Poverty in Kuwait
Is there poverty in Kuwait, or isn’t there?

Statistical tables published by organizations such as UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the CIA World Fact Book don’t show any measurable poverty in Kuwait. In addition, Nations Encyclopedia flatly states that “poverty is almost non-existent” in Kuwait. Anecdotal evidence, though, suggests that there is at least some poverty in Kuwait. For example, one set of anecdotes comes in response to a question on Quora: “what is life like for poor people in Kuwait?”

Respondents said, first of all, there is poverty in Kuwait, even if it goes unacknowledged. They counted among the poor: laborers, shepherds working in deserts, illegal immigrants and maids, some of whom were abused by their sponsors and employers. The common denominator for many of the poor is that they are non-citizens. They frequently come from tribal families who settled in the country only in the last 30 years. Many of these relatively recent arrivals were not granted citizenship, and as non-citizens they often face serious economic challenges.

Kuwaiti citizens, on the other hand, have greater access to the wealth of the country that comes from its oil. For example, around 90% of citizens work in the public sector which is largely funded by oil revenues. All citizens are eligible for help from the country’s extensive social services. These services include care for the needy, direct transfers to widows and students and help for families in a variety of circumstances — divorce, old age, disability, parental death, illness and financial difficulty.

For most of its young history — it won its independence in 1961 — Kuwait could afford generous state welfare because it is sitting on 6% of world oil reserves. Oil makes up 95% of its export revenues and 95% of government income. With the collapse of oil prices worldwide, down 60% since 2013, Kuwait had to do some belt-tightening. Like other Arab states, Kuwait has taken steps to reduce spending and increase revenues.

Kuwait has said it is prepared to lower subsidies for fuel and public utilities. The country said it would freeze, or at least slow, the growth of wages in the public sector. Kuwait also has other means to handle the shortfall in oil income in the short-term. Like the other Gulf states, Kuwait has extensive sovereign funds at its disposal. In total, the Gulf states manage $2.5 trillion in assets; that’s 37% of total assets of all sovereign funds in the world. Kuwait can use these if it needs to, though the long-term solution for Kuwait’s economy is to diversify its sources of income and grow the private sector, according to economists.

All in all, then, life in Kuwait looks like it should be pretty good, even with the oil price problem. Or, maybe not. Three years ago, before the belt-tightening, a blogger in the Kuwait Times, Thaar Al-Rasheedi, claimed that 90% of Kuwait’s citizens led poor and miserable lives. Even with apparent high salaries, Al-Rasheedi said, “there is hardly a citizen who still has a single dinar by the 15th of the month.” He went on to say that the problem is that rents are too high, installment loans are too high and there are in general “soaring prices right under the government’s nose and with its consensus.” “In fact,” Al-Rasheedi concluded, “we are experiencing intentional poverty on the last 15 days of each month!”

Is there poverty in Kuwait? It could depend on who you ask.

Robert Cornet

Photo: Flickr

PowerGen’s Revolutionary Microgrid is Empowering Kenya
On January 27, 2015, PowerGen, among three other innovative companies, won a global competition in which 30 total participants enter four categories: education, health, energy, and cities.

PowerGen Renewable Energy developed a microgrid that powers homes and businesses at a low cost. This environmentally sound and accessible energy source is making life easier for many residents of Kenya.

The competition was overseen by 1776, a U.S. tech incubator. Winning in equal status with PowerGen were Health E-Net, which connects patients to medical facilities, tasKwetu, a project management tracker and eKitabu, an online East African bookstore. Though, with a majority of Kenyans relying on diesel generators, kerosene lamps and charcoal as power sources, PowerGen is an important and extremely useful life-changing alternative.

Originally called WindGen Power, PowerGen is a micro-utility company working in East Africa. Their renewable energy products are dominantly solar-powered though wind is still utilized as a resource.

Solar-power products are cheap and simple to maintain. Powered by fuel cells and solar panels, micro representations of electricity grids are local. They have 1.4kW of solar panels, 9kWh of batteries and 3kW converters. These are known as a “PowerBoxes” to locals.

There are 600 million people without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. PowerGen supplies micro-grids to people in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and Somalia. This system is utilized by lower income customers who run small businesses such as hair salons, restaurants, and guest houses. Rural villages and towns benefit the most from their micro-grids.

Take Lillian Muthoni, for example, and her transition to the micro-grid featured by TED Talks. She manages a “PowerBox” in Nkoilale, Kenya, which is 250 kilometers West of Nairobi. She replaced solar lights and a diesel generator with the “PowerBox.” She once paid $130 a month, but the “PowerBox” now only costs her $22 a month. She owns a restaurant and likes to entertain her customers with music and television. Since the switch to the cost-effective micro-grid, she has even managed to buy a refrigerator.

