End county cash row to save devolution dream

The standoff between the national and county governments is undermining the operations of the State. Those in charge must realise that the country risks grinding to a halt if the different entities fail to work together.

If counties fail, the national government will have equally failed. We must, therefore, drop the grandstanding. There must be some understanding and level of tolerance between counties and the central government, one that captures nationalism.

Looking at the roadblocks on the path of devolution, I doubt whether the drafters of the Constitution and subsequent laws fully internalised the meaning of devolution.

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The true meaning of devolution is captured in a statement on February 25, 1615 when Francis Bacon in an address to King James I said: “Do not discourage the natural desire of your people to associate for economic purposes, lest one day their inhibited desires seek an outlet in the revolution.”

No wonder violence or protests and even deaths preceded the new Constitution whose main content was devolution. The national government must be made aware that counties have tasted economic power and are unlikely to let it go.

In real devolution, national governments grant power to counties to enable them to have authority over their own affairs.

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In a fully devolved system, the national or union government as it is referred to in India, maintains power over national security and defence and foreign affairs. The county governments are allowed to make laws, set up courts, and regulate education.

In Kenya, it was felt that counties had different needs that the State was not serving or not interested in satisfying.

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To many, devolution is equated to independence from the arrogant and inconsiderate central government. The principle of devolution was that the national government only performs those activities which cannot be done at the county level, and counties agree on what the State should do.

The framework under which the national government decides what counties should do and starving them of funds is not true to the spirit of devolution. It’s a recipe for much-needed reforms in the country.

It is this dissoluteness in the philosophy that is setting up the National Assembly against the Senate, which if not addressed could prove to be a  ticking time bomb. The correct framework in which counties set the national agenda will be effective, manageable and less costly because they will only have 47 members in each house.

Each county will have one MP and a senator. We have experimented with a Parliament that has a large number of members with disastrous results.

The answer to a dysfunctional large number in a decision context is found in Arrow’s impossibility theorem. When decision-makers are too many and less informed, then no system of voting can be devised that will consistently represent the underlying preferences of voters.

Cash allocations

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Devolving power would mean that counties tame this monster that is the State. Parliament should not be seen to undermine the financial viability of counties by reducing cash allocations. There must be a full understanding of the financial relationship between the two governments. Devolution should be about both revenue and expenditure.

We are in a situation where the transfer of revenue from the National Treasury to counties is not tied to specific projects.

This has opened a window for the waste of funds in counties. It is true the national government must have enough funds to meet its needs, but money needs are not static.

This explains why the constitution created the Commission on Revenue Allocation to compute how cash is shared between the two levels of government. Devolution will only be successful if it is accompanied by resources. Delaying remittance of funds to counties is bad.

The sharing of funds between the two governments must be activity driven to address inequalities. Some counties have low skills, high unemployment as well as underemployment. Such devolved units need more support. Within counties, the leadership must work to improve lives. Whatever development you bring to a county, be it roads or a new port, must benefit the locals first.

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Devolution is about increasing the quality of life of the people. You cannot achieve much without the support of the people whose lives you want to uplift.

Hopefully, the governors will re-engineer county activities to move away from self-aggrandisement to projects that create jobs for the youth to reduce the dependency ratio.

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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