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The Trilemma of Contributing to the National Mercy Basket

President William Ruto flagged off food relief aid at State House to mitigate the effects of drought in 23 Counties on September 26, 2022. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

If we were to reverse the clock of history back to 11 years ago, our hearts will melt and our eyes be filled with tears of joy for the great acts of generosity demonstrated by the Kenyan people. The Midas touch here would be Kenya for Kenya initiative in July-August 2011.

At the time, an estimated 3.5 million Kenyans and about 500,000 refugees faced extreme starvation with some deaths reported in media outlets. Another 385,000 children were suffering from acute malnutrition. The then President Kibaki administration, through its official government spokesperson Alfred Mutua, denied knowledge of such deaths or even the famine itself.

This triggered the private sector initiative that was publicised by the media for Kenyans to stand up for their brothers and sisters ravaged by the famine.

The Safaricom Foundation, a key player in the architecture of the campaign reports that at least Sh677 million in cash and another estimated Sh300 million in kind were mobilised over the two months.

Probably ashamed by the success of the programme, the government later played a catch-up game through its then Special Programmes ministry. However, this was too little too late for the private sector had already stolen the show.

No lessons learned

In a functional democracy and civilised society, one would have hoped the government learned vital lessons from that experience and embarrassment. But alas! We are back to exactly the same spot we were those eleven years ago. Only this time, the public fundraising initiative is driven by the government itself through Executive Order No 2 of November 21, 2022. While dubbed a private sector-led initiative, it is directly placed under the office of the Deputy President.

Early successes reported from the convener office are that the Cabinet will forfeit a month’s salary in favour of the kitty; the Kenya Defense Forces has foregone a day’s salary; the National Youth Service is expected to make their contribution too.

Funding campaigns

While the need and the nobility of standing up with our fellow brethren in need are not in question, the government’s motivation to walk down this road is curious.

The last time I have ever heard of a government-led fundraising campaign was way back in the 1980/the 90s. The Moi administration had perfected the spirit of Harambees. At a personal level, I remember several times I was sent away from school for Sh10 per child contributions towards various public projects. Many parents were struggling to catch up with the cost-sharing system introduced in the early 1980s.

The Kibaki administration took a completely divergent policy on public fundraising activities by specifically barring public officials from direct involvement or soliciting contributions in public offices.

The Kenyatta administration kept off any such events except for the Covid-19 shock that demanded governments to take extraordinary measures. But even then, the generosity of the Kenyan people was rewarded with a bitter pill in the name of Covid millionaires.

The outcomes of these previous fund drive is probably the largest obstacle to the ongoing initiative. That may explain why it does not seem to attract the momentum similar to Kenya for Kenya initiative, despite the government lining up a team of prominent corporate leaders to drive it. Three important questions will be at play here: One, why does the government not seem to learn from these cyclical episodes to provide sustainable response mechanisms to these perennial droughts?

Two, why should anyone trust the government to fairly administrate voluntary contributions if it has failed to utilise mandatory taxes to protect public good and the most vulnerable? What practical interventions can the National Drought Mitigation Appeal Fund make to avoid public apathy toward its activities?

Pillar for Success

It is not yet clear as to whether the originator of the initiative was the private sector leaders or the government itself. But one thing is for sure, it was a bad idea to place it directly under the presidency. I foresee three key obstacles that if not correctly addressed may hamper its success and possibly impede the realisation of the intended objectives.

One is the question of trust and accountability – the primary reason behind the success of Kenya for Kenya initiative was that it operated completely outside government systems.

In fact, it was in response to the government’s failure to act on the drought situation. Folks were compelled to find their own solution to a challenge that is rightfully the government’s obligation. 

But this was not without our usual bad manners when it comes to accountability. The issue of expired food stuff and mummering around the utilisation of the funds will surely come to hound this ongoing initiative.

The biggest risk here, however, is the accountability of the Covid billions. To this date, the profiteers from the kindness of the Kenyan people through the worst pandemic in recent history have never been brought to book.

The question in the minds of most folks is what will be different this time? Two is the deeply entrenched informal and family fundraising activities across the country. This is formally referred to as the black tax.

Sad reality

In as much as the government seeks we extend our generosity through this formalised mercy basket, the sad reality is that majority, if not all average working Kenyans carry a huge burden in their respective families, communities and villages. Part of the reason this burden is particularly such a heavy load is the failure of the government to provide public services like quality healthcare, education, organised public transport, market access and a conducive investment climate for the economy to open quality employment opportunities.

This is after a huge tax burden that everyone agrees is one of the highest in the world. More sadly, there are no signs that the hustler nation has any intention to cut back on official extravagance and public waste.

While on the one hand, they issue circulars to cut public spending that support small businesses, on the other is parte after parte for senior officials and their entourage.

For instance, official reports indicate Kenya had one of the highest delegations in the just concluded COP27 in Egypt. The President is said to have had more than 60 orderlies by himself.

The government delegate count was probably more than twice what rich economies sent to Sharm el Sheikh. This raises fundamental questions about our ability to get priorities right and the sincerity of these public charades to fundraise.

Finally is the problem of contribution fatigue –in many forums among friends and colleagues, I have heard tales of how those of us who have the privilege of a formal job has been reduced to walking M-PESA-linked ATMs. I have my own stories to tell too…..some day. To add a government Paybill number to this list would probably require a special kind of persuasion.

Ultimately, however, it is a big shame for the government to walk down this road 60 years into independence and especially after all these past scenes.

Whatever is the case, never should a government that prides itself to have a sense of decorum walk its citizen down such a path again!