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Balancing the State and people power

Eight years ago I wrote a column about Why Nations Fail, the book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and more recently I acquired the subsequent one by these two economics professors, The Narrow Corridor.

It’s another global analysis of how liberty and wellbeing flourish in some states but degenerate to authoritarianism or anarchy in others.

New opportunities and threats emerge, as some successful societies continue to thrive while others falter.

In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson concluded that nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are much more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few.

Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, which distribute political power widely so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.

Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold on to power.

What are they telling us now, in The Narrow Corridor? In most places and at most times, the strong have dominated the weak, and human freedom has been suppressed – either by force or merely through customs and norms.

States have either been too weak to protect individuals from these threats or they have been too strong for people to protect themselves from despotism. Liberty emerges only when a delicate balance is struck between the state and society.

Which nations are more likely to succeed and to fail today? Which countries are becoming more inclusive in their economics and politics, and which ones will be leaving the narrow corridor of balanced liberty that requires adequate but not excessive state power?

With Covid having intensified inequality between rich and poor, between the digital and the non-digital, is the corridor narrowing further – including in countries like America?

And with ones like Hungary, India, Turkey and the Philippines having shifted to more autocratic styles, we have been confronted with the reality that political liberty is not such a steady or durable phenomenon.

Is Kenya within or beyond the narrow corridor? And either way, where are our ever-manoeuvring politicians taking us? Are we still just passive citizens waiting for our tribal princes to tell us for whom to vote?

Or will we at last select those who best understand what lies within the narrow corridor and how to have us inhabit this privileged space?

If America itself is finding it hard, with Republicans burying their heads in the Trumpian sands as they deny truth and sneer at science, and with us facing our elections in a year’s time, should this be cause for gloom and doom?

During our years since independence it could be argued that we have done better than many other countries – and not just in Africa – at surviving within the narrow corridor, balancing the power of the state and that of the people.

We should feel good about our evolution into multi-party politics and the devolution of power to the counties, about our reasonable freedom of speech and our relatively open economy.

Could we have done better? Of course. Will we? That’s a hard one. We have among us everything from Utopian optimists to self-flagellating pessimists.

What’s for sure is that, as everywhere, the struggle between state and society will continue. But it is not further constitutional tweaks, with yet more laws and regulations that will take us closer into the desired corridor or keep us there.

And it is not more duplication and fragmentation of state institutions.

No. It is all to do with values and how these are reflected in behaviour. How are we encouraging good behaviour, that promotes integrity and cohesion? And how are we penalising bad behaviour that prevents it?

We citizens must take seriously our responsibility for influencing the leaders of state institutions in ways that can see our vision of shared prosperity be actualised.

With all the talent and energy that exists in Kenya, surely this is doable.

Let’s return to quest for a new vision

In my last column I wrote about John Ngumi’s quest for a vision of Kenya, one that will help us emerge from our national malaise and offer a national goal and purpose that can excite and focus us.

Mr Ngumi worried that we live in a time of great cynicism and scepticism, with disbelief in the goodness, wisdom or purpose of anything government says or does, and a belief that those who lead us are uniformly selfish, greedy and immoral. This, he worried, has led us to having low expectations about our future, thanks to diminished national self-belief and self-confidence.

Despite these challenges, Mr Ngumi saw much to feel good about – in ICT, manufacturing, infrastructure development and elsewhere – providing an excellent base from which to galvanise our energies, drive and ingenuity. But for us to believe we must have a sense of purpose, a national ambition, he felt, and so – through me – he called for ideas.

What feedback did I receive from my article? What messages were proposed to inspire us, ones that previous vision statements (as laid out by Mr Ngumi in my article) failed to deliver?

Muriu Ngumi castigated the government for its fixation on numbers – ones like GDP growth and kilometres of road built. He called for not just the delivery of prosperity but alongside it for “a life of dignity”, where our children have a decent education that gives them a chance at a future where families can rely on the healthcare system and have adequate housing; a job to support them and their families; a police force and courts that are fair and protect society; and a government that respects our rights.

In his column that appeared the day after mine – in which he referred to Ngumi and my challenge – Dennis Kabaara laid out what he saw as being required for Kenya’s new normal under Covid-19, a more human “whole of society” view of the future, one that Kenyan families want and that keeps us away from the BBI of “Big Baron Interests”.

Mr Kabaara suggested we must develop a sustainable agriculture sector that provides us with all the food we need. He called for a fulfilment of basic rights that comprise education (including skills for life – as in the new Competency Based Curriculum), health, shelter, water and sanitation.

Next, access to assets and income opportunities, with R&D and innovation centres in counties and their regional blocs. Then participatory governance; and finally security and safety at a family level.

Hindpal Jabbal’s input aligned nicely with these contributions, as he reckoned “the one vision that Kenya lacks is self-reliance”. So he proposed this vision statement: “Kuji Jenga”… referring me to his April 2016 Daily Nation article in which he bemoaned our culture of dependency (along with our corrupt ways and our extreme inequality).

