The G8 can’t get 50 million Africans out of poverty…only we can do that

“Today we commit to launch a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition to accelerate the flow of private capital to African agriculture, take to scale new technologies and other innovations that can increase sustainable agricultural productivity, and reduce the risk borne by vulnerable economies and communities. This New Alliance will lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next decade,” the G-8 said in a statement on Saturday.

 Bullshit.

I’ve learnt to take ANYTHING coming out of a G-8 summit with a huge dollop of salt. Remember the 2005 G-8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland? The United States, Canada, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Russia promised us, Africans, to provide an extra $25bn a year for Africa as part of a $50bn increase in financial assistance by 2010. Well, unsurprisingly, the extra $25 billion hasn’t been realised and neither has the additional $50 billion.

Honestly, I am not surprised by the huge shortfalls. It’s been a rough couple of years for the G-8  with the American economy floundering and the European Union in the gripes of crisis, and with this new declaration these nations are finally coming to terms with the fact that they actually can’t do much about African poverty. If you look at the wording of the above statement, you will see that the ‘New Alliance’ (whatever that is) will ‘accelerate the flow of private capital’ into the African agricultural sector. In less flowery language, the G-8 is promising to simply point their private companies towards Africa’s shores and say “GO”! To this I say, if these private companies haven’t jumped on the Africa bandwagon I doubt that this Alliance will make them do so. The ones that want to be here are already here.    

I was amused by the invitation the leaders of Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania received to attend the G-8 meeting on food security. Not because I have a problem with the G-8’s overall choice of invitees, but rather because I disagree with the premise of the invitations. Africa isn’t a single country, despite what a lot of people in the West think, and the issues that these four nations face in order to ensure food security aren’t necessarily the ones the rest of the fifty states grapple with.

Honestly, in my basic knowledge of food security, I don’t think that lack of Western agricultural investment is the reason that our children either die of hunger or suffer stunted growth. The issues are closer to home and immune to a magical ‘silver bullet’ from the West.

First of all, let’s acknowledge that each and every country has its own challenges. For example, while Rwanda has had to deal with horrible topography (for agriculture at least, not, say, tourism), exhausted soils and a population density second to none in Africa, you cannot tell me that Nigeria faces the same issue. Rwanda has had to look at local solutions and they have worked.  Rwanda has been food secure for years now and what is particularly impressive is that that happened while all around us, mayhem prevailed.

So, what is the lesson that Rwanda can share with the rest of the continent? The lesson is that the solutions for problems must come from within, not without. One doesn’t need a huge surge of dollars to feed the mouths of our children. All you need is some stability, focus, the involvement of the entire citizenry and basic scientific knowhow. I know that putting these factors in play is easier said than done, but we don’t have much choice. Our salvation won’t come from Washington DC; it will come from Blantyre, Libreville, N’Djamena and Ouagadougou. And Kigali, of course. 

Ignored a traffic light today? You are on the road to criminality

Driving home from Nyarutarama, I stopped at the street lights at Gishushu as they turned red. While almost every car did the same, a moto-taxi with a passenger idling next to me suddenly accelerated, crossing the road. While I have become somewhat immune to the antics of our Kigali taxi motos (otherwise known as the ‘two-wheel flying coffins’), what shocked me was the fact that the moto did this without fearing the consequences. Not consequences like possible death or anything like that, but rather the presence of neon-jacketed traffic policemen standing right across the street. You would think that the fellow would have been scared of being arrested and being fined within an inch of his life but no. And honestly, he isnt the only one pretending to be colour blind.

The Kimihurura junction is probably the worst one to drive through if you are law abiding citizen. I don’t know whether it’s because the junction is next to certain ministries and offices that are full of ‘important’ people doing ‘important’ things, but if you don’t keep your full wits about you, you might get blindsided by a swanky Prado, driven by an impatient driver. I’ve heard many people say that Rwandans are horrible drivers, a sentiment that I’m not really able to argue against, but we aren’t talking about complicated rules and road manoeuvres. This is simply a matter of knowing that when a light turns red, you cannot keep driving because someone else has right of way.  Kigali City Council even made it easy for the simplest simpleton by installing lights that have a countdown. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to work.

