“There is a Lot of Pressure on Me. It’s Like the Distance Between Heaven and Earth” – Landscapes of Debt, Poverty-in-People and Social Atomization in Covid-19 Nairobi

Photo: Jack Omondi Misiga

By Mario Schmidt, Eric Kioko, Evelyn Atieno Owino and Christiane Stephan

Everyday economic life in Nairobi has been transformed following the COVID-19 containment measures installed by the Kenyan government. In the immediate aftermath of Kenya’s first case reported on 13th March 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta shut down air travel, introduced a nationwide curfew for the night hours, introduced a mask requirement, reduced passenger numbers in public transport, closed schools and institutions of higher learning and restricted social gathering. These measures set in motion transformations that span across various networks and scales of the urban. In order to analyze the effects of Kenya’s political elite’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic on urban households, we have teamed up with five Kenyan colleagues who conducted over two hundred qualitative interviews in different locales of Nairobi and Nakuru. In Nairobi, our assistants, who made sure that measures of COVID-19 containment and personal safety were respected, worked in the informal settlement Kibera, the low-income tenement settlement Pipeline (Embakasi), and Kileleshwa, home to richer Nairobians and expats. Our research assistants interviewed Nairobians from the age of twenty to over eighty years. Among the respondents were migrants and people born in Nairobi, casual, unemployed and laid-off workers, maids, housewives, Uber drivers, white collar workers, shop owners, club bouncers, artists, daycare owners, tailors who found a new job producing face masks, waiters, chefs as well as people employed by NGOs. 

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Blog Series: Pressure in the City

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The Covid-19 pandemic and the restructuring of the global economy it has triggered have exacerbated the need to study a topic that has flown under the radar of social scientists for too long: individuals and social groups experiencing economic pressure which manifests in myriad of somatic and psychological ways. The fallout from pressure — sleeplessness, ulcers, an atmosphere of hopelessness and social mistrust, gambling, suicides, as well as a growing concern about a lack of mental health facilities in cities of the Global South — now pervades urban as well as rural environments around the world. This blog series aims at taking a fresh look at the phenomenon of economic pressure through a decisively comparative and interdisciplinary approach. We will critically interrogate the role of economic pressure in the lives of both the rich and the poor, the unemployed and the workforce, across class and continents in order to answer, among others, the following questions:

  • What meanings does economic pressure take on as it travels between different contexts?
  • How do city dwellers of diverse class, religious and gender backgrounds experience pressure in their professional and private lives? How do they accommodate, negotiate and deflect pressure?
  • Does economic pressure offer new analytical possibilities vis-à-vis other concepts used to describe similar phenomena (e.g. poverty, uncertainty, precarity etc.)?
  • What is the relation between individually perceived economic pressure and structural changes of the economy or polity?
  • What moral valuations do urban residents assign to economic pressure? What logics underpin ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of pressure?
  • How can inter-disciplinary methodological and/or theoretical approaches deepen our understanding of economic pressure —the forms it assumes, the actions it motivates and the effects it generates?

We welcome contributions from a wide range of scientific disciplines (political economy, anthropology, economics, sociology, development studies, gender studies, international relations, geography, etc.) as well as other professions (such as practicing psychologists, counselors, activists, bankers, sports professionals etc.). As the blog’s organizers are all Africanists, the blog will, however, have an initial focus on sub-Saharan and, especially, Eastern Africa. We are confident that this will be balanced over time.

Blog series editors:

Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, and Senior Research Associate, Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg. j.wiegratz@leeds.ac.uk.

Catherine Dolan is Reader in Anthropology at SOAS, University of London. cd17@soas.ac.uk

Wangui Kimari is a Postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. kuikimari@gmail.com

Mario Schmidt is Postdoctoral researcher at Collaborative Research Centre “Future Rural Africa” and a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities, University of Cologne. marioatschmidt@gmail.com

Photo by cheng feng on Unsplash

Urban Africa under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities

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By Jörg WiegratzCatherine Dolan, Wangui Kimari and Mario Schmidt

Research on economic pressure in Africa has been approached from diverse vantage points.  While economists frame ‘pressure’ as a consequence of market failures, or as a by-product of macro-economic measures such as structural adjustment reforms or technological and political change, anthropologists who zoom in on the economic pressures individuals face in their everyday lives, i.e. the lived experiences of those who are ‘under pressure’ have focused more on topics such as uncertainty and precarity. Alternatively, economic psychologists tend to naturalise pressure as an individual response to an adverse financial situation, eclipsing the varied ways pressure is intertwined with and shaped by broader societal transformations, power structures, social relations and obligations, and webs of exchange. There are currently no studies we are aware of that focus on the multi-faceted societal constitution of economic pressure in capitalist Africa, or that compare how pressure is experienced across gender, generation or socioeconomic groups.

