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HomeFood Law and PoliticsThe (im)moral economy of accountability for hunger in Kenya

The (im)moral economy of accountability for hunger in Kenya

How do areas of the country continue to suffer repeated years of drought and chronic food shortages while failing to register on the political radar? Celestine Nyamu-Musembi and Patta Scott-Villiers make an argument for a weak Kenyan moral economy that has created a system in which Kenyans do not expect their government to provide for their Right to Food – and the government faces no accountability for its failures.

A combination of post-election violence, soaring global commodity prices and poor harvests in 2008 saw food prices triple in Kenya and millions across the country struggling to afford a nutritious diet. This, and a subsequent leap in food and fuel prices in 2011 sparked protests in the form of spectacular street demonstrations and disruption of national celebrations, as well as localised outcries in far-flung rural areas and urban informal settlements. The most visible and memorable of these events were the Unga Revolution protests, spearheaded by the popular social movement, Bunge la Mwananchi.

Drawing from our study of these protests and official responses to the price spikes, this article reflects on the moral economy and accountability for hunger in Kenya. We found that existing policy does not entail a commitment to institutionalise accountability for hunger and mitigate the impact of food price shocks on millions of Kenyans on low incomes. Rather, responses to hunger have tended to be short-term and tokenistic; at best blunder, at worst plunder.

Our conclusion is that the strong articulation of a Right to Food in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution Article 43 (1)(c) rests uneasily on a weak moral economy. A moral economy is a rationale for action or inaction by poor people, based on popular consensus as to traditional rights and customs at times of scarcity (Thompson,1971). What became clear during the food crises of 2008/9 and 2011 was that people on low incomes understood the moral economy in Kenya to mean that they should struggle almost entirely without state support for subsistence, even at a time of intense market turbulence and food shortage. ‘Resilience’ is the narrative.

Moral economies emerge and are renewed each time there is a subsistence crisis when state responsibilities and the rights of citizens are made clear in formal responses. These episodes leave an imprint in people’s hopes and expectations that can last for decades. Kenya’s contemporary moral economy was forged during the colonial famines of the early 20th century. One of the most severe was between 1943-45, when the rains failed in successive seasons even in the fertile western and central heartlands and people began to starve. Yet the colonial authorities gave priority to the British war effort, increasing efforts to conscript labourers and soldiers and raise taxes (Anderson & Throup, 1985; Maxon, 2000; Ochieng, 1988).

Maize production by large-scale farmers was supported, food export given priority and the migration of young men for paid work promoted. Only when women, children and older people left on the farms began to starve did relief operations begin. The food distributions were short-lived, minimal and brutal (Maxon, 2000). This and subsequent episodes seem to have laid down an unforgotten sense that the Kenyan state is most interested in safeguarding the interests and livelihoods of the rich and that pro-poor intervention is an afterthought.

Subsistence crises assign minimum institutional responsibilities and codify triggers to formal action. Failure to deliver on these basic responsibilities can prompt protest, riot and rock the stability of governments (Hossain et al., 2014). Though Kenya’s (im)moral economy was forged at a time of colonial rule, the pattern of weak responses to undernourishment has persisted. Kenyans on low incomes do not feel that they have a real right to not be hungry, despite the words of the 2010 Constitution. We consider here three reasons why Kenya’s moral economy does not reflect Kenya’s democratic evolution.

(i) The moral economy is subordinate to the political economy

“They cannot eat when we are not eating.”

“The price of maize meal and other essential commodities should be reduced to cushion the poor against the high cost of living.”

These moral economic assertions by people who had taken part in food protests is at odds with the political economy in the current era of free trade. It harks back to the pre- Structural Adjustment era (pre-1980s) of price controls on essential commodities, when minimum guarantees for state provision of education and health-care had nurtured a level of citizen expectation (Ndegwa, 1998). The 2011 tug-of-war over the enactment of the Price Control (Essential Goods) Act, made it clear that these expectations no longer have a basis. Industry opponents of price control legislation cited the danger of market distortion, and Kenya’s obligations under international and regional trade treaties (Musembi and Scott-Villiers, 2015).

Interrogation of Kenya’s commitment to a free market economy in the food and agriculture sectors finds contradictory state policies, however. For instance, the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) interferes in maize pricing through the Strategic Grain Reserve mechanism, but also through producer price-setting and production subsidies. These have been shown to benefit large-scale farmers through raising the price of maize by as much as 20% (Jayne, Myers, & Nyoro, 2008). A majority (70%) of Kenya’s maize farmers produce so little that they end up buying more than they sell, so higher producer prices are of no benefit to them. So why does this policy persist? The maize-surplus areas of Rift Valley and Western Kenya are vote-rich, so any suggestion of radical reform of the NCPB raises political temperatures. The intricate dovetailing of economic and political power in Kenya is nowhere more manifest than in the history of the food and agriculture sector (Leys, 1975). A post-colonial elite inherited the colonial practice of subsidising large-scale farmers. This privilege quickly congealed into entitlement, secured by political clout.

