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Census: Economists, not politicians, should have more say on Kenya’s data

By XN Iraki | Nov 10th 2019 | 7 min read
By XN Iraki | November 10th 2019
Where is data on number of immigrants, dual citizens and population pyramids, which show the population distribution across the various age groups?

The preliminary census data released by the government recently is highly summarised. We need more details to make informed decisions and for deeper analysis. We got the forest, we need the trees.

Where is data on number of immigrants, dual citizens and population pyramids, which show the population distribution across the various age groups? What proportion of Kenyans is less than 14 or above 64 years?

The census questionnaire had lots of questions; we look forward to data on each of them. In the age of supercomputers, and soon quantum computing, releasing full census results should not be that hard unless we want to test the waters first.

The first people to comment on the census data were politicians, not economists. None is commenting on the high population density, which matters more than the raw numbers. Their greatest concern is that in their regions the numbers are not as high as expected!

Politicians are pretending they do not know a fact; numbers are a necessary but not sufficient condition to win elections. Money matters too. Why do American republicans and democrats compete on who will raise more funds? With money you can sway the voters, not necessarily through bribing them. Remember the reason why Americans want to impeach Donald Trump? Remember Cambridge Analytica?

Politicians love numbers, through them they gain power. Through numbers they bargain with each other over big political posts. That will play out if the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) proposes more big political posts. Sadly, politicians do not look at voters’ economic status, the rich and poor each represent one vote. To a politician you are vote, we can debate about your economic status later.

The political interest in the census numbers is driven by another reason, revenue sharing. The current revenue sharing formula puts population weight at 45 per cent. A reduction in population could lead to lower allocation of funds. That is what irks many of the governors. We need a formula for revenue generation too.

One curious observation is that 17 counties have a population of more than one million citizens. These will become the focus of political strategists. If the constituencies will be aligned to new population data, expect some drama. And if BBI comes to light, the new census results will matter even more. Is it by accident that census results came out before BBI? My hunch tells me no.

There was not much drama in the released numbers except debunking the myth that there are too many women; there are only 466,600 more than men and statistically insignificant. Men need to invent another lie to justify having multiple sexual partners.

The falling inter-census population growth rate, now at 2.2 per cent, shows our population is growing at a decreasing rate and will soon stabilise. Rising literacy, access to contraceptives and economic reality are pushing Kenyans to small families.

Did the structural adjustment programmes, which ended government support for lots of social programs and economic pains, thereof contribute to population decline? Have we factored in the long term effect of Aids?

The reduction in number per household is another indicator that our population growth is stabilising. This simple statistic is a good proxy for the level of economic development with more developed areas having fewer people per household. In addition, having a small family is considered ‘cool’ and a hallmark of modernity.

A sober economist will suggest that more resources be channelled to regions with a higher number per household to improve their economic status. Was that not the purpose of the Equalisation Fund? We would get higher economic returns in the long run if we invested more in such regions. The reasoning is that ‘developed regions’ have stabilised their growth while the underdeveloped regions have a huge unexploited potential. Foreign firms like investing in Africa for the same reason. 

The best part of the preliminary census data, which is a drop in the ocean going by the census questionnaire, was population density. This is fodder for investors and policy makers. Ideally, invest where people are concentrated; it is a big market and reduces your transport costs if you are producing goods. Think of beer or milk.

For the governments, including county, population density raises the question on provision of services such as sewerage, education, health, security and infrastructure. While politicians see voters in slums, economists see unexploited potential and an underserved population.

We should focus more on quality of the population than quantity, the 47.6 million citizens. Most projections had given about 50 million; no one is asking why the discrepancy. We should not follow the Nigerian example, where population numbers depend on who you ask. But we are following their example by giving more power to governors.

Instead of complaining about the number of citizens per county, we should be focusing on their quality of life. What is their average income? Are they meeting their basic needs such as housing, food, health and clothes? What is their level of education? Are they employed? We could even be more radical; are they happy with their lives? What are their expectations about tomorrow? What is their confidence in the economy?

Most Kenyans are complaining there is no money. It is not that there is no money, the confidence in the economy is low, hence little spending and slowdown in money circulation. The fear of being targeted by the taxman could be sending lots of money under the radar, kept it from circulation and held in banks or even at home.

Uncertainty could be postponing a lot of investment and consumption decisions. We could ask why there is a feeling of economic gloom after the handshake, we all expected a spike. Did it reduce competition, leading to a slowdown? Are key economic players still sceptical about it? Did the handshake lock out some economic players, leading to less economic activities?

The demonetisation of the Sh1,000 note might have sent a signal to those holding big money either legally or illegally that they were being watched closely. Did that slow down the economy? Are we feeling the ‘crowding effect’, where government has borrowed at the expense of real economic players like you and me? Isn’t money in private hands more efficiently used than in public hands?

Let us be blunt: We need to spend less time talking about the men-women ratio and focus on what matters, the well-being of 48 million Kenyans. The truth is that political well-being is easier to deal with, just stir emotions. Economic well-being requires sweat and hard work.

What the average Kenyan needs to realise, and that came out clearly from the preliminary census results, is that they are valued as voters more than economic players. Every year, the government releases the economic survey just before the budget. Ever heard politicians commenting on it as loudly as they have on the census? It is not that way elsewhere. As we were releasing Kibra poll results, China was talking about sixth generation Internet service.

Data from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that 83 per cent of jobs in Kenya are in the informal sector, meaning that most citizens’ economic welfare depends on themselves. That will not change with census results.

Higher population means higher competition for scarce resources, from water to land and even clean air (why do we love leafy suburbs?). Noted how mountains, forests and riparian land are under threat from a burgeoning population?

How do we balance this population growth against available resources? Should that not be the focus of our politicians instead of raw numbers? A visit to our mountains from Mau to Aberdares, Cherangani, Mbooni or Mt Kenya leaves no doubt our population is looking for space to expand. That is space is not there. In Nairobi, the once dry and neglected plains are now homes, from Umoja to Kamulu.

As politicians whine about numbers, let them know we are not as lucky as Britons or the Irish who over the years left for USA, Australia and other colonies to ease the population pressure. Even today, it is easier for them to migrate to those regions because of cultural similarities, including language. How many Kenyans have relocated to other African countries?

The focus on quality of the population has a bearing on foreign investors and entrepreneurs. If the population has a higher income or purchasing power, the market becomes more attractive for investment and jobs. Noted how China created such a huge middle class with high purchasing power that we all forgot it is a communist country?

Have we forgotten that Vision 2030 was about transforming Kenyan into a prosperous middle income country? Such a transformation is not just about numbers, but what they own and their economic productivity. In our towns and hamlets, we are met by idle men and women who would greatly enhance economic productivity if they worked. Interestingly, they still vote.

To KNBS, we are eagerly waiting for the full census results. Please give us this data in Excel format so that we crunch the numbers for insights, trends and patterns either for academic curiosity or investment opportunities.

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