How do we study pressure?

Our review of existing literature on economic pressure has identified two main gaps. On the one hand, most ethnographic studies focus on a particular group/community (e.g. female gig workers, urban poor, farmers, security guards, an extended family or even a few individuals). How the experiences and drivers of pressure differ across groups according to class, income, gender, geography, profession etc., is largely absent from the literature. On the other hand, studies tend to frame pressure in the context of one specific driver (e.g. agrarian change, consumer credit, financial inclusion, changes in the structure of work, unemployment, supply chain dynamics, etc.), often in a broader context of neoliberalism, commercialisation, and globalisation.

Our blog series aims to address these gaps by exploring economic pressure in a more situational and practice-oriented way, in which pressure is understood as an affect produced in and through specific geographies, temporalities, and social and economic relations. This allows us to apprehend how specific geographies such as neighbourhoods, estates, markets or cities are pressure inducing or “under pressure”. We frame economic pressure as a multi-causal and highly localized phenomenon shaped by broader geographic, social, cultural, economic and political environments, while, at the same time, acknowledging the value of a comparative approach that captures the experience of pressure across social and economic classes.

Correspondingly, our intervention – in this blog series and beyond – aims to critically engage with and counter two main positions in the literature and policy debates. First, we argue that as a social experience, economic pressure and stress are not confined to the urban poor. By widening the categories of actors (e.g. ultra-poor, poor, middle-class, rich and super rich), our analysis and debate expands the portrayal of pressure as an experience that solely affects the poor; whether it be the “hustler” striving to make ends meet on the streets of Nairobi or families using food banks in Johannesburg. Understanding the cross-class characteristics of pressure is key to understanding how it has become an ubiquitous phenomenon constitutive of capitalist society and everyday life.

Second, we question the assumptions regarding the power of individual action and choice prevalent among psychologists, behavioural economists and other social scientists working on the productive potential of hope, aspirations and self-efficacy (e.g. the work of behavioural economists such as Johannes Haushofer as well as anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai). Instead, we take the position that economic pressure is produced through the intersection of overarching ideologies, economic structures, social webs of exchange, and the dynamics of capitalism that shape the lives of all classes in the urban population. Based on our review of existing literature and preliminary qualitative interviews conducted in Nairobi, we suggest that economic pressure is an emotional state engendered by a cognitive assessment of a real/imagined disbalance between real/imagined economic demands and the real/imagined ability to fulfil them. Crucially, the existence of economic pressure does not necessarily entail an actual disparity between demands and abilities; rather, it is a (inter)subjective experience produced by changes in an actor’s social and material environment that suggests to him or her that such a disbalance exists and is relevant, significant and urgent. Hence, we do not conceptualise economic pressure as a quantitatively measurable individual feeling, but as an affect whose constitution, magnitude and presence are a function of atmospheric changes in one’s environment. Economic pressure is thus better grasped by local idioms such as piny pek (Dholuo, “the world weighs heavy”) or ngori (Sheng, “trouble”) than through a set of objective criteria.

Where do we study pressure?

Our focus is the capitalist and especially neoliberal city. The effects of neoliberal restructuring and regimes of accumulation have been particularly inimical in African cities, which face ever deepening informalisation, inequality, insecurity, economic uncertainty and attendant excessive policing, yet continue to pulsate with the promise of possibilities. African cities are particularly fertile sites in which to examine pressure as they are agglomerations of rapid and often turbulent social, cultural and economic change triggered by late capitalism, and are home to a range of interconnected actors who experience and manage, as well as co-produce and co-intensify, pressure across class and other divides. City dwellers also experience a constellation of conditions that are distinct from their rural counterparts: they have more business opportunities and risks; face a range of infrastructural constraints, from rising housing and transport expenses to a shortage of affordable housing, water and sanitation; experience high levels of poverty, widespread under-/un-employment, and intense competition for jobs with concomitant downward pressure on wages in the context of increasing rural urban migration; are more vulnerable to urban criminals or state agents (police etc.) that rob them of their earnings or assets, and their financial demands are not fixed, but ever-changing, often with an accelerated speed, and abetted by mobile technology, the self-help industry, and loan apps that encourage financial action. In addition, urban residents are more plugged into the circuits of global capitalist culture (technological connections, media, music, wealth, digital work, etc.) and the latter’s imaginaries of prosperity contribute to the trend of restless and calculative agency.

