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We need an 'all hands on deck' moment to build Kenya we want

 Police officers managing a crowd during a past political rally in Meru County. [George Kaimenyi, Standard]

Is it the world, or is it Kenya, or Africa, that's getting worse? Are we really doing worse than before?

No, these are not questions about the economy, though there is some link. Neither are they about our politics, or the general state of politics in the world. They are about society's state.

State of society, you ask? Yes, it's an amorphous term. It is also my initial response to the observed increase in mayhem, violence, squalor and all manner of other societal ills and negatives that pervade our evening prime-time news. Sticking with Kenya for now, what's happening to us?

These are not easy-going reflections. They point us back to the heavy debates among the great philosophers of the past (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Rawls) on the state of nature, beginning with the frightening idea that life was essentially "man eat man" until we eventually ordered, or rather mutually bargained, ourselves into society, and then into government. Is this where we are, in the Hobbesian state where life is still "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"?

There is obviously a deeper philosophical discussion to be had here, but in the daily swings and roundabouts of life, the question that arises is why all of this stuff we stress ourselves about on economic recovery, bottom-up hustlers, universal incomes and health and the like really matter? What changes when we get to double-digit economic growth, or change the constitution again?

Are we spending so much time fixing the hardware in our politics and economy that we are neglecting the underlying software that is society; the "utu/ubuntu" that "I am because we are"? We might take this lightly but I will point you to a body of academic work that seeks to understand the resilience of the African informal sector through the lens of the "utu/ubuntu" business model.

This is no sermon, yet one feels a sense of imbalance and uncertainty in Kenya's forward path. This is not about the current Kenya Kwanza administration. I have tried to capture this feeling in words before when Covid-19 was at its peak in these parts. All the language was about saving lives and livelihoods.

The first was about health; the second was about income. In a general sense, the difference between developed and developing country responses to the pandemic was that the former prioritised the former and the latter prioritised the latter. Not to say both were not priorities.

But here is the point. We narrowed the response to a binary. In the wider scheme of things, we ignored the potential effects of a third, longer-term dimension - living. Covid-19 changed living for a long while. In high social capital places like Kenya, families were reduced to virtual contact, school-going children went idle and teenage pregnancies among young girls ballooned, we still don't know what else young boys were doing, and older members of society were essentially marooned. It is not beyond any wit to consider that lockdowns returned many to a state of nature.

Covid-19 impact

We may lament the huge challenges that we have faced in rebuilding our livelihoods in the past two years, but one suspects we have not fully understood Covid-19's impact on living, and society.

This is a simple illustration from a recent time of challenge. But it's more than that. I have previously made the argument that there are three things that bother Kenyans at the basic level of societal and community interaction. Inequality that celebrates outcomes not opportunities. Injustice that favours rich over poor. Indignity that criminalizes all that is deemed incorrect. That's the triple-whammy that defines the State of Society (Living), not the Nation or Economy.

Society is itself the collective of Communities that bring together Families. How many times have you heard that the answer to Kenya's challenges lies in restoring the importance of the family as the basic social unit or at least, the household as the basic economic unit?

By example, what would a responsive agenda and plan beyond ministries, sectors or industries look like if it was instead built around our 12 million households when we know that half are in farming and nine out of 10 farming households operate at subsistence level? What does every household need and want?

Yes, back to my five basics. Food. Basics (education, healthcare, shelter, water and sanitation and security). As Nobel Economics Laureate Amartya Sen adds, a "true sense of community" as a further basic.

Then decent income or dignified livelihood opportunities, or access to assets. Four, the ability to participate not just at elections, but between them in daily public affairs. Finally, safety in public spaces and private spaces; and accessible justice. Simply, an Article 43 template.

Then again, not all households are equal. So the basics are addressed in a way that speaks to equitizes and equalizes four opportunity inequalities - gender, geography, inter-generational (children, youth, middle-aged, older members of society) and social exclusion (discriminations). In technocrat-speak, think about a household-to-household matrix that adjust basics to accommodate inequalities, and tell me this isn't the ultimate tool for bottom-up development.

But we are running ahead of ourselves again. And we are already instrumentalising the problem. Let's get back to the wider point on society. As I have written before, there was a moment we almost thought further. At the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, late President Mwai Kibaki referred to Kenya's three-legged stool. The first was Kenya Vision 2030, which spoke mostly to the economic leg on the stool, although it made provisions for social and political pillars.

The second, he noted was the Constitution itself. To quote from his official address on August 27, 2010, "...with the promulgation of this Constitution, we must change our approach to politics. We must enhance the role of truly competitive ideas and methods of getting the country to be a developed society in the shortest time possible..." before adding "...(it) usher(s) in new ways of conducting public affairs, particularly in the elected and appointed state and public offices". For Kibaki, the Constitution represented the political leg of the stool.

Less known was the third leg of the stool, recommended in a ghosted article in the dailies that day. The idea, to repeat, was a Social Vision for Kenya, building on lessons from the earlier Malaysia experience, including an important lesson about building better local content into the vision.

Indeed, one interestingly unusual critique had the following to say as Malaysia's vision entered its third medium-term planning horizon, "...the emphasis is wealth creation and growth, not human development and stewardship of the environment...is the knowledge-based society to "raise economic productivity in all economic sectors and optimise the brain power of the nation" or to "develop the material, moral, cultural and spiritual dimensions of the human being"?"

And this is the larger point. The Social Vision, as a vision for society, would infuse "local content" into the "technical" constitution and economic vision. It removes the debate about whether or not Kenyans are ready for the constitution or the constitution is ready for Kenyans.

It isn't a vision about socio-economic sectors such as education, health or water. This vision paints a compelling picture of tomorrow's Kenyan society from a community, family and household perspective.

Alternatively when we lift the veil, the picture of today is often a state of nature, not even reason. Some might say that a societal vision is exactly what the religious sector seeks for Kenya, except that it's beaten down by politicians.

Other will argue from an Article 8 lens that there shall be no State religion, which is not the same thing as excluding the religious sector from participation in public affairs. And there is a sense in which one does not see culture, as well as art in our national aspirations. My take is this we have an "all hands on deck" moment" not the time for invitations.

This is not a futuristic adventure; but do we have the wherewithal to reimagine society for good? Let's conclude with a prediction come true about Kenya as a society, not a country or business.

In a previous life almost 20 years ago - long before Vision 2030 or the Constitution - I quietly listened at a meeting to an MP eloquently and presciently warning that the long-term fix for Kenya wasn't about our dilapidated economic or failing governance infrastructure; it would be about our teetering moral superstructure. Simply, collapse would be societal. The MP was a reverend.

But this is no sermon. Let's instead call it a summons to build the Kenyan society we deserve.

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