Opinion: Rethink policy of printing exam papers and ballots abroad

Students seated in a hall at Kisumu Boys High School wait for the invigilators to verify exam security seals on November 5, 2018 before the start of mathematics paper. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

One of the most difficult presentations I have made over my 12-year training career has been on the public policy discourse. This is not because the subject matter is complex itself, but because many presume the written documents are what constitute policy. Far from it, public policy is the lived meaning of the letter of the written edict.

Put differently, the test of a good policy is its practical relevance and application to solve that which it was meant to address and impact society positively. However, sometimes policies produce unintended consequences.

To cut a long story short, my idea for this article emanates from media reports this week that a high-powered delegation from the Ministry of Education left for the UK for two weeks to oversee printing of the 2021 national examinations.

For sure, this will pass as ordinary news around town in this part of the world. After all, another high-powered delegation would soon be departing to Greece to oversee the printing of ballot papers for the August 9 General Election. However, this raises serious economic policy questions for a sound macroeconomic analyst. To try and make sense, let us review one of the key priorities of the Jubilee administration over the past five years.

If memory serves me well, I want to believe billions of shillings have been sunk towards stimulating the manufacturing target of the Big Four agenda. This is either directly into relevant projects or through the enablers of this key result area. Looking further ahead into the value chain, we invest billions of public resources into the education sector to develop human capital, which is a critical driver of economic growth.

Value creation

But in the long term, what we call the manufacturing sector is the transformation of learned and experiential knowledge into value creation through the production process. Any acquired knowledge that is not translated or integrated into the productive capacity of human labour is both deadstock and investment.

Several questions quickly come to mind: One, is it true that as a country we have no capacity to print our own national examinations and ballot papers? If this were true then, is printing technology within the purview of what we teach in our technical institutions and universities? Two, if the concern is about security and leakage, what are the responsibilities of the intelligence and security apparatus in the country? Why do we pour so much money into them if they cannot assure the credibility of a basic process such as printing examinations?

Three, what should learners think of the education they are getting if there is no one in the country who can be trusted to print their exams? Should they pick the related field of study as a future career option? Who shall employ them or give them business should they invest in the sector in future? Finally, how do we get a return on investment and value for money if we have to import such a basic service? Do these huge contracts eventually put pressure on our exchange rate equilibrium? Should we be spending our thin dollar reserves on such basic services?

Article 227(2) of the Constitution and sections 155 and 157 of the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act 2015 allow for a window for preference and reservations on public spending. The Public Procurement Regulations of 2020 (Part XII) detail the guidelines for effecting these affirmative interventions to promote consumption by the government from within the economy. The import of these legal instruments is to allow local businesses an opportunity to participate and compete in the government tendering process.

In layman’s terms, public policy is viewed as the laws, priorities and governmental actions that reflect the attitudes and rules selected for the public. In essence, therefore, the drafters of the Constitution and our procurement legal instruments intended that public money be ploughed back into the economy as far as is possible. In addition, there still exist executive edicts that at least 25 per cent of all government procurement be reserved for small and minority group-owned businesses. A further 40 per cent of spending on big contracts ought to be sourced from local suppliers.

Tangible evidence

While these qualify as major policy propositions, tracing credible evidence on their application is a tall order. Personally, I am not aware of any single public entity that can provide tangible evidence as to how well these policies are implemented. On the contrary, there is plenty of information in both mainstream and social media of how the very same policy proposals are exploited to profit a few with access to political and executive power within the country.

As alluded to on this page before, one of the major pitfalls of gross domestic product and per capita incomes as measures of economic growth are their inability to deconstruct the structures of the economy. For instance, we have had an impressive GDP growth rate for three consecutive quarters now, but does this mean better economic indicators at household and business levels? While huge infrastructure spending gets measured in the GDP indicator, if the supplies are not sourced from local industries it does not translate to better economic activity.

For instance, if traders import supplies from foreign countries and resell the same to government entities, does that meet the intended outcome of the 40 per cent local supplies objective? At face value, the objective may seem to have been met, but it negates the intent of growing the local productive capacity of the economy.

Drawing lessons from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt classic on ‘How Democracies Die’, the functioning of a healthy economy goes beyond written constitutions, laws and institutions. It requires organised efforts by the society, pro-developmental norms/traditions, and a practical sense of duty of care by those in positions of authority.

Ethnic cocoons

Political institutions must build within themselves structures to obstruct extremists from accessing power that can be used to destroy economic institutions. Unfortunately for us, there are no political systems to safeguard extremists and the mediocre from accessing power. By design, the society has been profiled into ethnic cocoons and majority denied basic economic rights and freedoms. This is demonstrable by the deeply entrenched handout culture that reigns supreme in our political process despite the law criminalising such behaviour.

The oversight institutions and enforcers of the law watch helplessly as these evils and illegalities are carried out in broad daylight. Ask any political aspirant right now–over 95 per cent of their potential voters would not attend any political gathering without pay or expectation to receive a bribe. It does not matter how brilliant your ideas are; you are judged and/or condemned purely based on the size of your bribe or ethnic affiliations.

At the political party level, those with fat wallets and not good ideas or competence get the party certificates. It counts a lot to be seen as the preferred choice by the tribal kingpin. Given this toxic system of choosing the men and women who later dictate public policy, it comes as no surprise to watch the economic fundamentals crumbling before our eyes.

As the campaign fever goes a notch higher, it has been reduced to ‘thief-calling' as opposed to proposals to rescue the voting masses from poverty. The voting poor masses, on their part, look to be enjoying the gravy train into their status quo come August 10. The informed and middle class are uninterested bystanders as the movie unfolds.

Tragically, no one notices the abnormality of flying first class to a foreign capital to oversight a printing job. Our former colonial masters are happy–and tomorrow shall surely be another day of joblessness for the very learners being examined.       

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