By Ken Opalo
Governing a country is hard. Developing a poor country is even harder. Trying to do both with little reliable information on the state of a country — like total agricultural output, unemployment rate, births and deaths, and the like — is like flying without radar on a stormy night over a mountain range.
The chances of success are minimal at best. Yet that is precisely what most governments in Africa, including our own, have been trying to achieve for decades. Ask any of our leaders what the unemployment rate is in the country or in a given county and they will stare at you blankly. And in the improbable chance that they know the numbers will not be from a government statistical office but some NGO or international organisation that did a survey some years back. Put simply, governments in our part of the world fly blind. And it is no wonder that very few have succeeded in improving the living conditions of their people.
In a book released this year titled Poor Numbers, Morten Jerven highlights the dearth of reliable information concerning the management of state affairs across Africa – including here in Kenya. In many African countries statistical agencies are understaffed, underfunded and poorly trained. Those of us who have worked in government statistical offices or the archives are well aware of the lack of information on even the most basic of things. The question then is: how does the government run without reliable information? How do our planners at the Treasury and other departments charged with planning for national development arrive at their development expenditure estimates without reliable information?
The absence of evidence-based planning also means that evaluation is never done at the end of government projects. Many government projects are sinkholes that swallow taxpayers money but yield little to no tangible results. In many cases the lack of measurement is deliberate — those bent on inflating project costs thrive on the lack of reliable information. But in other cases it is because of our leaders’ lack of appreciation for the need of reliable information for efficient government. How can they, when they treat Public Service as a part time occupation?
The Central Bank and the National Bureau of Statistics do a fantastic job of collecting up-to-date information on the state of the economy. But we need to go beyond the headline numbers on inflation and key commodities. We need to know about the number of jobs that are created and lost every month. We need to know about the number of houses that are built in the country every quarter. And we need to know which divisions or locations have the highest infant and maternal mortality rates. It is only then that both the national and county governments will know how to efficiently allocate resources. And if they don’t then voters can ask them why they are deliberately channeling resources inefficiently.
The current low information environment is paradise for those who want to fleece wananchi. It is also a cushion for ineffective politicians who like to hide behind ethnicity to mask their utter inability to deliver to the people. The day we will have reliable and timely dissemination of data on the state of the country — from security, to jobs, to agricultural output, et cetera — is the day that we will also force our politicians to respond to the same with concrete and publicly verifiable plans. Needless to say, the media must effectively play its role of reporting as well as putting the feet of those in charge to the fire. Instead of concentrating on political theatre and intrigues the media should be asking the tough questions on public service deliverables, backed by sound investigative journalism.
If you want to know what the Government really cares about, the first place to look is what it has the most information on. The government’s lack of reliable information on how many people live in the slums that dot Nairobi; or the number and location of unemployed youth; or the number and types of jobs that were created last month is a clear indication that these are not priority areas. I have written before on the need for professionalism in the public service. Collecting reliable and timely information, using it for planning, and measuring the outcomes of government projects are all key markers of professionalism. That is the challenge to President Kenyatta and his administration.
The writer is a PhD candidate at Stanford University