Is the glass half full or half empty?

Prof. Edward Oyugi, Oduor Ong’wen, Rebecca Tanui, Alloys Opiyo, Abondo Andiwo, Njuguna Mutahi, Ayoma Matunga, James Maina, Steven Musau, Oloo Janak
Social Development Network, SEATINI Kenya, BEACON, Undugu Society of Kenya, DARAJA, People Against Torture, Kenya Social Forum, Release Political Prisoners, Futa Magendo Chapters, Bunge La Wananchi, Migori Clan

The impressive advances in social security made in the early years of independence have been largely undermined in the last two decades by market-driven neoliberal forces, donor-imposed structural adjustment programmes, and domestic corruption. All of the eight registered custodians of pension funds are commercial banks, while many senior citizens must fall back on family security networks. Meanwhile, civil society efforts to provide alternative education for around 30% of slum-dwelling children cut off from formal schooling have been replicated by the government.

Socialsecurity in its broadest sense was at the centre of the Kenyan government’ssocioeconomic policy well before the attainment of national independence in1963. Indeed, the manifesto of the party of independence, the Kenya AfricanNational Union (KANU), emphasized confronting the three main enemies of theyoung nation: poverty, disease and ignorance (GoK, 2002, p.14).It was thus understood that secure livelihoods and universal health andeducation would be available to every Kenyan sooner rather than later.

During the first 10 years of independence, the government devoted considerableresources to expanding economic opportunities for peasants, small-scale tradersand other players in the economy whose output would tackle poverty and economicinsecurity head on. The creation of local capital formation opportunitiesthrough partially and fully state-owned corporations was also embarked on withcommendable gusto. Africanization, Kenyanization and indigenization of theeconomy were not merely buzzwords, but rather deliberate government policy.

The government took steps to address the social security needs of its citizensby expanding educational opportunities, providing free health services andcatering for senior citizens through a civil service pension scheme and thecreation of the National Social Security Fund for the private sector. But theseearly gains have been reversed over the last two decades through structuraladjustment-related donor conditionalities, neoliberal policies influenced by thecorporate sector, and domestic corruption.

Insecurity in old age

In spite of the noble intentions to fight poverty, ignorance and disease, thegovernment has not invested sufficient energy and resources in the future of itssenior citizens. People who have graduated from active participation in theeconomy must fall back on traditional social security networks, which oftenmeans total dependence on their working offspring. Woe unto you if you do nothave a wage-earning son or daughter!

Initially, the government created a pension scheme only for those who worked inthe civil service. This made work outside the civil service quite insecure andled many to scramble for public service jobs, no matter how low the pay.However, due to deteriorating economic conditions, even this public servicepension scheme has become more of a token than a guarantee of securepost-service livelihood.

For private sector employees, the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) wasestablished in 1965. This was a contributory scheme where an employeecontributed a fixed monthly amount that was matched by the employer. The fundscould not be accessed by employees until they reached the age of 55, even ifthey retired earlier. The flaws in the NSSF were myriad. For instance, duringits first 10 years of operation, women employees were excluded from the scheme.The first women were registered by the Fund in 1975 but did not contribute to ituntil 1977. In addition, private entrepreneurs and employees of the informalsector were not eligible for membership.

While the monthly contribution of KES 20 was reasonable at the time that theNSSF was established – when it was equivalent to USD 3 – it was not reviseduntil the end of the 1990s, when it was worth a mere USD 0.28. As a result, theamount available to retirees at the end of a lifetime of contributions was notnearly adequate to ensure a secure livelihood.

It was not until recently that the government addressed the pension and socialsecurity sector. First, it amended the 1965 National Social Security Fund Act in1987. This transformed the NSSF from a department in the Ministry of Labour intoa state corporation with a board of trustees. Second, it liberalized membershipto include the informal sector and the self-employed. Third, it sought to varythe employer and employee contributions to reflect prevailing economicrealities.

Confronted with a growing population of retirees – partly due to the loweringof the age of retirement, which is now mandatory at 55 – the government wasagain forced to tackle the issue of social security towards the end of the1990s. The single most important step was the creation of the RetirementBenefits Authority (RBA).

The RBA was created by the Retirement Benefits Authority Act of 1997, but didnot become operational until January 1999. The objectives of the RBA includeregulating and supervising the establishment and management of retirementbenefit schemes; protecting the interests of members and sponsors of retirementbenefit schemes; promoting the development of the retirement benefit sector;advising the minister of finance on the national policy to be followed regardingretirement benefit schemes; and implementing all related government policies(GoK, 2000).