So, we have some shameless people driving around and that isnt a surprise. What bothers me is just how uninterested our traffic police seem. What is the use of standing on intersections in crisply iron uniforms if they can’t even deter errant drivers?  How hard is it to flag down the car and, at least warn the driver? Honestly, the only time I’ve seen people respect the neon jacketed policemen and women is on weekend nights when they put spikes across the street and arrest drunk drivers.

I think that it is time that traffic cops stopped just standing around and started doing their jobs, keeping us safe from the crazies on our streets. But that doesn’t take away from our own responsibilities as road users.

Which brings me to the point of this rant. I’ve come to the realisation that a lot of us live on the wrong side of the moral line. And it isnt simply about driving whenever we choose, regardless of the stoplight’s colour. This is about doing what is right, regardless to whether someone is watching us, simply because we should.

How many times have you seen a government official promise to do something only after the President has waded in? Must His Excellency get involved before something gets done? I should think not. And I wonder, if the President didn’t censure corruption so harshly would Transparency International cite us so positively? Right is right and wrong is wrong and it all starts with the small things. I can bet that the fellow ignoring the red light will also be the same person caught with their hand in the till. Forget just how dangerous it is, but what example are you setting to the children in the back seat of your car? Are you teaching them that, as long as no one can stop or see you, doing something wrong is okay?

Let me reiterate, we NEED a minimum wage law

Last week, writing in these very pages, and in the spirit of Labour Day, I put forward my belief that we needed a minimum wage (‘It is time for a FAIR minimum wage law’). I didn’t think that it was one of my brighter (and and most revolutionary) ideas because I think it is a common sense proposition. Especially when our own Labour Code , passed in 2011, gives some guidance in the this, stating in Article 83 that ‘the interprofessional minimum wage is determined by a Decree issued by the Minister having Labour in his/her attributions after consultation with the employees and employers associations’.  If that article isnt a nudge for some sort of minimum wage, I don’t know what is.

However, in response to the article, two friends of mine, men who I believe are quite intelligent, chose to disagree. Which is quite alright. I would like to take the opportunity to share with you their reason for disagreement with me, and then put forward my response to them.

The first gentleman wrote, “ the minimum wage is a very risky proposition and should not be argued in the abstract. My position is that a minimum wage is also likely to hurt the very people it aims to protect. There are more effective and more efficient ways to distribute and allocate assistance to those in need. Minimum wage legislation acts as a tax on employment. Forcing an employer to pay more than the market rate for labour has the same effect on employer behaviour as a tax on every worker hired. Small businesses often work on thin margins and encounter difficulty during an economic downturn. What happens if their labour costs go up”?

He makes very pertinent points. He talks about “abstracts”, but let us talk about REAL people and not economic theory. Is it fair that someone who works all day, every day, earns less than fifty dollars? Well, the vast majority of househelp does no matter how wealthy their employers are. What I’m calling for isnt assistance, what I’m calling for is a fair wage for a decent day’s work. ‘Tax’ isnt a bad word and the market isnt the only thing that should determine what a proper wage is. This is simply because the market is driven by cold, hard capitalism driven by profit. If the market had its way, we would all live from hand to mouth.  Two eminent economists, David Card and Alan Krueger state in their 1995 book ‘Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage’ that the negative employment effects of minimum wage laws are minimal if not non-existent. Findings that Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz agree with.

Plus, I believe that better wages improves performance and worker morale. An unhappy worker will go through the motions because, truth be told, its not as if they have that much to lose anyway. Give them real incentives and you will see amazing improvements in output. And at least your househelp will stop stealing your food and selling it.

