Has private sector become a Duke of inequality?

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Leonard Wanyama

Graham Hancock accused donor organisations, particularly those linked to official aid, and their beneficiaries, of scavenging on the plight of the poor in his book the Lords of Poverty (1989).

Within a context of large sums of donor money that have continued to grow since he published his book, the media, experts, consultants and free loaders of one kind or the other are said to have bought into fads around “new techniques”, “new directions” and “policy rethinks” that have done little to assuage the plight of the needy.

This has obviously been detrimental to the motivated and erstwhile efforts of many within various levels of action in attaining development.

Nonetheless private sector, particularly in Kenya, can be indicted for joining the bandwagon with its own special touch.

As the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have emerged, the private sector has risen to be the novel new element in the ability to tackle the greatest development challenges of our time.

Private sector has therefore been primarily encouraged, across the globe, to seek a greater role in development beyond financing and investment. This is captured in three pillars of inclusiveness, sustainability and partnerships.

Essentially these three points mean that first, business should seek to directly benefit poor and vulnerable communities, by considering them and the challenges they face in various contexts.

Secondly, companies have to increasingly place responsible practices at the centre of their activities and, lastly, cooperation has to be sought with other entities pursuing similar efforts for better alignment efforts in achieving the broader global agenda.

Yet it seems Kenya’s private sector has taken this opportunity as an occasion to privilege the status quo with little regard for the much-needed disruptive innovation that shakes up things and spreads prospects towards small business.

Industrialisation policy is privileged over innovation policy instead of making them work in tandem. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) flags how Kenyan domestic policies are hindering the country’s contribution to global innovation.

The Private Sector Development (PSD) mantra still seems stuck in improving conditions of present business rather than developing situations in which new and different forms of commerce will thrive.

Essentially most focus is towards business environment reforms, business development services, and value chain development.

Largely, this is as a result of policy that still prioritises Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) over local entrepreneurship. It seems there is an elitist bedazzlement that is captured in chasing many unfulfilled promises at the expense of local initiative and industry.
Access to finance is still a troublesome endeavour for any local to attain despite the many enterprise funds available.

The private sector therefore does not come out loudly enough for such issues surrounding the challenges of access to finance as it leaves it to political constituencies  like women and youth to make their demands on enterprise funds.

Nonetheless the most disheartening problem is the private sector’s involvement in corruption, professional misconduct and incompetence as witnessed in the challenges faced by companies such as Mumias Sugar, Kenya Airways and Uchumi.

This behaviour has seen them take up roles as shadowy informal actors subverting governance by facilitating a domestic “banditocracy” while being singularly intent on muscling out civil society from what they see as business in development.

Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and bidding for donor money under the guise of competing to capitalise on the development impact of grant finances made available is what seems to be the main concern of the business sector.

How, then, can such an entity convince the public of its ability to bridge the gap between the rich and poor?

PSD discussions on conflict affected areas say very little in terms of their roles in peace building. Local Economic Development (LED) seems to be rarely engaged in terms of programmes or projects outside conferencing of investment summits that are insistently international.

Dedication to green growth is cosmetic at best while a public discussion on Market Systems Development that makes markets work for the poor is long overdue. Yet these are the things that will bridge the gap between the haves and have not’s.

Environmental issues, health systems, water, hygiene and sanitation, education, stream lining of land markets and governance matters may need a more activist private sector instead of the backroom lobbying it is fond of.

Tackling these issues in the public interest will be a right step in pursuing SDGs. Otherwise if a more proactive and grounded approach to PSD is not taken by the business community, allow me to take this opportunity to introduce Duke Private Sector of Inequality.

Leonard Wanyama works with the Society for International Development and teaches International Relations at the Technical University of Kenya

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