This complex and shifting landscape of ‘pressure in the city’ demands an inter-disciplinary approach to apprehend how economic demands, obligations and constraints interweave with the social worlds and life experiences of city dwellers. This includes, on the one hand, examining the inter-relationship between available income (and saleable assets more widely) and the necessary and desired demands that actors (and their families, kin, and social networks) face. This income-demands gap (as distinguished from the income-expenditure gap) is a key catalyst of ‘pressure’. On the other hand, this requires tracking pressure across noneconomic registers – financial, cultural, social, psychological – and gaining a comprehensive picture of how these registers relate. For example, while pressure is associated with a number of common somatic symptoms such as sleeplessness, ulcers, lack of energy, depression, over-activity and burn-out, it may also create the conditions that prompt an array of actions such as gender-based violence, concealing or switching phones to avoid being observed or contacted, gambling and drinking, which can induce new psychological, financial and social pressures. Attaining a full picture of pressure — its drivers, symptoms and consequences — thus necessitates an inter-disciplinary and multi-methodological approach.

“One illness away from poverty”: Economic pressures and uncertainty in Nairobi

In the context of the pandemic, Nairobi continues to be a city of disparities. Against the looming local and global slow-down that the Covid-19 crisis has provoked, a recent poll shows that vast sections of the Kenyan population are now unable to pay for utilities (67%), rent, or medicine, can no longer remit money to dependants (79%), have defaulted on loans repayment (75%), and had to turn to food donations. Significantly, 81% of those surveyed are anxious and stressed, while 52% felt helpless and 33% angry. Indeed, the conditions urban residents face are stressful. With the large tracts of the promised Covid-19 stimulus package monies unaccounted for and seemingly never expended, the inconsistent food donations in poor communities tapering, and one million jobs lost in three months, daily life is now even more difficult to plan. But these pressures build on dynamics that existed before the pandemic. In February 2020, before the government implemented a lockdown, census data documented that 39% of youth (between the ages of 18-35) were unemployed. Likewise, over half of those employed in 2018 earned less than 10,000 Kenya shillings a month [less than $100], which is barely enough to cover basic necessities such as food, transport, housing and clothing. With privatization and the high cost of basic services such as rent, healthcare, water and, in many poor neighbourhoods, even sanitation facilities, meeting one’s every day needs is a significant financial strain. Even the middle-class are only “one illness away from poverty” due to the inordinate cost of private health care and similar shocks.

As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for these significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains off-staged/hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, the poorest and underemployed, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers (and often significant tithes) and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, railways, airports etc) rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.

It is against these realities, that, over the last few years, public discourse more and more  features words such as “mental health” and “burnout.” It is not a coincidence that this vernacular is taken up at a time when most Kenyans, surveyed across geographies, genders and classes, reported that their financial status worsened between 2016 and 2019.Interestingly, during this same three year period, we observe increasing (neoliberal) efforts directed towards “financial inclusion” habitually channelled through “fintech.”

Certainly, Kenyans are finding it hard to juggle all their economic burdens, from extended families to basic necessities, let alone finance the personal and collective aspirations for home ownership, better education, cars etc. All around, across all demographics, there is personal and collective work directed towards lightening these loads, made by piny pek – a heavy world. There are bets hedged, some won and many lost; collective savings groups, gambling, debts, and other situated modes to narrativize and negotiate economic pressures. Future blog posts will detail these means of coping in more ethnographic depth, showcasing the fervent efforts people of all walks of life in Nairobi, a capitalist city, are making to ease the pressure.

Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, and Senior Research Associate, Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg
Catherine Dolan is Reader in Anthropology at SOAS, University of London, UK
Wangui Kimari is a Post-doc at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Mario Schmidt is a Postdoctoral researcher at Collaborative Research Centre “Future Rural Africa” and a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities, University of Cologne, Germany

Photo: Nairobi skyline by Babak Fakhamzadeh

 

 

Sub-Saharan countries are taking on more debt, and women will bear the brunt of repaying it

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By Matthew BarlowJean Grugel and Jessica Omukuti

By May 2020, every African nation had registered cases of COVID-19. By late July, cases had exceeded 844,000. A key factor in Africa’s struggle to mount a response to the pandemic (although not the only one) is that years of debt servicing have eroded states’ capacities to build strong health systems.

Research on crisis and pandemics in different parts of the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), shows that countries will respond to COVID-19 in two phases – the fiscal expansion phase, which involves a series of stimulus packages, and the fiscal contraction phase, which is characterised by austerity. In the case of COVID-19, these phases will require significant levels of financing. In a region with predominantly low and narrow tax bases, debt and donor aid have become an alternative way for governments to finance state obligations. Currently average African debt-to-GDP is below the 60% (danger) threshold, which is way below the crisis levels of the 1980s and 1990s.

