“Let them drink bubbles . . .” The Nairobi Curse revisited in a time of hunger

Back in March 2010–well before the last widespread famine in 2011–I wrote a piece here called “The Nairobi Curse” suggesting an analogy between the role of Nairobi in Kenya’s overall political and economic development and “the resource curse” faced by those countries prized by outsiders for oil, for example.

With famine being reprised I was reminded of the “Nairobi Curse”  when I noticed on the “KenyaBuzz” Nairobi entertainment and happenings newsletter a charming little story, “Nairobi’s Newest Wine Shop Delivers In A Different Kind Of Way”, promoting “Wine and Bubbles”, a French couples’ couple of Nairobi stores selling French wine.  The expat Nairobian explained that he had hoped to grow vineyards in Kenya but learned on moving from France that the climate was not conducive so he was selling French wine instead.

The growth market of course is introducing wine tastes to what is invariably called the “Kenyan Middle Class”–basically the third tier wealthy Kenyan of the Nairobi professional/managerial class.  The sort of people who would be upper middle class in a much more broadly and deeply prosperous country where most people had enough to eat with a per capita income several times that of Kenya’s.

Here is my original post:

This is Kenya’s version of “the oil curse” or “the resource curse”.

 

Nairobi is the place to be in Sub-Saharan Africa (and outside of South Africa) for international meetings and conferences.  It is a relatively comfortable place to live for middle class or wealthy Westerners, or young aid workers.  An international city with a certain level of cosmopolitanism, yet of manageable size and scope relative to so many burgeoning cities of the less developed “South”.  A headquarters for two UN agencies.  A diplomatic critical mass, with lots of representation from all sorts of countries around the world that have little obvious presence in Africa, but also a crossroads for representation of everyone playing for a major piece of the pie (Iran, Libya, China, India, the Gulf States–as well as obviously the US and Europe).  And you can go on business, and then take a safari on the side.

 

From the US, soldiers go to Djibouti (the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, at Camp Lemonier) while diplomats go to Nairobi.  The US runs its Somali diplomacy from the Embassy to Kenya rather than Djibouti which would be the more obvious place on paper.  Likewise, Somali politicians tend to live much of the time in Nairobi.   Nairobi is the place to invest cash generated in Somalia.

Nairobi is the “back office”, and in some cases the only office, for much of relatively huge amount of US aid-related effort for Southern Sudan, as well as that from other countries.

 

Nairobi has something like 8% of the Kenyan population, and perhaps 60% of the GDP (don’t let anyone tell you they know any of these figures too precisely).  Perhaps 50-60 percent of the population lives in informal settlements (“slums”) whereas the other half lives as “the other half”.  Most national level Kenyan politicians holding office live primarily in Nairobi (although they may have homes in a constituency they represent in Parliament as well).

 

When I was the East Africa Director, based in Nairobi, for IRI (where our much bigger Sudan program was also  headquartered) as an American I felt that my government at that time (2007-2008) was falling into the trap of recreating a Cold War paradigm for our international relations by looking around through our “War on Terrorism” telescope.  And that in Kenya there were a lot of international interests that valued stability over reforms for reasons that related more to the current role of Nairobi than the long term interests of Kenyan development.

 

Certainly Nairobi is a resource that has great value–as does oil, for instance–it’s just a question of whether Kenyans can find a way to use it to the broad advantage of the nation or whether it will continue to be exploited to disproportionately benefit the most powerful.  Including being used to help keep them in power when more Kenyans want democratic change.

 

Just this past week Kenya hosted an IGAD meeting on Sudan–and flouted its obligations as a party to the Rome Treaty on the ICC by inviting President Bashir of Sudan while under indictment.  Meanwhile the ICC is considering whether to allow formal  investigation of key Kenyan leaders for the post-election violence from 2007-08.  But Nairobi is such a great place to have these conferences . . . and Sudan is so important (Khartoum is no Nairobi, but it has oil).