From policy to results: Why Kenya deserves a leader focused on governance and rule of law

No country is not corrupt is the wrong statement. [Courtesy]

This may not exactly be the time to hark back to a central premise of this column; that Kenya needs and deserves – after three securocrats and one econocrat – a “governator”, or more simply put, a governance and rule of law leader. 

As previously said, there is a plausible agenda that fights corruption without declaring war; a national security frame that is as human as it protects the State, and an holistic devolution strategy that gets that national government’s role is to support in order that counties may then deliver. A governance and rule of law leader doesn’t direct the economy, (s)he releases us to our true potential.

The obvious question that emerges is which between democracy and development is priority. In a world where current debate has very quickly focused in our thinking and reflecting on the Covid-19 moment on the “decolonisation of economics teaching” (capitalism, winner takes it all, individualism etc), the only surprise is that more of the leading-edge thinking is coming from the white than black of the world. Yet, these are higher-order questions for Africans, and Kenya, and how we arrange ourselves as society.

In our currently loud and noisy political moments, we tend to forget that democracy is one of several societal contracts within which the order of power and resources is arranged, even as we worship leaders who offer development as physical “completed projects”, rather than real human progress.

Goodies are king

Within the societal arrangement of democracy which we now practice, “goodies are king”.  Yet, as noted in the previous part to this column, we hear the reality of our times, but vote for fantasy.

In that earlier part, the basic point made was simple. In these dreamy times of the future that our prospective leadership candidates offer us, especially at national level, nobody is asking who pays for it.

We narrowed this down to a public finance management (PFM) problem not as the Holy Grail, but as an initial marker for the discipline we must demand from our leaders. 

The real discipline of the Singapore, South Korea or Malaysia level; of why Japan is a mega-economy less than a century after “the bomb”, or Germany is where it is as a leader not simply in Europe but the world are proper questions to begin with.

A corruption lens is useful here. No country is not corrupt is the wrong statement. Countries are not corrupt, people are. When, as is said, “the fish starts rotting from the head”, the easy picture is one of an increasingly corrupt people copying top behaviour and then electing an increasingly corrupt leadership in a veritable Game of Thrones in which everyone is pig Napoleon in an Animal Farm without pig Snowball.

Peter Ekeh’s 1970s view is especially disturbing. When we conflate public and private good, there is neither civics, nor civility.  It is a race to the bottom in every sense of the term. “Mali ya umma” belongs to nobody but everybody, except that everybody is in the rat race.

In the Kenyan context, it is truly disturbing that, by example, we find ourselves in a situation where a public-private fund established in law to support responses to the Covid-19 pandemic transmogrified into a private company, and no-one is the wiser.

For the record, the fund was created under our PFM rules. Parliament will tell us how it became a private company. And this is exactly where we are. Corruption is the negative way to think about it. The responsive way may ask four questions (back to the framework). The problem solving question (Covid-19 control, mitigation and response) is a search for policy. The implementation question might have started with planning based on needs assessments.  The funding idea might have been more transparent. The spending questions might have focused on transparent and public not private budgets, if there were any.

Which is why if you really want to understand the content of your next President’s agenda, it begins with cash, or PFM.

If, by extreme example, we have run out of land in Kenya, what budget provisions are available to buy them on Mars or the moon, since we have a fully staffed National (Outer) Space Agency? Or in our electric power context, how may we contribute to our nuclear energy agenda (yes, another fully staffed agency) as we struggle with expensive gas and revert to charcoal and kerosene?

But, here is your question. Does good, or better, PFM fix Kenya? Of course it would, but this is the wrong question. A correct one may explore why PFM, and not development, or real human progress is our issue. It is difficult to reconcile modernising SGR spaceship and Nairobi Expressway monstrosity with extreme hunger from manageable drought where your next meat is likely flavoured with cartons.

Would good, or better, PFM offer a winning formula for the leadership we now need? It is difficult to say. Personal experience and observation suggests that Kenya has probably the most competent PFM (Treasury and Planning) team in Africa outside South Africa. It is a team that is resistant to change because it was created for the job of stability. The difference between former President Mwai Kibaki and President Uhuru Kenyatta is that the former incentivised them, while the latter has ignored and side-stepped them on the big things for Kenya.

Hence the gazillion unviable projects now on our official portfolio outside of policy and programmes. And the recent Zambia-like surprise that our next leader might encounter in debt unknown but now real and payable. Bretton Woods already knows we are more debt than economy when we count parastatals.

Which brings us back to the four points of PFM discipline we explored in the first part of this column within the context of Kenya’s future leadership and the mass of promises offered to Kenyans at large.

On PFM discipline, what is the plan to stop an over-budgeting and over-promising culture that now pervades sectors and ministries? On MTEF discipline, what is the plan to think long, not short? On development discipline, how do you create a government that switches it around? People come with problems. Competent government fixes them. Simply, government policy as problem solving resolves peoples’ needs through projects that fit programmes inspired by policy that’s political. 

Indeed, there is a way to think about this, as our potential leader, as something beyond PFM numbers to a wider PEM (public expenditure framework) perspective that takes us from policy to results. The ultimate tragedy in nine years of Sh5 trillion in development spending of which Sh2 trillion was infrastructure is two-fold. First, SGR was Sh500 billion of infrastructure. Second, where did the other Sh4.5 billion go?

Pandora’s box

Election 2022 is terribly interesting in its fresh, revolutionary promises. At a day to day level, the promises shall not work if the PFM system does not work; except by serious corruption. From a PFM view, 2022 is a nasty cocktail; at a practical level between Aladdin’s Lamp and Pandora’s Box.

In other words, there are no practical answers to pay for the promises.

The different, technical way to think about PFM is through indicators. A school built is a completed activity. When our children go to school, we have an output. If they learn stuff, we have an outcome. If that learning changes  our lives, that is impact. Who is speaking to these points as our next leader? And, pray, who pays for this beautiful investment?

Which brings us – before a real understanding that “bottom-up” begins with a household-level national and county budget perspective - to a final, tangential question in PFM context. 

How will you deliver and satisfy the IMF and the people?  We made our bed, and, we must lie in it. Legal marijuana may help. As long as the governance and rule of law leader we vote in does not imbibe da ting!