Counties expenditure review too important to be casual about

The Controller of Budget’s (COB) 2018/19 Quarter One County budget implementation review report, as covered by media houses, rightly depressed many Kenyans. Many Kenyans’ hope is locked in the possibilities wrought by devolution. The numbers in the report spoke of betrayal. From the media reports, the narrative was clear; devolution had failed to deliver on its promise. Instead of money being spent on development, majority of counties were splurging on salaries, travel and MCA allowances.

The media reports highlighted counties that had spent nothing on development while majority had spent less that 10 per cent of their revenue on development. Without further elaboration, this should cause sufficient angst as counties were meant to be the new engines of development, not imbibers of expenditure for non-essential spending.

The pundits, who Kenyans depend on for opinions on reality, turned up in the TV stations, waxing lyrical about the betrayal of the people by county governments. It was clear from the discussions that few had read the actual COB report, though it is accessible in the COB website. What many fail to realise is that this narrative of “county governments just wasting money” is part of a well-orchestrated campaign to demean devolution. Many within the central political and bureaucratic establishment long for the days of centralism. Any mud thrown on devolution makes assault by attrition easier until we can go back to their “good old days” of centralised government.

The media is an unwitting accomplice in this assault on devolution. How you assess the success of the assault is to imagine how ludicrous a campaign similar to Isaac Ruto’s “pesa mashinani” campaign would sound today. Such a campaign would be laughed out of town; people wrongly believe that more money is being wasted and stolen at the devolved units than at the centre.

SEE ALSO :Counties on the spot as wage bill increases

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not against criticism of governors, some of whom have been a disaster in implementing devolution. They must be censured. Governors who allow wastage and larceny in their counties deserve a firing squad in Uhuru Park for they are betraying Kenya’s sole hope for equitable and effective development. What I am asking is for balanced, and most of all, informed reporting.

In this instance, the first error in the media coverage was the failure to analyse the release of revenue to counties from the Treasury and its implication on development spending. I have gone through the COB report. Most counties hardly received money in the three months of the financial year covered by the report. Those who received got little in the development vote and got it late. It’s a marvel that some still managed to spend within the quarter.

A sampling of counties will show that many spent almost 100 per cent of the money they received in respect of the development vote. What would have been so difficult for media to analyse and report on this aspect? The public was left with the narrative that money was released but wrongly spent on non-essentials instead of development.

The other major problem in this discourse is that we have learnt to demonise “recurrent expenditure.” People forget that the bulk of recurrent expenditure is for recurrent essential services. For many counties, medical supplies, salaries for health workers and teachers in ECD facilities takes more than 50 per cent of their recurrent expenditure. What was so difficult in analysing these expenditures so it does not send the message that money is being misused to pay county fat cats?

Finally, I was concerned such aspects like the huge differentials between county spending on certain items was left out of the discourse. Why would one county pay MCAs Sh120,000 per month on allowances while another pays Sh10,000? Why would one county spend Sh70 million on MCA travel while its neighbor spends Sh15 million? These are the discussions that would help hold county officers accountable, not the generalised “billions spent on salaries, not development” chorus we heard this weekend. This issue goes to the very survival of Kenya as a nation state. It is too important to be casual about.

SEE ALSO :Counties on the spot as wage bill increases by Sh14 billion

- The writer is Advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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Controller of BudgetCOBMCA allowances