How to inculcate participatory democracy

At the Communications Policy Research: south conference in Maropeng, South Africa, Prof Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) used a story to explain why we must take an integrated approach to policy development and implementation.

The story was based on his experience when he led a team of academics, government and industry practitioners to develop a financial inclusion solution for a village in south India. The solution included setting up of teller machines in remote parts of the country.

They physically demonstrated how the machine would work. It was easy to withdraw the cash. A local chief, too, inserted his card, entered his PIN and the machine dispensed money.

The chief was dismayed to see only new notes but kept his cool. Later, he called the villagers to show them the notes. They too were shocked and vowed never to use the machine that seemingly dispensed what looked like counterfeit bills.

A few days later, the bank’s chief came to find out why the villagers were not using the facility.


He discovered that the only way the villagers knew that cash was genuine was when it had been used, and they considered anything else counterfeit. When the bank changed to old notes, the villagers began to use the teller machines in large numbers.

The import of this story is about inclusive decision making process and acceptance by the people. The other key messages from the story is the importance of integrating technology, economics and social sciences.

Leveraging on the “Indian theory of genuine cash”, I took time to review the Scottish referendum that takes place today in the United Kingdom.

They are to decide whether to remain part of Great Britain or become an independent country. Those for and against have made convincing arguments to support their stand. Commentaries from both sides are laden with facts and figures.

Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister of Scotland, says in her closing arguments published in Time magazine that the Scots are only one per cent of the European Union’s population but have about 60 per cent of the EU’s conventional oil reserves, about a quarter of the continent’s offshore renewable energy potential and some of the richest fishing waters in Europe.

The problem is that despite that great wealth, many people do not feel its benefit. Parts of Scotland still have life-expectancy statistics that lag well behind those in the rest of the UK and Europe, and the UK as a whole has become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.

It is these analyses and poll results from various agencies predicting imminent separation that has made investors to start walking away from British funds.

In the past two months, several news agencies report that more than $2 billion (Sh178 billion) has been withdrawn from UK equity funds, which could spell doom for the stocks.

Did the British not know what the Scots considered as “genuine cash”? How did the British fail for more than 300 years to build a fully integrated nation? Some of the most powerful arguments by the Scottish nationalists centre on economics.

These are difficult questions but those against separation like Rory Stewart, a Scot and a Conservative Member of the British Parliament argues in a Time article that Britain will be stronger if they stick together and not to be deceived by their resources that have all along benefited all of Britain.

That in solidarity they will not just benefit from traditions and democratic process but also the economics of trade and banking support.

In my view, a separation in the UK would create an unstable Europe considering the fact that it will solidify the case for other separatist movements such as Catalonia in Spain.

Going back to the genuine cash metaphor, it is the citizens that decide whether a policy proposal is right or wrong but in our case in Kenya, it seems that the messengers keep on pushing a people’s agenda without consultations.

Take, for example, the pesa mashinani initiative by the governors and ask yourself, what would be the justification of spending resources on a referendum when there are provisions to increase county funding without going back to the people?

My wish is that one day we wake up to find our leaders with a carefully prepared argument for citizens to reflect on before endorsing it.

When you look at the work that has led the Scots to make a strong case for separation and compare it with what is going on in Kenya, one would conclude that our “masaragata” (without serious thought) attitude only takes us back many years.

The writer is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi, and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.