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What it will take to execute Raila’s social protection policy

OPINION
By Tony Sisule | November 9th 2021

The proposal by ODM leader Raila Odinga to provide Sh6,000 for each poor family per month so that nobody sleeps hungry has sparked a debate on how it can be implemented if he were to be elected president next year. What would need to be done for such a bold proposal to be delivered cost-effectively for the benefit of Kenyans? I will address the “how” of social protection in this discourse.

How can Kenya afford expansion of social protection? Thieves steal Sh2 billion per day from Kenyans as President Uhuru Kenyatta once admitted. Jailing these thieves is the number one source of revenue to improve services to Kenyans. Going by this estimate pilfered haul, there is Sh700 billion a year, a whole one third of our current budget, that can be generated if courts start imposing stiff jail terms for convicted thieves of State resources. The rest of the thieves will then get scared from even imagining putting their sticky fingers in the national till.

The corrupt will fight back and seek to continue their lucrative theft, so only a bold president supporting prosecution and jailing of even his friends and relatives if they steal can achieve this. If the theft stops, Kenya will be on the way to prosperity and equal opportunities for all in no time.

Savings from what is plundered by corrupt officials and what they spend on luxury travel to hold unnecessary workshops on exotic beaches is more than enough to equip hospitals, pay doctors, nurses and other medical staff better, and provide free healthcare for all Kenyans. These savings would also be adequate to give Kenyan people and businesses a tax cut so they can invest and create a massive number of jobs for young people to work and save for their future. The late President John Magufuli of Tanzania stopped corruption and unnecessary travel by government officials, raising a huge amount of money that he used to build superb infrastructure and provide excellent services to Tanzanians. There is no reason Kenya cannot do the same if the president is bold.

Kenya spends so little on social protection, amounting to a mere 0.39 per cent of the GDP and only few people have contributory social insurance. As a result of this, every $1 spent on social protection moves poor people closer to escaping from under the poverty line by only $0.2 based on World Bank analysis of household income and expenditure surveys. In Mauritius, the same dollar moves the poor $0.28 closer to escaping poverty, while in South Africa it advances them by $0.25.

How can social protection programmes avoid government officials filling lists of beneficiaries with their relatives, friends and those who pay bribes to them? Every Kenyan is entitled to services without discrimination. Communities have to participate fully in systematically generating the list of the people who meet the criteria for social assistance based on objective indicators. A short survey would then have to be done by stakeholders guided by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) to verify that the listed people meet criteria such as number of needy children and adults, unemployment status, housing, water and sanitation conditions, as well as access to schools and healthcare.

Additional information such as medical certification of disability, basic checks of identity, and other vital information would be simultaneously completed. A beneficiary list corroborated by the community would be published for all to see. This process would have to be repeated regularly, after two or three years, to check for changes in circumstances and enrol new beneficiaries. Those whose conditions have improved to the extent of no longer satisfying the criteria graduate from the assistance they no longer need and use other government services such as support for businesses.

Monitoring and grievance redress conducted by civil society organisations and the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) would be used to investigate and resolve issues such as untimely payments and prosecution of anyone who steals funds or extorts money from beneficiaries. A database and user-facing digital service integrating mobile payments, as well as accounting and reporting modules, would be installed to ensure efficiency, lower administration costs and to cut out middlemen who impose unnecessary charges and take bribes that reduce what beneficiaries get, and inflate costs for the government. 

The government has a responsibility to create conducive conditions for all Kenyans to achieve their legitimate aspirations. In fact, it is a constitutional duty of the government to implement policies to realise provisions of Article 43 and 53-57 of the Constitution that guarantee Kenyans adequate healthcare, food, water, sanitation, education, social security and assistance in times of need. These are rights, not privileges for the government to dole out on a whim. Failure of the government to implement these provisions is a violation of rights and any Kenyan can sue it in courts of law, pursuant to Articles 22 and 23 of the Constitution.

The task of implementing social protection and establishing excellent conditions for businesses to create jobs is challenging. However, it is entirely viable and absolutely required for Kenya to make progress into a prosperous and inclusive society. The wealthier nations had elaborate social assistance such as free education, food banks, subsidised housing, cheap public transport, child tax credits, disability entitlements, and free healthcare when they were less developed. This enabled them to have educated and healthy people to work. At the same time, they facilitated businesses to thrive and create adequate employment and incomes for people. As people worked and earned more, their economies grew, and the virtuous cycle lifted most people out of poverty into prosperity. Majority of their people graduated into middle-class and can afford to save and contribute to insurance and taxes that provide services and cover risks of maternity, disability, ill health, unemployment and retirement.

Covid-19 has shown that these wealthier societies still need social assistance when an unexpected disaster such as the pandemic strikes. For example, the United States implemented one of the largest social assistance programmes since the post-Second World War era through the $2.3 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, providing for enhanced unemployment benefits for laid-off workers, tax cuts and loans on favourable terms for businesses, and free health services for Covid testing and treatment. This expenditure was about 11 per cent of the United States GDP, according to the paper, ‘State and Local Government Finances in the Covid-19 Era’ by Gordon Tracy et al. A further $1.9 trillion was spent in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to fund free Covid-19 vaccinations, support State and local governments, assist unemployed people, and provide child tax credits. This goes to show that there is no society, rich or poor, that can thrive without social protection for people.

Clearly, social assistance is a necessary condition for people to meet basic needs and be secure in life against adverse risks. Creation of a huge number of decent jobs through deregulation, tax cuts and incentives for businesses is a sufficient condition to realise long-term prosperity and an inclusive society. 

The writer is a policy analyst based in Geneva, Switzerland. ([email protected])

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