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December 11, 2018

Drought in Kenya: A failure of both men and of systems


Every year like clockwork, temperatures in the northern and southern hemisphere are at their lowest in the months of December to February and June to August, respectively. This season is called winter.

Despite the extreme cold, life goes on. Children go to school, adults go to work, business continue operating and the government continues running.

The reason life continues uninterrupted is because people are not caught unaware by this change of season. They ensure they stock up on appropriate clothing, alternative heating and lighting, and foodstuffs.

To ensure mobility, they ensure they have products to melt ice on their walkways, and sand to improve traction. Preparing in advance helps them to tackle the winter weather before it even begins.

Animals too prepare in advance for winter. This process is called hibernation, derived from the Latin word hibernare. It means “to pass the winter” when food supplies are limited.

Animals prepare by feeding heavily during the few months when food is plentiful. This builds up fat in their bodies. During winter, the animals go to sleep and live off their fat reserves.

And this miraculous preparation and survival coping strategies all happens without the intervention of any National Winter Management Authority.

Similarly, Kenya has experienced drought roughly every three years for the last three decades (Institute of Security Studies). Unlike the northern hemisphere, Kenya has a National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), whose mandate is to ‘establish mechanisms which ensure that drought does not result in emergencies and that the impacts of climate change are sufficiently mitigated.’

Every month, this agency collects early warning data on counties at risk of drought. This data includes the early warning classification phase (normal, alert, alarm, emergency, worsening or recovery) vegetation condition index, livestock and crops market prices, livestock yields, water source and grazing distances.

So if all this data is available, why do we perennially have a drought emergency every three years? I’ll tell you why.

The problem is the impossibility of central planning. Central planners lack the dispersed knowledge necessary to develop systems that have the capability to react quickly to change and that promote innovation.

A lack of dispersed knowledge creates asymmetry of information. Central planners cannot know nor can they experience the true wants or needs, and the social context in which people make individual and collective choices. In this regard, central planners act as The Man of System.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments educates us on “The Man of System”. A. Smith was describing a central planner whose actions and intentions are prompted by humanity and benevolence.

However, this Man is unfortunately wise in his own conceit. He goes ahead to design a beautiful blueprint for all of society. He is so enamored by the supposed beauty of his plan that he will not deviate from any part of it.

He imposes his plan on others. He even imagines that he can move human beings on this plan as if they were chess pieces on a chess board.

He assumes that they cannot freely move on their own volition. The unfortunate result is disorder because His will and that of the independent human beings are not in sync.

The government entities responsible for dealing with drought act as The Man of System. Every drought season, they dispatch tons of cereals and oils, arrange for destocking of livestock, rehabilitate or construct boreholes, distill water pans, ban export of maize and appeal for additional funding to respond to the drought.

The donation of cereals and oils to hungry people in far flung countries, though a noble and benevolent gesture, births new problems. One is that the prospects of food donations reduces productivity by decreasing labor mobility.

This is because donations confine the beneficiaries to the drought prone areas because this is the only way they would receive the relief items.

They wait for long hours under the scorching sun to receive the food rations. Collectively, these are many man hours lost, not to mention the indignity of waiting for handouts.

Secondly, most of the countries are in far flung areas with a poor road network. This raises the transaction costs.

Thirdly, is the lack of fuel (charcoal or firewood), with which to cook the cereals. Observations have been made that many beneficiaries opt to feed the remaining emaciated livestock with the donated cereals.

Acting as The Man of System, these agencies disregard that those Kenyans stricken by drought have their own preferences and their own view of good life.

Is it no wonder then that some of the beneficiaries sell the donated foodstuff and relief items to procure what they actually need? Is this an indication that the beneficiaries prefer to have cash rather than foodstuffs and other relief items?

As a rational individual, you spread your risks. You do not wait for government assistance. You bank some of your money, keep some under the mattress, invest some in real estate or in agriculture.

Could we also motivate these affected communities to spread their risk, rather than investing all their assets on four hoofs? For instance, during good times, they could sell some of their healthy animals and invest the proceeds with investment bankers, who would in turn trade on their behalf to generate revenue.

During lean times, these communities would then draw shares that would enable them to buy necessities from closer sources. They would have the independence of choice and at their own pace, restore their dignity and free their movement.

The moral of this is that drought should not be a government problem to solve. It ought to be an individual’s responsibility to adequately prepare to ‘pass the drought’.

I urge us to observe what Cicero, called the divine maxim of Plato. ‘Do not use violence to your country no more than to your parents.’

In the same regard, do not centrally plan Band-Aid drought interventions to drought stricken Kenyans no more than you would to your parents.


The writer is a Political Economist

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