In spite of the foregoing, however, the retirement benefit, social security fundand provident fund sector is overwhelmingly private sector-driven. As at the endof 2006, there were close to 1,700 registered and unregistered – butrecognized – retirement benefit schemes. The majority of these (70%) aremanaged by the insurance industry, which controls about 10% of the total assetsin the sector.[1]

Pensionschemes hold an estimated KES 130 billion (USD 1.95 million) or 23% of thecountry’s GDP. To underscore the stranglehold of the private sector on pensionfunds, it is worth noting that all of the eight registered custodians of pensionfunds are commercial banks. The 14 registered managers, 44 administrators andeight actuaries are all private companies as well (RBA, 2005).

The private sector domination of this sector has ensured that the profitableinvestment of these funds (in the interest of the companies themselves) hasovershadowed their noble social mission.

Successful non-formal education

In keeping with the promise to fight ignorance as one of the Kenyan nation’sthree main enemies, the government invested commendably in the formal educationsector in the immediate post-independence period. This spurred the expansion ofeducation infrastructure, including the building of primary, secondary andvocational education institutions as well as middle-level colleges. Within 10years of independence, free primary schooling was announced as a nationalproject. This was later followed by a school feeding programme in thecountry’s arid regions. However, these advances were subsequently underminedby the structural adjustment programmes imposed by international financialinstitutions.

From the mid-1980s, when structural adjustment programmes were fully implementedin Kenya, until the end of 1990s, enrolment in educational institutions at alllevels plummeted. It was therefore music to Kenyans’ ears when, in January2003, the newly elected National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government decreedfree primary education once again. But this was done without understanding theproblems that bedevilled the earlier attempt, and views are mixed on thebenefits of this new initiative – particularly with regard to the imperativeof quality.

It is estimated that between 30% and 35% of slum-dwelling children throughoutKenya are still cut off from formal schooling, despite the reestablishment offree primary education (GoK, 2006). When free primary education was relaunchedin 2003, many thought this meant that every child of school-going age would beabsorbed. But it turned out that, sooner rather than later, when the euphoriasettled down, the reality remained. And the reality was that the same factorsthat had impeded many school-aged children from joining formal education in thepast remained unchanged. Poverty, family breakdowns, parental neglect and childabuse, among other factors, continued to cause school dropouts. More recently,in 2004, a presidential directive reverted the heavy burden of the constructionof classroom structures back to the parents. There are also PTA(Parents/Teachers Association) teachers paid by school committees with fundsraised from the parents. School uniforms have remained mandatory for allchildren, and this is costly too.

These factors motivated numerous civil society organizations to experiment withalternative education systems. Some were short-lived, but others were wildlysuccessful. One example of a successful alternative education system is thenon-formal education programme of the Undugu Society of Kenya, known as theUndugu Basic Education Programme (UBEP).

When Undugu and other stakeholders began promoting non-formal educationinnovation in the 1970s, their efforts were not appreciated by mainstreameducation authorities. Non-formal education then was seen as an insidiousattempt to dilute the quality and standards of education in the country. Thegovernment went so far as to accuse Undugu of sabotaging formal education inKenya. However, non-formal education later proved to be a source of hope for thehopeless, a practical opportunity not only for those who could not afford thecost of formal education, but also all those wishing to bridge the gap createdby missed educational opportunities in their childhood.

UBEP caters for children from the streets and slums who are unable to pursueformal education, either for lack of school fees and other school levies or forwhatever other reasons. The three-year programme, which is followed by a year ofexposure to basic technical skills, offers basic literacy and numeracy skills tolearners, and runs parallel to formal primary school programmes (USK, 2000).

Children in non-formal centres such as UBEP do not pay the levies imposed onchildren in formal schooling. They do not even need uniforms. In other words,non-formal education is a more flexible and more affordable system. In thissense, non-formal education is committed to making it easy and possible forthose who have been sidelined or marginalized by the formal education system tomake up for the loss, and where possible, to catch up with others. Thenon-formal education learner is assumed to be more mature in age and thus morefocused and better motivated to learn, and to learn at a greater speed. Three tofour years are therefore assumed to be sufficient for basic education. Thegovernment later adopted the concept and now has a National Non-Formal EducationScheme.

