The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by all United Nations Member States five years ago with the promise to “leave no one behind” in its aspiration to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that everyone enjoys peace and prosperity by 2030. With the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the global economy and on people’s lives and livelihoods, world leaders try to rally the people behind a call to “recover better, together” with the SDGs and Paris Climate Agreement as guideposts. What does this really mean? Is multilateralism finally going to deliver on real alternatives advocated by the grassroots and community organizations?
Tetet Lauron spoke with Leonida Odongo, a Kenyan social justice enthusiast with a passion for working with smallholder farmers, women, university students, and communities negatively affected by climate change. Leonida is co-founder of Haki Nawiri Afrika, an initiative advancing social justice and building connections among communities in Kenya, Africa and beyond.
TL: How are you doing? How is the pandemic affecting you and the work that you do?
LO: I’m fine at the moment, but with a lot of anxiety. The coronavirus has changed the way I carry out my community engagements. Due to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s directive to restrict movement to contain transmission, it is impossible to go to other counties and hold dialogues with communities. The dusk-to-dawn curfew means that in case I have to leave home I have to be back before the curfew starts, otherwise I will get arrested and put under quarantine or get beaten by the police.
It also means I have to adapt to new ways of doing things, utilizing technology because of restricted movement and the outlawing of public gatherings. I now engage in social justice-related dialogues either though webinars or Facebook, and we have to navigate our way around many challenges, including frequent power outages and unstable internet connections. I have been organizing online education sessions for different groups, the most recent of which was an e-discussion on the topic: “Food Justice: Navigating the New Normal” with activists from Tunisia, Lebanon, and Nigeria interacting with students from Kenya and Uganda. The situation has also given me an opportunity to reflect more on social justice issues I work on, as well as the time to write articles and contribute to different online platforms.
How is the situation in your community? What can you say about the COVID-19 response measures?
The Kenyan government’s response has been multifaceted—from a cessation of movement directive, to quarantine in designated places, self-quarantine, closure of markets, fumigation of market places, calls for voluntary resting of the citizenry, and introduction of supplemental and new regulations
There has also been a lockdown in areas reporting high cases of infection such as in Eastleigh in Nairobi and Old Town in Mombasa. Eastleigh is a business hub in Nairobi. This meant that businesses came to a standstill, and there were reported cases of mass exodus by residents to beat the lockdowns, because people were not allowed to get in and out of these places. The lockdown in Eastleigh was first lifted on 6 June.
When the initial cases were being identified in the country, citizens were being taken by government officials to quarantine at their own cost. Some Kenyans coming into the country from abroad were taken directly from the airport to the quarantine sites and asked to pay for the costs incurred during quarantine out of their own pockets. The inability to pay resulted in some people escaping from these quarantine facilities.
There have been some food donations to communities living in informal settlements, but there were accusations of unfairness and violence committed by the local authorities in some of these areas. The police response to people suspected of breaching COVID-related rules has been brutal. Increasingly, many Kenyans pay the high price of police brutality masked as a virus response measure.
The private sector channels donations to the Kenya COVID-19 Fund, and some companies directly providing masks and food to low-income communities. Grassroots organizations have also mobilized to provide food, hand washing points, soap and masks to informal settlers.
What are your thoughts on the view that the coronavirus is an “equalizer” that affects everyone, no matter where they are, no matter what their status in life is?
To view the pandemic as an equalizer simply because the virus affects everyone is narrow. For rich Kenyans who are not affected by job closures and still have savings and disposable incomes, COVID-19 has disrupted their lives and lifestyles. But for the millions who live in informal settlements and other pockets of poverty, the situation spells utter destruction in their lives.
From Kibra, Mathare, Kawangware and other informal settlements, Kenyans work very hard to make a living in the informal sector as shoe shiners, roadside vendors, cart pushers, and other odd jobs. Now that many of them have lost their jobs, they spend time in the house staring at each other and stressing about how and where to get the next meal. This is a recipe for gender-based violence in the household because there is no money at home, and no means of getting money to sustain the family.
Farmers have been gravely affected with the restrictions on movement since they depend on the distribution of their produce from rural areas to urban areas as a source of livelihood. The closure of markets means that farmers who were taking farm produce to the markets cannot sell their produce, and they incur huge losses because the bulk of farm produce is highly perishable. In some rural parts of Kenya, farmers have stopped tilling land following the government’s “stay at home” directive. Since some farmers work on lands outside their villages, they face a very uncertain future with the very real prospect of not having any harvest because they are unable to travel to do their usual work.
