We must learn from others and chart a new way through a hybrid ideology.
Today, I want to deal with the term “selfishness”, which in my view, has brought more pain to our progress than anything else.
I begin with a short story. Some four years back, I volunteered, with some colleagues, to work with a number of youth groups from one of our disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
We started with the premise that extreme poverty is caused by lack of knowledge.
Our role was to help with as much “knowledge” as possible.
We assisted with developing business plans, teaching how to access credit, markets, and virtually everything that could make a new enterprise succeed.
Sometimes we requested graduate students to help as part of their class projects.
Overall, it worked well but there was one recurring problem – selfishness.
A group youth would start but once the benefits were understood, would break up or morph into a new group.
Some groups broke up for genuine business reasons, like getting rid of joyriders, yet the new formations wanted continued help to succeed.
Our fear was that too many mutations would overstretch our capacity.
Such disruptions also made it harder for the volunteers, since they were forced to reset and start afresh to monitor progress, and perhaps develop a new business model that could be replicated elsewhere.
Nonetheless, our project couldn’t reject any of the new formations.
They were essential as some of them, though selfish, had perfectly understood our intentions and were doing well.
Unfortunately, this took a toll on our time commitment as we spent time arbitrating their differences, something we had not anticipated.
ECONOMIES OF SCALE
These behaviour patterns have been studied widely, but our motive was to establish the merits of encouraging a new concept of collective development.
This isn’t socialism or communism, but about developing a common understanding in order to take advantage of economies of scale, considering that together we stand strong.
In India for example, efforts to help farmers move out of poverty led to the creation of a Centre for Collective Development, where farmers would pool and process products together.
This is more like a cooperative but each individual has a direct stake, right from conception.
Our cooperative movement takes care of aspects like marketing but production is done individually.
Generally, if we had an answer to the question of selfishness around what we wanted to conceptually develop – collective development – we could have moved on with a new development model.
An attempt to find out the source of selfishness took me to the works of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) a leading theorist of the Austrian School who once served as a close adviser to the Foundation for Economic Education. He explains selfishness thus:
What a man does is always aimed at an improvement of his own state of satisfaction.
In this sense — and in no other — we are free to use the term selfishness and to emphasise that action is necessarily always selfish.
Even an action directly aiming at the improvement of other people’s conditions is selfish.
The actor considers it as more satisfactory to himself to make other people eat than to eat himself.
His uneasiness is caused by the awareness that other people are in want.
That even our actions were driven by selfish motives threw us into confusion as to whether selfishness is good or bad.
In the true African culture, when you have more of something, you are supposed to share with your neighbours and in no way should such sharing be considered selfish.
‘PRESSURE ON PEOPLE’
In my view, selfishness, as abstracted by Mises, is what has given rise to corruption in our midst.
People want to amass wealth because there is no guarantee that collective action will help them.
It perhaps explains why individual Kenyans drill their own boreholes within metres of each other instead of collectively pushing for a collective water supply solution.
They also prefer to buy their own individual generators instead of collectively pushing the power company to be more efficient and pay for downtimes, and they fence their homes instead of collectively asking the government to provide security.
They also take their children to expensive private schools instead of collectively improving the public school system.
Selfish individual development is expensive and puts pressure on people to seek advantage at whatever cost.
Yet until the 1950’s, assets like land were collectively owned.
Collective development was part of Africa’s DNA but we failed to develop it and fell victim to Eurocentric academic discourse, which introduced a capitalist – socialist divide that fails to incorporate African culture.
‘INERTIA AND LAXITY’
Below, Mises explains the core differences between these two ideologies from a Western perspective.
Whereas in a capitalist society selfishness incites everyone to the utmost diligence, in a socialist society it makes for inertia and laxity.
The socialists may still babble about the miraculous change in human nature that the advent of socialism will effect, and about the substitution of lofty altruism for mean egotism.
But they must no longer indulge in fables about the marvellous effects the selfishness of each individual will bring.
Under such a socialist mode of production all personal incentives which selfishness provides under capitalism are removed, and a premium is put upon laziness and negligence.
This argument does not bring out the long-term effects of capitalism that in many countries has led to inequality in income distribution.
As Mises was advancing these ideas, Europe was collectively building public utilities and when circumstances dictated, the United States introduced social welfare, with the consequence that President Franklin Roosevelt, who had no choice but to adopt welfarism, was labelled a socialist.
We cannot therefore continue to see our future through the lenses of Eurocentric ideologies and even if we did, we must modify these ideologies to meet our objectives.
The time has come that we must learn from others and chart a new way through a hybrid ideology.
Like Theodore Roosevelt, we can create a progressive movement that takes African culture into consideration.
Jomo Kenyatta had good intentions with his rudi mashambani (back to the land) call.
In his time, an agrarian life was more promising than living in the big cities.
Future administrations have the onerous task of crafting new legacies around mass urbanisation programmes that will guarantee every Kenyan access to all services, collectively.
In the 21st century, every human being deserves the right to electricity, water and sanitation, transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools.
Most people will ask where the resources to feed this massive social spending will come from.
No worry. Cutting waste might work, but we must have the will to do so, for wherever there is a will there is always a way.
This will require a multi-pronged strategy involving the study of many systems in order to come up with a hybrid system of governance.
I have in mind a careful look at communalism, not to be confused with communism.
Communalism, or communes, incorporates communal ownership and federations of highly localised independent communities.
The Maa communities in Kenya have perfected this form of living.
Ownership structures are communal, which makes it possible to build rural urban centres where the people live.
We can also look at the collective communities in Israel under the kibbutz system.
Through such arrangement, tax incentives can be provided for investors to build rural industries.
For example, in Kiambu, Githiga and Githunguri would form part of Kiambu federated communes.
Incentives to develop a massive real estate project targeting Nairobi as a market, but owned by Githigans, could then be provided and proceeds would benefit everybody within the commune.
Githunguri could do the same with dairy.
Each commune would have its specialisation and rights to access markets across other communes and the region.
Mises said, “The politician is always selfish no matter whether he supports a popular programme in order to get an office or whether he firmly clings to his own — unpopular — convictions and thus deprives himself of the benefits he could reap by betraying them”.
In my view, selfishness and unselfishness are just semantics hidden behind the complex ideologies we hide behind.
Let’s think collectively and act collectively on public goods for the common good of humanity.
Perhaps each of us has to think like a politician.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito