He was born into poverty, one of seven children. He agitated against the iniquities and elitism of his society from an early age, often violently. He eventually formed a political movement that focused exclusively on the problems of the poor, and it quickly gathered a large following. He was supported to the hilt by the poor in a landslide victory, leaving the political and business elite aghast, and the middle class deeply fearful.
Given the events we have all witnessed in Kenya over the past few days, you might be forgiven for assuming I was referring to one of the new breed of politicians who are marshalling huge support from Nairobi’s slum-dwellers and the rural poor and unseating big names in the recent primary elections.
But no, I was referring to Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela. After taking power in 1999, he has been re-elected several times with large majorities. His hold on the common person’s vote is unshakeable. It seems only ill-health will prevent him from being the leader of his country.
Please consider the country in which Chávez took power, the Venezuela of the 1990s. It was a country with rapidly spiralling poverty and inequality and growing insecurity. The rich of the land enjoyed an idyllic lifestyle; but the poor felt their lot worsen by the year. The conditions were ripe for the emergence of a populist leader.
In 2004, I wrote this about our own beloved nation on this page: that there are many places called “Kenya.” There is a Kenya in which rich folks take tea in five-star hotels and do their shopping in exclusive malls. There is also an altogether nastier Kenya in which people live on the edge of desperation from day to day, with no way out of the prison of poverty that holds them captive.
At that time, we had a huge opportunity. Our early “economic recovery strategy” emphasized slum upgrades, rural electrification, traders’ markets, rural access roads, health facilities and many more wise initiatives. Wise, because they were “pro-poor” in the right way. Wise, because focused on helping the poor not by giving them handouts, but by improving their access to economic opportunity.
Most of that was simply not done. It was replaced by “trickle-down” theories: the tired philosophy that suggests that you fix the problem of the poor by allowing the wealthy and investing classes to thrive, and in the process pass down the benefits by creating employment.
Last time I checked, formal employment remains stubbornly stuck around the two million mark. Meanwhile, informal employment soars every year. In other words, the poor are helping themselves.
We have had our successes, certainly: the world-beating success of our mobile connectivity and money transfer services, and bottom-of-the-pyramid banking, are indeed phenomenal. We have an emerging middle class, purchasing household items and better education for the first time. That is all good. But it isn’t enough.
It isn’t enough because we have ignored those slums and rural pockets of poverty. We have watched them become violence hotspots and the source of rampant insecurity, and we have kept looking away. We have imagined that something called “pro-business” is different from “pro-poor.”
As any enlightened business leader will tell you, the two go hand-in-hand. Every business needs growing average purchasing power, improving skills availability, and security of person and poverty. Property and stock-market booms do not address the central problem of the disenchanted poor.
So now, as we are seeing, the poor will choose their leaders, and their sheer numbers will propel those leaders into power. The rest of us may look on nervously, but the graffiti is on the wall. The days of genteel selections in quiet boardrooms are over.