• It is 2020 and the country is struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
• Again, Kenyans have been called upon to reach into their empty pockets to raise funds to mitigate Covid-19. This is not sustainable
The year was 1963. Kenya had just achieved independence and there were all sorts of works that needed to be done to build the new nation. The Mijikenda word Halumbe, meaning to ‘pull or push together’, was the perfect slogan to mobilise the people.
Perhaps because of the inverted relationship between the Gikuyu tongue and the letters ‘R’ and ‘L’, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta couldn’t properly pronounce the Mijikenda word ‘Halumbe’. Nevertheless, it was perfect for his purposes. Everywhere he went it was the rallying cry: Halumbe! But due to the influence of mother tongue, it came out as Harumbe (later modified to Harambee), the version that stuck.
The slogan continued to be used long after Independence and long after Mzee’s death as an instrument to mobilise social and economic resources to meet national and local needs. It reached spectacular heights when the ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ initiative raised over Sh1 billion in 2011 to respond to the devastating drought.
Unfortunately, the good idea of Harambee was never institutionalised, leaving it open to abuse by politicians and charlatans, who are often the same thing.
It is 2020 and the country is struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Add to it the floods that have hit various parts of the country. Again, Kenyans have been called upon to reach into their empty pockets to raise funds to mitigate Covid-19. Government employees are even taking pay cuts and cash diverted to Covid-19 response.
While this would have been commendable in 1963, it ridiculous in 2020. Kenya is now a mature country that should have outgrown ad hoc responses to unforeseen disasters for such responses are not effective and sustainable. They are, in fact, a joke.
It is time to get serious and create a national emergency fund that can address any emergency that confronts the country. Be it war, an earthquake, or the next pandemic, we need to create an emergency fund that is worth the dignity of the biggest economy in east and central Africa. We could call it the Harambee Fund.
How would it work? Well, it is important to acknowledge that Kenya does have such a fund, of sorts. It is called the Contingencies Fund, created by Article 208 of the constitution. Unfortunately, it is a big joke as well.
It is a big joke because it is limited to only Sh10 billion and is administered by the National Treasury Cabinet Secretary, supposedly under the supervision of Parliament, but not really.
The CS can use the funds for whatever reason and then notify Parliament two weeks later. And even then, not a single dime is set aside in advance. This situation makes us all a bunch of losers every time disaster strikes. And if I know anything about disasters, it is that they always strike.
From a policy perspective, we can turn from losers to winners by ensuring the Harambee Fund is financed by obliging the government to save a certain fixed percentage of total tax collections.
Say it is five per cent. In the last full financial year, KRA collected Sh1.5 trillion. If there had been a law obliging the government to set aside five per cent of this money before paying the Chinese, before paying the cartels, and even before paying teachers or doctors, then it would have had a solid war chest of Sh75 billion ready for use when Covid-9 struck.
Furthermore, if the Jubilee government had been obliged to do this every year over the last eight years of its existence, it would have saved over Sh500 billion in this fund. It wouldn't be begging for donations.
This, of course, assumes that enough controls would exist to prevent the fund from being looted and the money diverted to untraceable accounts. Parliament would need to reinforce the fund with a law that is bulletproof, keeping it safe from being raided by any sitting President to finance their projects such as Vision 2030 or the Big Four agenda.
It would strictly be an emergency fund, activated by a declaration of emergency declared by the President and approved by Parliament before being spent. If we do that, we can comfortably tell off the IMF whenever they try to exploit emergencies to make us adopt exploitative policies.
Patrick Kariuki is a writer and communication consultant battling his way through Covid-19, one paragraph at a time.