By contrast, far-flung rural areas such as Ikutha in eastern Kenya can be safely ignored, and repeated years of drought and chronic food shortage can fail to register on the political radar screen. Rumblings in urban slums like Mathare can be ‘waited out’, repressed, or appeased with hurriedly crafted relief programmes that do not need to last. It is no coincidence therefore that Kenya has an acclaimed system for famine early warning and response, on account of which it has all but eliminated famine-related deaths over the last two decades, but has no system for dealing with chronic hunger and malnutrition, in a country ranked fourth in Africa for rates of undernourishment (World Food Program, 2011).

(ii) Limited government accountability

Reflecting on citizenship in Africa, Halisi et al. (1998) refer to ‘dual citizenship consciousness,’ referring to tension between loyalty to one’s ethnic community and the ‘often hollow solidaristic rhetoric of the nation state’ (Halisi et al., 1998, p. 343). In the mind of government officials or politicians, it is not unsurprising to find, in place of obligations to citizens, the notion that the state can be plundered with impunity for the sake of ethno-political allegiance.

The dynamics that have shaped the governance context have not resulted in a consolidated political bargaining process between the state and all its citizens. While a constitution is conventionally understood to be the embodiment of such a bargain, constitutional rights play a marginal role at best in day-to-day interaction between citizens, representatives and officials. Informal rules and ethnic identities have eclipsed the formal system archived in the constitution (Berman, Cottrell, & Ghai, 2009).

In our study, we found that government responses in the 2008 and 2011 food crises were not prompted by obligation toward rights-wielding citizens. Mitigating action came almost a year late in 2009 and even then it was defined by blunder and plunder. The NCPB stores were inexplicably empty; there was no grain to release into the market to stabilize prices (Höffler & Ochieng, 2009). Between November 2008 and February 2009 an import duty waiver scheme was put in place to enable millers to obtain maize at below wholesale price, with the expectation that the subsidy would then be passed on to consumers, bringing down the price of maize meal. The scheme failed to affect high maize prices while costing taxpayers Ksh 23.4 billion [US $310 million] (Fengler & Kiringai, 2009). In a gesture of appeasement, there was a short-lived and elusive subsidised unga scheme in low-income areas of Nairobi between December 2008 and March 2009. In the 2011 spike, excise duties on kerosene and diesel were reduced, but the hefty fuel levy was left untouched.

Long-term state measures largely consist of social safety nets programmes, such as the Hunger Safety Nets Program and cash transfer programmes for orphaned and vulnerable children, those living with HIV/Aids, and the elderly. Recent expansion of the latter to a universal pension is laudable. However, donor funding accounts for 71% of relief and hunger safety net spending (Republic of Kenya 2012:vii-viii), which raises questions as to the Kenyan government’s own commitment to sustainability.

The politics of provisions in Kenya is far from consolidating into mutually understood expectations in the vertical relations between the state and citizens.

(iii) Thin horizontal solidarities

Solidarity across people on low incomes in Kenya is fragmented, first, on account of ethnic cleavages in political and civil society. This obscures unified analysis of policies and unified mobilisation of protest. Second, it is fragmented along rural-urban fault lines. There was no connection at all between the Nairobi-based unga protests and the isolated incidents of protest in rural areas such as Ikutha. Media penchant for capital-city theatrical protest with a partisan political slant has not helped forge common cause. By contrast, India’s national Right to Food movement can boast achievements such as a Supreme Court ruling on a Right to Food, and enactment of the Food Security Act, following 14 years of rural-urban and cross-class mobilisation (Sinha et al., 2014).

Mobilisation for rights in Kenya has an elite urban face, which deepens rather than transcends geographical and class cleavages. The origin of an explicit campaign for rights in Kenya is steeped in the fight for multi-party democracy in the 1990s, and therefore has a bias toward civil and political rights, led by elites who seem unable to relate to day-to-day struggles for basics such as food (Berman, Cottrell, & Ghai 2009; Kanyinga, 2004). Integrating social and economic rights has proven slow, as evidenced by the absence of prominent human rights organisations in the unga protests that were spearheaded by popular movements such as Bunge la Mwananchi. In addition to this, mobilisation and engagement with government on social and economic rights has been sporadic.


Kenya urgently needs a unified, broad-based national right-to-food movement that drives a sustained effort to build horizontal solidarity across class, gender, ethnicity and geography, to demand vertical accountability, claim media space and thereby change the political economy of hunger. Piecemeal efforts to eradicate predatory and corrupt practices in food markets and food aid are unlikely to succeed. Only a movement on such a scale in pursuit of food justice could surmount the obstacles posed by Kenya’s political economy and ethnically defined politics.


Celestine Nyamu-Musembi is a Kenyan lawyer with a background in legal anthropology. She obtained her LL. B from the University of Nairobi and her Masters and Doctoral degrees from Harvard Law School. She is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi School of Law and a former Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK. Her teaching and research interests include human rights and development concerns.

 Patta Scott-Villiers is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex where she convenes the Power and Popular Politics Cluster. She uses action research and ethnographic methods to ask how subaltern people and communities engage the mainstream of development and researches the popular politics of food among people on low incomes and of land in pastoralist societies in East Africa. She co-edited the book “Food Riots, Food Rights and the Politics of Provisions,” which includes a chapter on food protests in Kenya co-authored with Celestine Nyamu-Musembi.

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