However, the cost of debt has exponentially increased due to low credit ratings translating into poor interest rates. By 2018, 18 SSA countries were at high risk of debt distress and governments made austerity cuts to public services to service their debt obligations. In 2018, 46 low-income countries — most of which are in SSA— were spending more on debt servicing than on healthcare. Annually, SSA countries were spending an average of $70 per capita on healthcare (supplemented with $10 external assistance), in contrast to $442 in China and an average of $3,040 in the EU.Read More »

Pandemic Discourses – A Global Contagion Demands Global Perspectives

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By Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Manjari Mahajan, and Mark W. Frazier

As the inaugural issue of Pandemic Discourses goes online, 4.7 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 320,000 deaths have been recorded by the World Health Organization. The waves of cases and deaths have been closely followed by mounting economic losses, leaving governments, communities, and individuals scrambling to find appropriate responses. Yet, even in this uniquely global moment, popular discourse around the pandemic has remained trapped within familiar terms.

Media coverage has to a large extent focused on experiences of the United States and Europe. The frameworks developed to respond to the pandemic have also been US/Euro-centric, frequently inward-looking and isolationist, paying scant attention to expertise, knowledge, and capacities elsewhere. The experiences of other parts of the world, even when taken into account, often serve to cement prior prejudices. In response to this lopsided discussion, Pandemic Discourses aims to foster a more expansive dialogue that encompasses voices from the global South, including China, India, and beyond.Read More »

A regional response to help avoid rice shortages in West Africa

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 10.39.07As COVID-19 threatens rice imports from Asia, West Africa has an opportunity to reignite its ambitions of a regional value chain. But this would require coherence in policies and collective action.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reaches African shores, countries are grappling with questions of food security. This seems to confirm a longstanding concern among many countries to reduce their reliance on food imports. Take the example of rice in West Africa. In the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) up to half of the regional rice consumption needs is met through imports. This external reliance is what led ECOWAS countries to agree to a ‘Rice Offensive’ in 2014, to boost production in the region. It is also behind the Nigerian border closures seen last year.

Regional value chains have often failed to take off because national interests trump regional agendas. But at extraordinary times like these, there is a case to give precedence to regional strategies rather than narrowly focusing on national responses.Read More »

When does state-permeated capitalism work?

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In recent years, state capitalism has become an important buzzword in the development economics discussion (again). In view of the very different ways in which this term is used, Ilias Alami and Adam Dixon recently highlighted the dangers of using the term too loosely in an article in Competition and Change. In view of its recent popularity, state capitalism could suffer a similar fate to the terms “neoliberalism” or “financialisation” by becoming a very loose rallying cry without any significant analytical value. To overcome this problematic situation, Alami and Dixon propose that future research should (1) develop a theory of the capitalist state, (2) circumscribe the time horizons of state capitalism, and (3) locate state capitalism more precisely in territorial and geographical terms.

Although I am not sure whether the genius can be put back into the bottle by developing a unified theory of the state (too many different theoretical traditions are involved by now), I am very sympathetic to the latter two demands. Our recently published book “State-permeated Capitalism in Large Emerging Economies” (Routledge) is a modest contribution to the latter goals. It deals with the economic development of Brazil, India, China and South Africa between 2000 and 2015. Departing from a comparative capitalism perspective, we have developed an ideal type of state-permeated capitalism as opposed to liberal, coordinated and dependent capitalism – and examined to what extent large emerging markets are approaching this ideal type. Read More »

Abolish Africa’s Sovereign Debtors’ Prisons Now

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By Ndongo Samba Sylla and Peter Doyle

This piece was written before the Coronavirus outbreak. It is a timely proposal of action. Given the high exposure of the developing world to the virus in contexts of medical and other logistical shortcomings, the damage to their productive capacity is likely to be much more severe than for the advanced world.  This fact is already reflected in particularly sharp virus-stirred capital outflows from these countries.  All this greatly increases their exposure to the present global structures for sovereign insolvency, and the urgent need for those structures to be radically reformed—as the authors propose with the Pre-Emptive Sovereign Insolvency Regime (PSIR).

In a radical call for reform of the IMF’s pro-creditor and anti-growth approach to indebted countries in Africa, Ndongo Sylla and Peter Doyle argue that the continent has a choice to make. Creditors, using the IMF, must be stopped from forcing devastating output losses by imposing high primary surpluses.

Within a decade, just to keep up with the flow of new entrants into its labour markets, sub-Saharan Africa needs to create 20 million new jobs every year. This is a huge challenge. But it is also a thrilling opportunity—to harness the energy and creativity of all of Africa’s young.

However, after it reviews these issues in Africa, the IMF’s immediate message—literally in the same sentence—is to pivot to ‘budget cuts to secure debt sustainability!’

That is plain wrong. For Africa to meet its development objectives, the IMF must radically change its pro-creditor anti-growth approach to highly indebted/insolvent countries.Read More »