The need to achieve social security

In Nairobi, 60% of the population occupies only 6% of the city’s land andlives in informal settlements (
UN-Habitat, 2005). The social insecurity in theseinformal settlements is not limited to ownership or user rights over land, butextends to incessant harassment by the landowners and administration officials(local chiefs and the police). In one of the Korogocho settlements of Nairobi,residents claim they cannot even repair the leaking roofs of their makeshiftdwellings without permission from the area chief. Securing the chief’sapproval almost invariably involves a bribe, ranging from KES 100 (USD 1.50) toKES 1,000 (USD 15), depending on the chief’s assessment of the level of needand ability to pay. For people who subsist on less than USD 1 a day, this is nota light demand (Kenya Social Forum, 2005).

Various surveys by the government show that more than 10% of the ruralpopulation is landless and about 44% owns less than two acres of land. Althoughthere is evidence of the increasing importance of non-farming activities assources of income and livelihood, access to farmland in rural areas still hasimportant social and economic significance. Even those with industrial orintellectual sources of income still feel insecure if they do not own land.

For the urban poor, invasion of public land became the most popular (indeed theonly) way of accessing land to put up their dwellings. This has recentlychanged, as wealthy and politically connected individuals have fraudulentlyappropriated most of the public land in urban areas. The alternative left forthe urban poor, therefore, was to take up residence on land that is unfit forhuman habitation, ranging from the sides of railway tracks and highways – witha high risk of accidents and problems of exhaust fumes and noise pollution –to poorly drained areas that are prone to flooding, or the banks of rivers andinclines that are threatened by landslides as a result of rainfall or theremoval of vegetation, as well as areas around factories, where both the air andsoil are heavily polluted.

An analysis of crime trends also paints a worrying picture. Due to the apparentinability and/or unwillingness to act, many crimes are not reported. Accordingto the government’s own admission, over half of the victims affected do notreport crimes to the police for various reasons. Still, a look at the crimeprofile from reported cases in the last five years tells a horror tale.

Insecurity affecting children and women – the groups that are most vulnerableby virtue of their removal from the mainstream of decision-making due to lack ofeconomic clout – appears to be more pronounced.

Critical issues of access to land, land use planning, land administration, landinformation management systems, environmental protection, conflict managementand restitution of historical injustices have begged redress.

Ad hoc policy reviews have been attempted since the mid-1960s in a bid todevelop an integrated national outlook. These reviews have taken the form ofparliamentary sessional papers, national development plans and sectoral actionplans.

The need to eradicate hunger was recognized at the time of independence, andSessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 on African Socialism and its Application toPlanning in Kenya stated very specifically that hunger could only be eradicatedthrough increased food production and land reform involving land adjudication,consolidation, transfers and resettlement.

The National Food Policy of 1980 built on the need for prudent and focused landreform policy as a requisite for achieving a food-secure nation. Sessional PaperNo. 1 of 1986 on Economic Management for Renewed Growth, the Household FoodSecurity and Nutrition Policy of 1988, as well as the National Development Plan1984-1988, all recognized the need to limit the misuse of land. ThroughSessional Paper No. 1 of 1986, the government expressed its intention toestablish a National Land Commission to review land tenure, land-use practicesand legislation. This came to naught.

The government came to recognize that although food may be available nationally,it may not be accessible at the household level (GoK, 1988).[2]Many factors were acknowledged to be responsible for this situation, not leastamong them the fact that a significant proportion of the Kenyan population ismalnourished as a consequence of inequalities in the distribution of landresources, income inequalities, seasonal food shortages and lack of educationand awareness.

Through these policy documents, the government stated its commitment toinfluencing increased food production on smallholder farms to attain foodself-sufficiency through the development and improvement of land access,utilization, enhancement of input and output markets and rural infrastructure.Unfortunately, a great more needs to be done to live up to this commitment.


Government ofKenya (GoK) (1998). HouseholdFood Security and Nutrition Policy. Nairobi.

GoK (2000). TheRetirementBenefits Act No. 3 of 1997. Revised Edition 2000 (Incorporating The Retirement Benefits(Amendment) Act 1998).Nairobi.

GoK (2002). NationalDevelopment Plan 2002-2008. Nairobi.

GoK (2006). Economic Survey 2005.Nairobi.

Kenya Land Alliance. <>.

Kenya Social Forum (2005). “Report of Kenya Social Forum” held at JevanjeeGarden, Nairobi, 25-26 November.

RetirementBenefits Authority (RBA) (2005). AnnualReport 2004-2005 [online]. Available from: < >.

Undugu Societyof Kenya (USK) (2000). Strategic Plan2000-2004. Nairobi.

UN-Habitat (2005). Financing Urban Shelter - Global Report on HumanSettlements 2005. Nairobi.


[1] For moreinformation see: <>
[2] See also Sessional Paper No. 1 of 1986.