Transform Kenya into the business of Kenyans

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Ideas & Debate

Transform Kenya into the business of Kenyans


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Parliament during a past session. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • Getting to think about Kenyans is difficult right now.
  • From a household perspective, actual food, health, education, water, shelter and future income and wealth creation opportunities are top of mind in our homes.
  • Un-coerced civic duty and participation is growing. Safe and secure family is priority. Our social contract we call the constitution and, partly, Vision 2030 promised, nay, guaranteed this basic stuff.

As a Kenyan, I ask, what does our future look like? How different is it compared to Kenya’s recent past, and current Covid-19 present? Old question, right? Substitute “Kenya” with “Kenyans” and start again.

Getting to think about Kenyans is difficult right now. From a household perspective, actual food, health, education, water, shelter and future income and wealth creation opportunities are top of mind in our homes. Un-coerced civic duty and participation is growing. Safe and secure family is priority. Our social contract we call the constitution and, partly, Vision 2030 promised, nay, guaranteed this basic stuff.

Individually, this manifests in an expected foundation of human dignity, living standards and personal safety and security as underpinnings of the right to eat, live, love, learn, share, work and play through all global and local good and bad. Let’s treat this as our “base case” scenario for today and tomorrow.

Now, let’s think about Kenya. We live here. We tolerate a super-violent and coercive state. We search for the missing idea of “Kenya as a nation”. Because Kenya is a business – casino, bubble and kadogo.

Sorry, Kenya is a political business (business and political leaders are one and the same, from top to bottom). In this business, Covid-19 efforts feel like the usual “make money when there’s blood on the streets” enterprise reflective of an opportunistic, not holistic, response to a virus pandemic and its disease and vaccine (no treatment yet). Welcome to the “administrative transactions, not policy” state.

Add the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) which “peacefully” diverted us from a policy/political change (as in problem solving) discourse to a constitutional reform brouhaha that clearly, from Parliament’s own theatrics in the past fortnight, is inexorably leading us towards a Kenya for Kenyans “lose-lose” scenario. By tampering with the constitution and ignoring good ideas, the baby’s out with the bathwater.

We could do better. Through the respective symptomatic “third waves” of Covid-19 and BBI, Kenyans wonder what Kenya might look like in 2023. 2022 succession is the disease. And our real “Nightmare on Harambee Avenue” is a national fiscus gone bad, a banking sector exposed by Covid, fragile corporates, struggling and collapsed SMEs, an uncertain shilling and a country and government running on fumes.

What must Kenya look like in 2023, and what must happen now? As usual, a couple of fiscal thoughts.

First, ditch the BBI constitutional change and begin work on its policy, legal and administrative proposals. Many of the latter actually implement the 2010 constitution that’s being changed. Kenya in 2023 then looks like a more stable place in which a proper audit and evaluation can happen. It doesn’t need constitutional change to give full effect to our Article 43 socio-economic rights and do better on devolution through our existing budget processes. Refocus the budget now, and let Kenyans feel it.

Second, get away from the “ostrich syndrome” as regards our fiscus. One of my favourite quotes (from a UK press piece long ago) was the observation that “the politician, like the ostrich, prefers to hide “its” head in the sand…thereby exposing “its” thinking parts” (no graphics needed here). Accept the path of fiscal restraint, not because the IMF says it’s good for us, but because it actually is. There is no logical public policy or political explanation known to humanity that our developmental state spends more on debt service than health, education, roads, environment and energy combined.

Third, yes, we’re not an island. To achieve that fiscal restraint requires a fully negotiated debt service slowdown with all from whom we have borrowed. It’s not simply about replacing commercial with concessional debt. It’s about a different thinking out of the unfortunate debt entanglement we are in.

Which suggests an unpopular, but realistic, fourth idea. Government is broke. We could be for the next decade. So, back to basics, and allocate what’s available to priority human needs. Then (ouch!) get a proper PPP framework actually working. Based on viable public-private risk and return projects.

Sounds naïve, but in these de-globalizing Covid-19 times of massive bailouts and zero interest rates, there’s lots of international money (including Kenyans, from my private sector understanding) looking to do an India, an Ethiopia, and find returns in value for money, not corrupted, infrastructure investment in Kenya. Oh, that’s Eurobond 4 and 5 thinking – throw bad money after worse. No, this is risk vs. return.

Welcome to the real world. Let’s call it World War Kenya. We have two choices. A continued path of socio-economic blunder and plunder. Or realism around a new Covid-19 (not post), recovered Kenya.

Realism means realistic. Covid-19 is the real health, economic and social challenge we must overcome. BBI constitutional change is neither urgent nor important if we think of where we’ll be in 2023. But its policy et al proposals may verily strengthen and fine-tune what the current constitution already offers.

Will political will emerge to deal with fiscus/debt issues while refocusing on Kenyans as the true owners of Kenya? Might the BBI nation building project that transmogrified into a constitutional reform to make 2022 irrelevant instead send the state into rehab? Can we use international money for a positive 2023?

Simply, could we make the 1963-2021 business called Kenya the 2023 and beyond business of Kenyans?

A Kenyan is just asking.

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