 

Increased wages often mean improved levels of saving and investment and instead of living from hand to mouth; even the poorest of the poor will be able to get ahead in life.  Which brings me to my second detractor and friend.

“ Fair minimum wage sounds great in theory but it does have an inflationary impact. At one point 100F was a reasonable amount, now that can’t even get you a one-way ride on a twegerane (taxi). The trick is to drive down the cost of living so that the 30,000 you pay her (my househelp) is able to pay for more and more each month.”

Well, isnt it sad that a genocidal government that will live in infamy had a minimum wage, while one that prides itself on progress and development, doesn’t? I can’t, for the life of me, see how the cost of living will decrease so much that fifty dollars is sufficient to live on. Plus, as long as we are net importers, and the cost of barrel of oil continues to increase (which it will), things will remain expensive.

One of my friends, commenting on last week’s article, lives in Washington DC. Well, according to US Federal law, DC worker MUST be paid not less than $7.25 an hour. I’m not going to throw a figure around, but, as the law states, its time CESTRAR (the national union of workers) to sit down with the employers union and hash out some sort of agreement on a national wage.

It is time for a FAIR minimum wage law

Everyone loves a public holiday and I’m no different. I mean, who doesn’t want a reason NOT to go to work? Call me lazy, but as you do so remember the old English adage, ‘don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house”. Labour Day is a bit different for me though. It isnt enough for me to loll in bed all day, waking up just to eat. I take some time out of my day to talk to the one person I employ, my househelp. Yesterday I asked her what the biggest issues the average worker had. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what she said. “Wages”.

Mind you, before you lynch me, I believe that I am a good employer and pay decent wages. Especially when one considers what the going rate for domestic service is.  But I think that in itself is the problem. Domestic workers on average receive about fifteen thousand francs a month. Fifteen. That is about the price of a bottle of good wine. And mind you, these men and women often work from dawn to dusk. I’ve asked colleagues at work what they pay their domestic workers, and I’m still to be bested when it comes to wages. I’m not blowing my own trumpet because, truth be told, I still feel quite sheepish whenever I hand over the money. I mean, how can someone possibly live on thirty thousand francs? That is what I call simple pocket money. But somehow she pays rent and utilities, buys food and airtime. All the while raising a young son.  That is a miracle on par with turning water into win.

Why don’t I pay her more? Because I’m human and therefore inherently selfish, no matter what I tell myself. Enter the State. It is only the state that can act as a civilising factor. So, let’s look at what the Rwandan state says about wages; luckily for us the state sentiments are hidden in plain sight, in the Labour Code.

The present Code, which was passed by Parliament last year,  states in Article 83 that ‘the interprofessional minimum wage is determined by a Decree issued by the Minister having Labour in his/her attributions after consultation with the employees and employers associations’. Guess what? This ministerial decree is still pending and therefore our minimum wage laws are still the ones that were used in Juvenal Habyarimana’s administration. Do you know what the minimum wage was then for someone older than nineteen years of age? One hundred francs a DAY. Sure things might have improved but, according to doingbusiness.org (an International Finance Corporation and World Bank online resource), the minimum monthly wage is $18.5 dollars. That’s absolutely peanuts and we should all be ashamed of this.

We cannot create an equitable society if we don’t protect the very weakest. A proper minimum wage, that factors in inflation and cost of living, will allow everyone to live some semblance of the Rwandan dream. Sure, someone living on minimum wage will not afford to do all their shopping in Nakumatt but then, who can? A fair minimum wage will allow even the poorest to live in some dignity. It doesn’t make sense that someone who earns wages above half a million francs a month then goes home and pays their househelp a wage they cannot live on.  How do you expect our lowliest workers to save a little money and improve their lots in life? It is cruel fact that some Rwandans are simply cursed to spend their days in some form of poverty. But this fact can and SHOULD change. Mr. Minister, sign into law a minimum wage decree that doesn’t make poverty a yoke that cannot be extricated. Fair wages for an honest day’s work I say.