Finance Bill and the danger of have and have-nots narrative

Public workers Unions demonstrate over the proposed hoiusing levy in the Finance Bill 20203. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

There is a great danger in continuing with the narrative of the haves and have-nots as not only stated in the debatable Finance Bill but also as elaborated by its proponents. Basically, the argument in baby language is this: ‘See that chap there, has monies that you, the poor, could actually benefit from. That chap has no right to have all that money.”

The subtext in the argument follows then that it is alright to tax the haves in order to uplift the poor. Put differently, tax the fortunate to support the unfortunate. Sounds morally right, doesn’t it? This is a whole PhD thesis so let me abstract the risks we face as a country if we do not repurpose the tax discourse.

The first risk is framing the tax narrative in a misjudged messianic language. We surely need the poor to be uplifted. We need them to afford, at the very least two meals a day. If we can add some reasonable clothing, access to affordable medical care and an education system that gives hope to children that will be more than anyone can ask of the government given our current economic performance.

The risk of a disguised messianic approach to economic growth is that it lays the burden of providing for everyone on the “good guy” who is to liberate the citizens from the “bad guys.” So the “good guy” will go around giving tokens and centralising everything so that every citizen will sing praises to the one and only “good guy” and the team around the person.

Embedded in the approach is a disempowerment of institutions and individuals of talent who should spur economic growth. All people want for their living is an enabling environment.

The second risk is the othering of people with pay slips. To grow an economy, you do not want to pit one group against another. In rural areas a school teacher is a target of all manner of fundraising. In reality, we know that a teacher earns a gross salary of about Sh40,000.

If the narrative of the haves and have-nots continues unchecked, people with hardly anything to feed on will turn into anyone with a pay slip – notwithstanding what the figure of the pay slip is – for forced support. Remember the dynasty-versus-hustler’s narrative that saw those in the lower ranks begin to label those they perceived to be rich as dynasties and started attacking them? Ultimately, we risk creating a conflictual class society.

The third risk is blinding the citizens from interrogating the bigger question of public fund wastage and stealing. The billions spent in trips, functions and workshops that are unnecessary or that can be done through alternative platforms are enough to provide free housing for those deserving or queueing to get one. Other than roaring against corruption, there is very little in public knowledge to show that public funds are not to be handled by itchy-to-steal high level cartels.

Down the line, if the Finance Bill passes, the fourth risk lies in people believing that they have a right to the property of those who have large tracts of land. In spite of land being an emotive issue in Kenya, politicians of national status have time and again proposed to and even attempted to invade other people’s land with an aim of possessing it.

This time, if we do not reimagine the kind of economic development model that works for the have-nots, some people will feel empowered to start invading other people’s property as if it were their right.

Lastly, we face a real risk of creating a false sense of service delivery entitlement both on the side of duty bearers and the demand side. We need to be absolutely careful that we do not feed the public with unattainable goals and hopes just because we want power. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere did not create a Singapore in his country, Tanzania, yet he left a humanistic legacy of Undugu – true spirit of national unity.

Dr Mokua is executive director, Loyola Centre for Media and Communication