Use the budget season to show Kenyans how to revive economy

Shoppers purchasing packets of subsidized maize flour at a supermarket in Nakuru City. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

Not for the first or last time, the beloved country that we call Kenya is experiencing the sort of moment that the Chinese euphemistically refer to as, to paraphrase, “living in interesting times”.

Quite visibly, we have our endless political theatre, day and night.  In our latest act of this permanent political play, we are stuck on something called “bipartisan talks”. That these talks are currently stalled should not surprise anyone. There is no end-game for either side of our political divide because the game is the end; endless elite jockeying over power not justice or progress.

Think “talks before the talks”, “parliamentary talks”, “extra-parliamentary talks” and the rest of it. Now there’s even talk of secession as a response to provocative rhetoric about a Kenya with “shareholders”. How and when does all of this put food on our tables, or money in our pockets?

More painfully, we have one foot in the door of a full-blown economic crisis.  The lived experience for many Kenyans today is little hope with a fast rising cost of living. Most aren’t interested in the difficult global environment, the Russia-Ukraine war or the collapsing shilling. And that’s even before we get to the fiscal chaos inherited from the previous administration or the structural economic imbalance (“dynasties vs hustlers”) that sustains our post-colonial administrative state.  

So, on the one hand, we hear loud and continuing “we will, we shall” promises in all manner of public functions. On the other, we hear quieter “it will take time” whispers from the same political leadership that increasingly seems completely tone-deaf to the “food on table, money in pockets” issues of today. First it was “give us a year”. Last week, it was “give us two to three years”.

Hell, why don’t we admit it will take us at least a full five-year business and economic cycle – at the minimum - to recover and reframe this economy? Which would mean admitting the crisis as today’s picture, paring back promises to nowhere, and walking us through the path to tomorrow’s picture.  To repeat for the umpteenth time, this requires a mindset change from electioneering to governing. It also requires a mindset that moves from “rear view mirror” bombast to hard choices.

Consider the above background to be a deliberately generalised framing of where we are today. It is a pessimistic framing that worries about when Kenya will ever get to the “step-change” moment that every Kenyan deserves; the “light bulb” moment that understands where we are -  baseline - where we came from - context – and where we think we should be – concept/vision.

But let’s turn this around. The fact of the matter is the Kenya Kwanza administration has spent its first nine months behaving as if it is still on the campaign trail, as if the election isn’t quite won. While Azimio remains stuck in a twilight zone in which the real election didn’t actually happen. The long and the short of this is we are talking at, not to, each other, especially at political level.

And yet, to repeat, we are at the peak of a key budget season. It’s Kenya Kwanza’s opportunity to translate its electoral promises into plans and budgets. It’s President William Ruto’s first chance to set out, comprehensively and coherently, his transformative policy/legislative agenda for Kenya.

Which is why one cannot fail to be impressed by the ongoing debate that our constitution provided for on the Finance Bill in general, and the Housing Fund in particular. These are the discussions we need as a country that wants to be a nation. ny good student of communications will notice the shift that is happening – especially in the past week - from political posturing as positions that our pompous politicos hold to policy questions that go back to fixing the problems of the people.

Take the Housing Fund as an example. My personal view is contextual.  There was only one Lee Kuan Yew. So my starting interrogation of the affordable and social housing idea begins from the MPH culture that underpinned his world-acclaimed Public Housing Scheme. MPH? A leadership culture built around (M)eritocracy in public service appointments, (P)ragmatism that doesn’t reinvent the wheel and basic (H)onesty. That’s the context that gives us our baseline (where we are). Which founds further answers on “why” first, then “what”, and finally “how” and “whom”.

It’s complex than that but the debate happening should answer the “why” and “how” questions before bombarding us with “what” answers with much silence on “whom”.

Of course, the Housing Fund debate is a bit of a distraction, because the wider debate – given over 1,000 submissions and over 80 presentations made by various stakeholders to National Assembly’s Finance and Planning Committees – is about the Finance Bill itself. Again, a big picture view on the excellent submissions might help.  The reported tax impact of this Bill is around Sh250 billion, which is roughly the same number that Kenya Kwanza wants to use to grow government spending.

In other words, Kenya Kwanza needs to tax us more to spend more to fulfil its electoral promises. But it doesn’t really want to seriously address the bloated and wasteful spending base it inherited.

Yet, to repeat, the real debate in our current budget season – which is when electioneering stops and governance begins – is about debt, revenue, spending and the economy.  There are questions about why we have a recent Parliament-approved debt management strategy that speaks nothing to a debt crisis that makes us dependent on and subservient to Bretton Woods cash and conditions.

The real revenue question we need to be debating is how, based on the budget projections, we expect to collect almost a trillion more in taxes in 2023/24 than is reasonably projected for a current 2022/23 that looks like it will actually perform worse than the 2021/22 numbers Jubilee left us. If the Finance Bill only accounts for a quarter of the 2023/24, then where will the rest come from?

The real spending debate is why we need a Sh3.6 trillion budget when it might have been Sh3 trillion. It is beyond reality that ongoing ministerial submissions to Parliament’s departmental committees have pretty much been about resource shortfalls rather than program adjustments.  It’s a cultural problem we have in Kenya – revenue is always chasing expenditure; not guiding it.

The elephant in the room of all of this is the economy. Now that we have a debt crisis that is driving our fiscus, and a collapsing shilling, where is the policy debate we need beyond a fiscal “tail” that is wagging our economic “dog”?  This is the debate that gets us to question why we need “funds” to solve our economic problems, as if government as problem-solving policy doesn’t believe in government as planning, budgeting and spending. It is a debate beyond roadside declarations – a factory here, a road there, or a fancy sounding initiative offered to villagers.

There is a huge irony in our obsession on “visible” government, when Singapore is now thinking and piloting “invisible” government that gets out of the way, but works as a backstopping platform.  That’s where our public debate needs to take us; to Economy 2.0 undergirded by Government 2.0.

None of this is necessarily rocket science. But, to get back to our political cacophony, how do we build on the Housing Fund/Finance Bill/Budget discourse that we are enjoying and experiencing? 

The starting point must be to translate our “us and them” arguments into an “all of us” discourse and debate. I will throw this first at Kenya Kwanza as the administration in place. You have had nine months to organise yourselves into what you believe to be a full-fledged US-style presidential administration. If you were different, we would have better clarity on your agenda going forward.

Let’s see in Parliament a proper Debt Management Strategy that speaks to reality. Let’s see a Revenue Plan that sits on top of the Finance Bill as an adjustment tool. Let’s see a Spending Plan that is programmatic and not projectised. And mostly, as you will learn from the US, let’s see a proper Policy and Legislative Agenda placed before Parliament that speaks to your proposals on economic recovery, turnaround and transformation.  That’s our constitutional demand.

What about Azimio? Think of your identity crisis that the Constitution missed as an opportunity, not a millstone. It is one thing to oppose an idea, but it is another to offer a credible alternative. Indeed, taking this to the next level, isn’t it your place to demand a more complete debt, revenue, spending and economic policy and legislative agenda from the ruling administration, or more smartly, offer one if Kenya Kwanza is fooling us? Opposing is fine, but show us your difference.

Here’s the real point today. I am increasingly convinced and confident that Kenya and Kenyans have fine ideas to fix our economy. Our politics need to become a forum that gets this going. And our current budget season offers exactly the right moment for Kenya to get serious about this.