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Analysis: This is President William Ruto's headache

President William Ruto receives a wheelbarrow gift in Mathira, Nyeri, on October 31, 2020. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

He is only a week in office, but President William Ruto already faces immense public expectation. His job will require a fine balance between three roles: socio-economy, governance and security. His actions will be judged from their economic, social and political impacts.

His agenda will need to holistically practice five things – good policy, planning, public finance, service delivery and foreign policy. The first four will define the international response to his presidency. Because these four are, in their negative, the ills that define Kenya’s corruption. Then there are the “hustlers”.

By the time of this writing, his key nominations to deliver his agenda have probably already been announced. Parliament will vet his choices by peering into these persons and their personalities.

It was known from an early stage that there would be no “handshake” forthcoming; the Opposition would not participate in this presidency. And why would it? Where would oversight come from? The different question might be if Kenya Kwanza is a more efficient deal-making presidency than Jubilee. This might explain the rationale behind the logic of Cabinet and other leadership choices.

Cost of living

The more interesting point here is that this is a narrative which focuses on the “whom” without our understanding of the “what”. Because the “what” is essentially what Kenyans apparently voted for. Social media has been full of this “what” in cutting the cost of living in a new era of freedom.

Unga, fuel and milk prices down, with free internet and calls and no more fuliza.  More teachers and higher police salaries. Disband the Naivasha dry port, as well as a couple of large Kenyan corporates. This is just a sample. Notice how many of these calls are about simple things in life.

President Ruto’s first “what” happened at his inauguration. This is what he announced. Appointing six judges and expanding funding to the Judiciary. Providing accounting officer authority to our top cop. Reverting clearing and forwarding from Naivasha to Mombasa. Establishing a ministry of cooperatives and SME development, and elevating diaspora issues to the ministerial level. Providing fertiliser to farmers at reduced prices.

Expediting the payment of pending bills. Transferring pending devolved functions and supporting finances to counties. Introducing credit scores and deleting the shilling limit on banking declarations. Subjecting the curriculum-based curriculum (CBC) to a task force review. Making his predecessor a regional peace envoy.

Power costs

That was Day One. By Day Three, fuel and electricity prices were significantly up. That’s the IMF part that Kenya Kwanza must navigate. But it’s not just the IMF. To quote the opening words in his party manifesto “…we are presently confronted by three economic challenges that have converged into the perfect economic storm…the first is an external shock of rising inflation and interest rates, occasioned by Covid-19 related global supply chain bottlenecks, the economic stimulus spending in the major economies and the Ukraine war…the second challenge is fiscal distress…the third force is the structural imbalances and weaknesses in the real economy…”

We may super-impose these three dimensions of thought onto Ruto’s agenda for Kenya. The perfect economic storm cannot be fixed in 100 days. But Kenyans want the cost of living to fall by next week, or month. In this mix his first orders, symbolic as they were, sounded rather transactional, if not populist. And this is exactly the point. Kenya’s fix must be about creating an effective policy regime that solves our “wicked” problems, not efficient transactions to please us.

This is why the “what” matters so much. Dr Ruto inherits an administration that budgets through ten sectors, plans through 25 and measures the economy (important given his economic transformation agenda) around 21 sectors. The real challenge for him will be in organising his delivery strategy, because he has shown that he is efficient, into results that prove effectiveness. 

In terms he will understand, Kenya needs to find a far better mix between 4Es – economy, efficiency, effectiveness and excellence. Economy is about least cost full stop. Efficiency is the productive result of least cost (getting the most output from the least input), which some refer to as “doing things right”. Effectiveness translates this efficiency into outcomes and impacts, or “doing the right things”. Excellence is simple: “doing the right things right”. This is his “what” agenda that starts from “why”, goes to “how”, and ends with “whom and when”. Performance 101.

This is the supply-side language that will not excite Kenyans. But it is the language of government. And it is the sort of language that might help in politically preparing Kenyans for pain before gain in admitting that 30-day expectations will not be delivered in 100 days. Even 12 months is optimistic.

Let’s work through a few of sectors in the manifesto to see why this might be the case. We can start with education, where a CBC review was promised. Actually, the real promise is to take a fresh look at our examinations system, pay for teacher training, improve secondary school capacity and amalgamate higher education funding to level the playing field in a way that guarantees every child at least 12 years of schooling.

Or take healthcare, where the promise is to publicly fund all primary health care, seamlessly treatment financing through public and private funding and create another public fund for medical conditions not normally covered by insurance. On agriculture, there are ideas around farmer support that must surely go beyond inputs, while it will be interesting to see how the informal part of MSMEs is decriminalised, financialized and formalized all at the same time.

Using the Hustler Fund when it is created for EV boda boda assembly would be quite exciting, as would, say, turning around Kenya Power and Kenya Airways. Increasing urban housing supply by 250,000 a year, creating a million-household mortgage market and adding 100,000km of fibre optic cable while shifting focus from large dams to smaller household and community water projects and sustaining haphazard sports funding will be miracles.

Big bang

Lest we forget, all of this is part of the Kenya Kwanza manifesto, which has many more things to say about many more things. There is something of a “big bang” feel to its 130 or so commitments to Kenyans. Yet, within it is a market-facing value chain philosophy guiding some of its economic thinking that feels quite different from our usual produce-first supply chain view of the world. The really interesting part here might be that the execution wing known as public service don’t get it. They have been bombarded with many manifestos since 1963, yet their work was defined in 1963.

Which leaves us with two final thoughts. President Ruto’s agenda has a hard part and a smart one. The hard part is defined by the aforementioned economic reality, including current fiscal distress.

Government needs as much money as it can get from as many people as it can find.  We normally call this tax collection. Then it needs public spending that is as economical as it is efficient, as efficient as it is effective and as excellent as it is efficient and effective.  It is difficult to contemplate how this is done with an inventory of today; basically a real public spending review.

The smart part is actually easier if the hard part is done well. Think of the two as “good” and “bad” bank strategy that an expatriate bank CEO once used to explain his fix for one of our big banks a generation ago. The hard part addresses bad, the smart part builds good. But what is good?  That’s the wrong question. The correct one is what does smart look like? Here is a final helicopter view.

Here is also where we get back to the beginning. What is President Ruto’s “Theory of the Economy”? Manifesto language aside, is it big or small government? But that is an old question. The new question, in a smart way, if what is his “Theory of Development and Service Delivery?” At the cutting edge, this is the answeredquestion that might be needed.

Does a CBC review address our education package – quality, quantity, lifelong learning or students vs teachers vs infrastructure vs teaching materials? Are the health and housing packages sufficiently resourced not simply on buildings but actual people and tools of work delivery?  Smart begins here.

Policy justification

And here is the really smart part. Is there a Terms of Reference for the nominated that offers, within 60 days, a policy justification for their ministerial mandates, and a strategy on how to execute? By example on policy, is education and health public, private or in constitutional context? By illustration on jobs for youth, is there a role for our fourth sector social enterprise? By description on forthcoming super-PPPs that privatise highways from Mombasa to Nakuru, does this make economic sense? Only policy and strategy justifications will answer these questions.

It is still early days in Ruto’s presidency. Let’s see if it’s a transactions or policy one. Kenyans now ask hard “what” questions that trump “whom”. Our interesting journey continues.