Where does Mike Eldon fit into all this? First, building on the earlier point of going beyond measures such as GDP and length of roads, Muriu Ngumi and I ask the question “So what?”. What is the impact of these outputs, the consequential benefits for the people of Kenya?

How do they lead to shared prosperity, as envisaged in our Vision 2030 but which has so far been, to put it mildly, elusive – now exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis?

I applaud the visionaries, while adding the need for managing the actualisation of their visions. For at least as important as crafting a vision is serious “performance management for results” (my preferred term over M&E). This has been sorely lacking, and partly thanks to the fragmentation of such functions between multiple agencies, each operating in its own silo.

We have the Presidential Delivery Unit, now in the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government; the Monitoring and Evaluation Directorate in the Ministry of Finance and Planning; and the Vision 2030 Delivery Secretariat, a semi-autonomous government agency. Surely these should be brought together.

Having said that, more and more of our counties are establishing county delivery units, or service delivery units, and these are becoming increasingly effective in achieving precisely what they were set up to do, enhancing the delivery of services to citizens. And in the emerging economic blocs, in particular the Lake Region one, they are coordinating initiatives between counties to achieve synergy among them.

In Kenya as elsewhere, we must build that more inclusive society, one that reverses the trend towards wealth for the few and allows for universal dignity.

This conversation is far from over. Please let’s keep it going.

Why Kenya needs brand new vision

From time to time I am fortunate to be exposed to the highly thoughtful, well-informed and articulate WhatsApps of John Ngumi, and his most recent was one of his best. In it he asked for “an idea, a vision of Kenya, that will help get us out of our national malaise, will give us a national goal and purpose that can excite and focus us all”.

With that he took a step back into history, starting with the immediate pre-Independence period, when the national goal and cry was “Uhuru”, regularly interchanged with “Uhuru na Kenyatta”. These reflected a fervent belief that with Independence, and with Jomo Kenyatta freed from imprisonment and leading his people, all would be well for the future.

In the immediate post-Independence years, Ngumi reminded us, the national focus changed to “Uhuru na Kazi”. There may not have been unanimity as to what this actually entailed, and there were fierce ideological battles on what “Uhuru” meant to various groups of Kenyans, some who had benefited and some who had lost out. But there was a consensus that while we had hard work ahead of us to build a nation, we could do it.

The seventies saw malaise, cynicism and anger start getting into the national body politic, a result partly of the political turmoils of the 1960s, but also because of an inevitable sense of let-down as we grappled with nascent nationhood and its challenges.

There was a short-lived attempt to reignite a sense of national purpose through the Mwai Kibaki-led “The Kenya We Want” initiative, which sought to get us focused on the difficult economic years ahead post the 1973 oil price rise and subsequent global recession, acknowledging that we no longer had easy economic options. This never really caught on.

A brief period of optimism in the late 1970s and early 1980s was then followed by a time about which the less said about national visions, dreams and goals, the better.

The Second Liberation of the late 1980s refocused and galvanised Kenyans, eventually leading to the heady days of 2002-3, when all seemed possible. We didn’t really have a galvanising rallying call thereafter. That was not in the character or style of President Kibaki, but we did have a sense of doing things, with Vision 2030 epitomising the calm, somewhat dry, technocratic approach favoured by his administration.
And today? It struck Ngumi that we have reached a period “in which cynicism and scepticism reign supreme, a widespread and almost automatic disbelief in the goodness, wisdom or purpose of anything government says or does, a belief that what’s-in-it-for-me is the ruling ethos among any who get a sniff at public office and power, that those who lead will grab, steal, manipulate all systems and institutions, in order to amass and retain wealth, power and privileges. Truly a dispiriting moment of low expectations, and even lower national self-belief and self-confidence.”

And yet, Ngumi insists, good, positive things are happening all around us. Innovation in the digital and wider IT space. An emerging rediscovery of MSMEs’ potential. A Covid-induced increasing confidence that we actually can manufacture things that we had always assumed had to be imported.

A tentative start, again Covid-induced, to tackling long standing problems such as cleaning up our towns, using initiatives like Kazi Mtaani. A laying down of infrastructure which, no matter how expensively acquired, is there, can be used. A fierce constitutionalism and sense of rights among the citizenry, who increasingly do not hesitate to assert their rights, including resorting to legal action. A growing willingness and determination to hold leaders to account at all levels.

In short, Ngumi is telling us that “Yes We Can”. But not if we don’t believe it. And for us to believe we can we must have a goal, a sense of purpose, a national ambition around which we can galvanise our energies, drive and ingenuity.

YES WE CAN

He doesn’t think “attaining middle income status by 20…” or suchlike will do it for us.

We’ll just yawn cynically, he believes. He would love for us to have a grand ambition, like leading an African Renaissance.

Thabo Mbeki tried that, to general continental indifference.

Obama beat us to Yes We Can. And yet Ngumi feels we need a spark to release all these fierce energies and drive that we have in great abundance, to turn these positively outward towards national goals.

Ngumi concluded his Whatsapp by asking for ideas, and so – with his permission – that’s how I close… for now. Ideas please, readers!