MUGA: Public participation is pure folly

Public participation
Public participation

Back in the day when an all-powerful centralised government controlled everything here, trying to get the average Kenyan to read a few lines on the financial management of their country was a fool’s errand.

The mere words ‘fiscal policy’ would be enough to make a reader turn the page. However, these days there seems to be a passionate interest in such matters, thanks largely to devolution and the creation of county governments.

And along with this we have seen increasingly strident demands that the locals must be consulted on all and any matters relating to the expenditure in their county.

However while this new interest in economics is a welcome development, there are limits to how enlightened the debates on county expenditures will be. Economics is, after all, a data-driven social science with its own objective modalities and frames of reference. Whereas politics is largely subjective.

So while each of us is entitled to personal opinions on who is a good governor or senator — or, for that matter, president — when it comes to economic priorities, we actually have to study the matters before us if we are to come to any useful conclusion.

Perhaps the best illustration of this, is in the frequent complaint that the county governments use most of their budget to pay salaries — which is a “recurrent” expense — and so do not have enough money left to devote to “development projects”.

Those who make this argument always end with the conclusion that it is this “skewed” expenditure pattern that leads to the county in question “being denied development”.

But we only need look back to the 1990s and the early days of the Constituency Development Fund, to see how profoundly mistaken this view is.

Back then, the creation of the CDF fund was considered a major breakthrough in our politics. The idea was that it would end the deeply entrenched “politics of patronage”, which had for years been practiced — with immense skill — by our president of the time, Daniel Moi.

With the coming of the CDF, it was taken for granted that MPs who previously had to kneel before Moi to beg for “development” – be it a road; or a school, or a clinic – would thenceforth have the resources to attend to these things themselves. And the CDF was structured to facilitate development projects only – it did not provide for recurrent expenses.

Further, even back then, we had MPs enlightened enough to engage in what is now popularly known as “public participation”: they went round their constituencies and asked their people to propose what should be done for them as a matter of greatest urgency.

Regular readers of this column will probably have already figured out where I am going with this: for there is a relevant example here which I have used before, and which perfectly crystallizes the folly of this blind belief in the wisdom of crowds; this shallow conviction that when the public is consulted, then all will go well.

As I have noted before, what most such MPs were asked to do – given that Kenya is a disease-endemic nation – was to build clinics. And subsequently, so many clinics were built all around the country, that there was simply no way the government could supply them all with drugs and medical staff. So we ended up with about a thousand “empty shell” clinics nationally, some of which eventually had to be converted to other uses.

And in Central Kenya, then greatly plagued by the deadly menace of the Mungiki sect, new police posts were prioritized in many places, and built through the CDF (complete with residential units for the keenly anticipated police officers). But there was simply no way the government could send enough policemen to occupy all these new posts, and so building them did little to stop the crime wave in Central Kenya.

My point then, is that this “public participation” fetish is pure folly. And so before we rush to judge governors who are accused of “spending all our money on paying staff salaries” we should consider who exactly these staff are, and whether or not they are needed.