Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President of the United States during the Great Depression. In response to the worst economic crisis in US history, he implemented his national New Deal agenda.
A fundamental element of this agreement was to put money in the pockets of impoverished Americans in a way that did not undermine their dignity. To that end, he sanctioned state programs that paid one group of men to dig holes in the morning and another group to fill them in the afternoon. Neither group knew what the other was doing, but they all derived immense satisfaction from earning what they believed to be just the pay for an important national exercise.
From time immemorial, human beings have been defined by the work they have done. It is said that the etymology of names like Smith and Tailor derives from the occupations of those who bear them. A good work ethic was an admirable and desirable trait and was often touted as a sure path to success.
The same is true today, so that in virtually every culture around the world hard work is celebrated and, in most cases, rewarded in proportion. Therefore, it flies in the face of popular convention for Kenya’s top politicians to attempt to bribe young people with promises of free lunches if they are elected next year. A presidential candidate has promised to channel national funding down the pyramid into a bottom-up economic model.
Presumably, young people will be the greatest beneficiaries of this model, no matter how neglected they are in an administration of which the candidate is a part. Another proposed a social protection system where each unemployed youth would receive a monthly allowance of Sh 6,000. He is a bit frugal with the facts about where the money comes from given that the economy is on its knees due to ‘blatant mismanagement.
Like Roosevelt’s America, Kenya is facing the worst economic crisis in its history. The only difference being that while that of the United States was caused by intractable world events, that of Kenya was precipitated by grand corruption and incompetent leadership. Too many pie promises in the sky did not deliver the promised economic nirvana. Promises to put young people at the center of the action have proven illusory, their usefulness rarely extending beyond the ballot box, forgotten until the next electoral cycle where campaign promises return swiftly and furiously.
Next year’s election offers young people the opportunity to break with the past. In the 2017 election, 46% of registered voters were between the ages of 18 and 29. Next year, they will represent more than half of the electoral rolls. This is a testament to the awesome power they hold in their hands if only they realized it. It is possible to fill the upper echelons of management from their ranks if two things happened: they registered en masse and, second, came to vote on election day.
That is why apathy towards the current national registration exercises must be of concern to all right-thinking Kenyans. Of course, young people have been shackled by the political class for too long, so discouragement has become their default position. Yet it is up to them to upset the current political order and inaugurate one that truly reflects their hopes and aspirations.
Perhaps the second step towards this end, after registering as voters, is to develop their own accounting metric by which they can assess potential candidates. It would help demystify the embellished success stories of the established political order, even when everything around them points to systemic failures.
Third, young people should shun the culture of charity that keeps them dependent on the benevolence of politicians.
Real dignity comes from pure industry and not from the free wages of political exploiters. For too long, young people have been called the “leaders of tomorrow”. Tomorrow is now. Let the young people get to work. No more free lunches.
-The writer is a public policy analyst