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Sunday, April 28, 2013

What it takes to transform Kenya

Before his brutal murder in 1975, an idealistic leader remarked hyperbolically that Kenya was a nation of 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars. JM Kariuki was lamenting Kenya’s nascent oligarchy. Like in post-communist Russia an aristocracy was forming among Kenya’s kleptocratic political and public service elite. 
43.4% or 2 out of every 5 Kenyans live in conditions of extreme poverty, subsisting on less than KES105 a day. In 2011, the richest 10% of households spent 14.3 times more than the poorest 10% of households. Such high levels of inequality have serious implications for political and socio-economic development, undermining the tenuous foundations of our young democracy. Despite a decade of unprecedented GDP growth, a worrying rift of inequality runs deep in our society.
Kenya’s working age population is expanding by 800,000 annually while the modern sector wage jobs are growing at 50,000 per year. This means that only a paltry 6.25% of those entering the workforce can find a decent job. According to a recent UNDP report, 80% of Kenya’s unemployed is between 15 and 34 years old. And here is what should worry planners out of their wits; circa 16.6 million Kenyans, more than 41% of the population, is below 15 years of age and it is projected that this number will double by 2045.
The most obvious consequence is that such pervasive unemployment begets enduring poverty. According to the 2009 census, only 2 million of 14.5 million Kenyans in employment have stable jobs, which pay a living wage. 12.5 million Kenyans are employed in sectors that are highly vulnerable and do not pay enough to lift our fellow citizens out of poverty. This explains, in part, why 60% of Nairobi’s population is trapped in slums and spends more than 75% of $2 on food per day. According to a report Urban Poverty and Vulnerability in Kenya by Oxfam GB Kenya program, urban food poverty in Nairobi increased from 38% in 1997 to 41% in 2006.
Poverty and inequality in Kenya are deeply structural and have been long in the making, hence not amenable to the exigencies and guiles of electoral rhetoric. While there are many bold elements in the Jubilee manifesto, they are not sufficient to subvert the dominant and pernicious logic of the colonial and post-colonial ideology that produced what is problematic with the structures of state, the economy, and our political and social culture.
To deliver on its transformation agenda, this administration must re-imagine the logic of the State. It must understand that it governs for and on behalf of the citizens; that they are servants of the citizens. We have cause to worry. The brazen agitation by the elected leaders promotes self-aggrandizement, not servant leadership. Moreover, the emotional interest that surrounded the naming of cabinet secretaries underlines the macabre zero sum ethnic blood spot that continues to undermine our quest for nationhood.
Three ideas could lay the foundation for this administration’s transformation agenda. First, it must cut the size of government; make it lean and launch the true engine of growth; enterprise and private sector growth. We must eliminate low paying government jobs like driving and clerical functions. Imagine how many high quality jobs and private businesses would be created for our youth if government outsourced transportation and automated public records. The billions of shillings saved in wages, purchase and maintenance of vehicles could be used to hire more teachers, policemen, nurses and doctors.
Second, this administration must revamp our education system and liberate our children to think, create and compete in a globalized knowledge economy. The raison d'être of our education system was to produce unthinking literate natives for the colonial administration. Our education drills imagination and capability out of children and converts a vast majority into failures; in 2011 the average score in KSCE Math and English was 21% and 36.7% respectively. I wish I were making this up.
Third, this administration must promote and protect devolution, a fundamental constitutional principle. The hegemony of centralized state power has been the most virulent purveyor of tribalism, inequality and underdevelopment. For 50 years political rights have been appropriated by a band of ethnic elites, government has been uncountable and corrupt, and a majority of Kenyans cannot take advantage of economic opportunities to prosper.
President Kenyatta has the historic opportunity to preside over the transfer of power to citizens, transform the political and socio-economic logic, and build an equitable and prosperous society. Will he seize it? 

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