Narrowly defined, politics is about conflict between or among groups competing to acquire or retain power. In its broader application, politics defines the complex relations in a society. It is about who gets what, where, when and how.
At its best, public policy is perhaps the most efficient, transparent way by which politics allocates public goods and services; roads, water, health centres and doctors, electricity, schools and teachers. The structure of modern government is designed to ensure responsive design of public policy to guarantee efficient and equitable allocation of public goods.
But policymaking is seldom simple. It is a complex enterprise, which must contend with uncertainty, non-linear feedback and unintended consequences. Any policy outcome we intend to deliver through public investment is inherently enmeshed in a complex web of relationships with a legion of determinant factors.
But policymakers, bureaucrats or politicians, are educated and accustomed to simple, linear approaches of input and output or cause and effect. An example of simplistic policy expectations is that free education will invariably expand access. But we know the consequences of such a well-intended policy prescription are far-reaching. Moreover, free maternity care will not necessarily raise the number of pregnant women choosing to deliver in a healthcare centre.
Policy decisions based on partial or incomplete understanding of the context is at best mediocre or outrightly wrongheaded. Consider the policy on free primary education (FPE), which was introduced in 2003. Some of the unintended outcomes of this seminal policy include a (perceived) inexorable decline of quality of learning as measured by reading, writing and math, and increase in enrollment and unprecedented rise in tuition.
The flourishing of private primary schools can be explained — partially — by the fact that relatively privileged parents who sent their children to schools in neighbourhoods such as Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Lavington transferred their children to private schools, avoiding the influx of children from low-income backgrounds. Moreover, studies show that when the combined monthly household income reaches Sh40,000, parents send their children to private schools.
In this silly election season, the main political groupings — Jubilee and NASA — have both promised free secondary education (FSE).
Again, the policy intention is noble — expansion of access and the aspiration to ensure that every Kenyan child completes secondary education. The cost of educating a child in Kenya’s top national schools is beyond the means of ordinary families.
What have we learned from nearly two decades of FPE? Waiving tuition did not dramatically increase enrollment in primary school.
The dominant perception is that the quality of education is lower in public primary schools. The demand for and investment in private primary schools sored dramatically with the introduction of FPE. The glorious era of elite public schools is nigh.
Will free secondary education raise enrollment without eroding quality or increasing demand for costly private secondary schools?
Like FPE, FSE will likely exacerbate inequality among Kenyan children by making access to quality education the preserve of middle and affluent classes.
Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University