative partnership that holds the potential to better tackle extreme poverty in Kenya. A recent report by Wasafiri commissioned by a newly formed Working Group on Ultra Poverty (comprising core Government ministries and donors) sought to define and help target the very poorest in Kenya.

Why set our sights on the poorest? Our response to this question is premised on a desire to create equitable development and meaningfully achieving SDG 1 (ending extreme poverty). Because state and aid resources are tight, it seems appropriate to target what is available on the poorest first. But perhaps more importantly, it feels like the right thing to do. The Basic Report on Well Being in Kenya (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics 2018) outlines a definition for ‘hardcore or extreme poverty’. Households that fall within this definition typically spend approximately USD20 per month (less than 2000 Kenya shillings) on all food and non-food items. This means they are desperately poor and in need of some reasonably sophisticated support that combines providing productive hand-outs (cash or livestock etc) with improving their capabilities to manage a small enterprise to help them sustainably improve their living standards over a period of months and years, often in remote areas.

What is happening already? The Government of Kenya (GoK) recognises that the country continues to experience high levels of inequality and large pockets of deep poverty despite the last decade producing steady economic growth and an overall decline in poverty. The significant expansion of the government’s social protection systems, particularly the National Safety Net Programme (NSNP), represents a major step forward in reducing poverty in Kenya. Nonetheless, there is recognition that other services or support (in addition to the cash transfers provided by the NSNP) are required by many of the extreme poor households if they and their children are to escape poverty. Alongside Government efforts, donors are recognising that purely market-based approaches for generating wealth among poor households, whilst useful to many, have barriers to entry for the very poorest who often lack land or assets such as livestock, or social connections. Regular emergencies are also a major obstacle and resilience is required to prevent backsliding of progress, particularly in the arid and semi-arid areas of Kenya.

How to target the extreme poor? The variable distribution of extreme poverty across Kenya means that different strategies will be necessary. Nationally the proportion of extreme poor is estimated as 8.6% of the total population of Kenya (3.9m people). However, this figure masks enormous geographic variations in the distribution of extreme poverty across Kenya’s 47 counties. For instance, 15 counties account for 63% of the extreme poor population of Kenya. This includes counties in the arid north and some densely populated counties in Western Kenya. Without interventions to support livelihoods and resilience including the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP) in arid areas, and the NSNP, alongside support from other donor funded programmes, it is likely that the extreme poverty rates would be even higher. Furthermore, some counties such as Turkana, which has more than half of the population living in extreme poverty, require serious and mutually reinforcing strategic investments as part of an integrated economic and social development strategy.

While the growth of the NSNP is encouraging, particularly when set alongside donor funded programmes to improve livelihoods through market-forces, questions arise about how the NSNP and livelihoods programmes can interact better together to target the extreme poor. In particular, there is value in tailoring packages of support for economically active extreme poor households over a period of 2-3 years that can make the difference for durable reduction of poverty in one generation and allowing transfer to the next. These so called ‘graduation from poverty’ approaches are potentially one part of a set of proactive steps forward to eliminate extreme poverty.

A strategy to eliminate the deepest form of poverty in Kenya in ten years with ten priorities is set out below:

  • Leadership for a system-based ten-year approach: High level government commitment, and co-resourcing of a country-wide partnership over 10 years including a national framework, actions and mutual accountability to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030.
  • Target extreme poverty: The targeting of extremely poor households within government NSNP and donor programmes should be the norm; currently it is not. There needs to be integration of the extreme poor as a core category within market and private sector-based programmes that target absolute and extreme poverty.
  • Partner with county governments and stakeholders: Build awareness and understanding of the distribution and means to reduce extreme poverty at county level and steadily integrate into county-based social protection and economic planning initiatives. And critically, build on the counties’ own poverty focused initiatives and support the improvement and better targeting of these.
  • Crowd in new resources: Enable counties to develop a framework for attracting and leveraging resources that enables new donor, government, and social impact investment from African and global sources. This is already happening, but must grow significantly in scale to make a substantial impact on Kenya’s poverty figures.
  • Make available technical assistance: Provide a substantive mechanism to provide counties and other actors with technical assistance and do so as part of creating a collaborative ‘learning by doing’ culture.
  • Invest in improvisation and innovation in approaches for scalable solutions: Invest in different models in a diversity of counties that could provide evidence of context relevant means of how to eliminate extreme poverty and gauge their affordability/feasibility.
  • Role of business: Engage business in a concerted manner to partner with counties and development partners particularly where the burden of extreme poverty is very high. Businesses, or their off-shoot foundations, could provide funding and core economic investments and activities that can help with broad economic development, reduce poverty and meet business goals.
  • Create public and media consciousness of the scale / distribution of extreme poverty and actions to eliminate extreme poverty: Grow public consciousness on eliminating extreme poverty through an awareness campaign, engaging the media, civil society, MPs and Governors/County Administrations. Women and youth leaders could play a role highlighting the situation of extremely poor women and children and how they can be helped to move out of poverty without becoming dependent on humanitarian support or cash handouts. Development partners should build a dialogue on the issue at the highest level together and with political and technical leaders in the Government of Kenya.
  • Learning and measuring: Construct mechanisms for active and collective learning for stakeholders and adapt the approach based on what is learned in different counties and from other countries across Africa. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics can play a vital role in continuing to regularly assess the extent of extreme poverty in its measurement approaches to gauge progress towards Kenya’s Vision 2030 goal, and international commitments to reaching SDG 1.
  • Stability: Alongside these 9 areas above, macro-economic and political stability is a core underpinning dimension and not to be underestimated. However, by tackling extreme poverty and reducing inequality, the relationship with stability is mutually reinforcing.

Momentum is building among Kenya stakeholders on tackling extreme poverty and scaling up graduation approaches as one means to achieve this. All stakeholders are keen to reduce poverty. However, reducing and eliminating the deepest forms of (extreme) poverty in Kenya requires adjustments in how work is done within institutions and collectively. This starts with understanding where key stakeholders are now – while building new collective commitments together and trusting relationships that can last. There can be few better journeys to embark on together!