Many communities living in border areas have also been severely affected. Communities living in on the borders of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are going hungry because they can barely afford the high cost of food that resulted from border closures.
Many rural communities depend on remittances from family members working in the cities and towns. Business closures, lockdowns, and movement cessation have made rural families very insecure, as the sons and daughters who were once working in the cities can no longer provide the financial support needed by the rural-based family members.
You have engaged extensively with the UN’s 2030 Agenda. How do you think the pandemic crisis will affect the SDGs?
The coronavirus has turned the world upside down, and its impacts are being felt more by the poor. For people living in poverty, it means sinking deeper into poverty because of job losses and other livelihood opportunities. It also means more hunger because Kenya is experiencing the coronavirus in the midst of desert locust infestation, mudslides, and severe floods. The heavy rains have not only led to destruction of food crops but also left death in their wake and the destruction of other infrastructure such as roads and bridges that link up communities’ goods and services including food.
COVID-19 has exposed the appalling state of the health system in many countries across Africa. There are not enough hospitals, equipment, protective gear, personnel, and other life-saving resources to handle a pandemic of such magnitude. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), viral protection guidelines ought to include sanitizing or washing hands with soap, staying at home, and maintaining physical distancing. But it is impossible to maintain a safe distance in an informal settlement, and it is also difficult to wash hands in a situation where taps do not have water and have been running dry for several months, if not years. This is the scenario many in Kenya’s informal settlements find themselves in. Water, an important liquid in tackling COVID-19, is a mirage for many people especially those living in pockets of poverty. How do you wash hands when you do not have water?
The SDGs are fit to meet the challenge of the coronavirus only if there is the political will to achieve them and there is real accountability to the citizens. COVID-19 has ravaged families, deepened poverty and inequality, and led to deaths. To get out of the situation, governments have to act fast to remedy the existing gaps in food systems, health care systems, and distribution systems.
How do you think can the world “recover better, together”?
In my view, the pandemic is a wakeup call that the world has to shift from business as usual to “business unusual”. The virus is causing a lot of damage socially and economically almost everywhere in the world. But it has also provided opportunities to do things better, by reawakening creativity and innovativeness.
In Kenya, many people are using their sewing machines to make their own masks—no need for imports, university students have developed ventilators, a nine-year-old boy has developed a hand-washing machine as his contribution towards fighting the virus. Grassroots women are coming together and organizing support to vulnerable groups. If the pandemic never happened, this creativity and innovativeness may have never been realized.
The other positive thing coming into being is that the pandemic has reminded and reinforced to African politicians that they have to improve the national health care systems. They are realizing that home solutions are important since they will not be able to fly out to hospitals in other countries when they get sick, because countries are locking down their borders. The virus has also meant that governments should do better in how they treat the health care sector—both in terms of staff as well as provisioning of medical equipment and supplies. The health budget in many countries is low compared to the defence budget—even though the country is not at war nor anticipating a war.
The coronavirus has also underscored that the most important elements are food and health. You can stop going to school and stop going to work but you cannot stop eating. This has highlighted the need to invest in natural food systems, and not in industrial systems responsible for the destruction of biodiversity and contribute to emergence of novel viruses.
In my view, agroecology is an appropriate form of nature-based solution that the world needs right now, because it responds to both the food and climate crises. It is a form of agriculture that applies ecological principles and concepts in the design and management of agriculture. It is based on multiple sources of production, diversifying crops and livestock production across spaces and over time. It integrates the landscape and biodiversity, making agriculture multifunctional, maximizing biodiversity, integrating species and the building of healthy agro-systems and secure livelihoods. Agroecology further ensures synergies are built between crops, livestock, and landscape. With agroecology, human beings are invited to embrace and understand the complexity of nature. Agroecology promotes biodiversity, enhance indigenous seeds that are climate-resilient, and does not support the use of chemical fertilizers but adopts regenerative practices such as biological pest control.
I also feel that agroecology is a form of just transition from a profit-driven industrial food system to one that embraces nature and places humanity at the centre of production. With agroecology, the emphasis is on building interconnectedness between communities. Agroecology helps build for the better because it is a science, a movement, and a practice and one can never go wrong when they respect nature and biodiversity. And that is one way we can all “rebuild better, together”.