PowerGen’s objective is to connect customers with the outside world. Since Africans are becoming more familiar with mobile phones and online access, PowerGen has begun to train new users how to handle mobile devices powered by the micro-grid.

This further connects them to information and the outside world. Most Africans typically use their phones to access credit accounts and to prepay for their energy use online. People can keep track of payments more easily too.

In 2014, PowerGen partnered with KIVA in a seven-year-loan plan. They first tried to improve conditions in Oloolaimutia Village by installing a micro-grid. Lighting, television, refrigeration and a medical clinic were supported by its energy output. The company raised $9,780 within two days.

According to a January 2015 TED Talk, PowerGen makes $10,000 in revenue each month. To give some perspective, 10 micro-grids were powering Kenya in 2014.

Competition has sparked among other micro-grid marketers. Recently, a power connectivity project was initiated in Kenya, funded by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Kenyan government in order to benefit 314,200 households. An accumulation of $150 million funds this project.

The goal of the Last Mile Connectivity Project hopes to add 1.5 million Kenyans to the national grid and connect 70% of rural houses by 2017. The initiative, which begins in September 2015, would require each customer to pay $165.

SteamaCo joined grid-building innovators like PowerGen, supporting 30 grids—26 of which are in Kenya and 4 in Tanazania, Renin and Nepal—with even cheaper offers, but a similar operating system. Predicting that internet use will double in 5 years, they take pride in their over-the-phone online monitoring systems.

Though PowerGen is neck-in-neck with other competing systems, their goal remains the same. The increase in competition breaches the gap between unconnected customers and connected ones. With 1.2 billion still without energy, PowerGen and companies like it are connecting less fortunate families who can then experience a richer and easier life.

Katie Groe

Sources: 1776, Disrupt Africa, PowerGen Renewable Energy, TED, GVEP International, African Review, The Guardian
Photo: Ted

On April 3, the Middle East honored Arab Orphans Day with university campus-based movements to honor abandoned children. Students in Cairo held an event in which individual participants would treat an orphan like a younger sibling for a day, while Kuwaiti Minister of Planning and Development Hind Al-Sabeeh touted the legislation of protective laws

Orphans in Kuwait are one of the most disadvantaged groups in terms of legal protections. In addition to the initial injury of parental abandonment, these children suffer the stigma of “illegitimacy.”

Many in the Middle East discriminate against children born to unwed parents. Often, they base their prejudice on a misinterpretation of the Qur’an. Their choice can have deleterious effects, ranging from overt displays to more subtle denials of academic and job opportunities.

That said, Kuwait has made some significant strides. Abandoned children are first sent to social care facilities for 30 days while the Ministry of Social Affairs attempts to find their parents.

If and when the children are not found, they become wards of the State. In Kuwait’s case, state guardianship grants the orphans Kuwaiti nationality, free health care, fiscal stipends, and free housing.

Kuwait treats its orphans well. According to UNICEF, life expectancy for these orphans was 74.2 in 2012 and approximately 93.9 percent of orphaned youth are literate. The high literacy rate is largely due to a high enrollment rate in primary schools, which UNICEF estimates to be around 98 percent.

The disadvantage, though, lies in the wards’ legal inaccessibility. Once Kuwaiti orphans are declared as wards of the State, only Kuwaiti citizens can adopt them.

This is a particularly problematic law in part because of the popularity of non-White orphans among adopting couples in developed countries. Most of these adoptive parents are financially secure and outfitted to accommodate fewer children at a time, ensuring that the lucky adoptee gets the personal attention and care that she needs.

Kuwaitis may be generous with their aid to orphans, but no amount of generosity can replace parental love. The nation often acts as a mecca for wartime orphans, but its people usually cannot restore a child’s birth parents.

Furthermore, little is reported regarding the care of orphans once they age out of the institution. According to the ILO, the Middle East has some of the highest youth unemployment rates worldwide, with an average of one in four young adults out of work.

This statistic places additional pressure upon Kuwaiti citizens, who have to pay for orphan care through taxes. Kuwait’s economy may enjoy high incomes across the board, but as long as its neighbors suffer, the nation will be operating upon heightened political risk. If it becomes involved in its neighbors’ conflicts, the country’s orphans may very well become the first victims.

Evidence of orphan victimization has already made the news. In 2011, an anonymous blogger commented on a story run in Al Qabas about Kuwaiti orphanages that had been turned into brothels where rape, drugs, smoking, and prostitution were rampant.

While exaggeration by the media is not improbable, orphans remain one of the most frequently vulnerable groups. Kuwait, like its neighbors, is still in development and its media may not always be trustworthy. In any event, it is imperative that the reader checks the validity of news sources. Conditions in Kuwait may not be as rosy as recent propaganda may imply.

– Leah Zazofsky

Sources: KUNA, Middle East Eye, Muslim Observer, SOS USA, The Aggressor, UNICEF
Photo: Flickr