Find lasting solutions to societal problems

If a foreigner visiting Kenya for a few days reads our newspapers, he or she would conclude that we are a community of whiners with an astonishingly short memory.

We grumble then forget, only to complain about the same issues days later. God knows how many times we have complained about hospitals discriminating against people who have no money for deposit – mostly the poor.

Parliament never heard the complaints to develop the necessary legislation to stop this blatant denial of a basic human right.

The late Alex Madaga, who died after waiting in an ambulance for 18 hours, was denied access to care in his hour of need. Hospitals wanted deposits before treating an emergency, while some said they didn’t have the specialised equipment needed to treat his serious injuries sustained in an accident. I wonder if Madaga would have been treated the same if he were the son of a wealthy Kenyan.

Parliament has not expressed shock or outrage at how hospital emergencies are being handled. Perhaps they are too busy with politics.


Meanwhile, Kenyans are back to complaining again. Virtually every article you read in newspapers is grousing about something. More often we point fingers at the government.

This phenomenon is not unique to Kenya. What is characteristic of Kenya is the fact that we never seek for solutions to avoid recurrence of such problems. We just complain loudly, then forget about it, or hope things will fix themselves. No lessons studied, none learnt.

There are emerging concepts for dealing with complex social problems without being perpetually petulant about them.

These concepts seek to take advantage of multiplicity of knowledge and enabling resources to deal with problems today rather than wait for them to fester.

I use today’s column to introduce to you some of the new thinking around solving social problems. This is motivated by the fact that the public has lost trust in the very institutions we created to deal with some of our most pressing problems like poverty.

Let’s also bear in mind that there is no single expert who can solve today’s complex problems. I strongly feel that there is need to establish some mechanisms to develop solutions fitting the challenges we face while moving away from politically and selfishly driven decision making.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came up with a new concept called Collaborative Initiatives that aims to solve deep-rooted societal issues by engaging experts from a broad range of disciplines both within and outside the scope of a problem.

For example, deep-rooted problems in our healthcare sector will not just need the healthcare professionals to find the solution.

Instead, the concept dictates that you need social scientists, educationists, anthropologists, insurance experts, lawyers and other experts to sit together and seek solutions. The outcome of an expert team-based discussion will certainly be a robust and constructive solution.

In 2011, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article titled Collective Impact. This seminal article was written by John Kania, managing director at FSG Consulting Group, and Mark Kramer, Kennedy School at Harvard and co-founder FSG.

The two authors premised the Collective Impact approach on the belief that no single policy, government department, organisation or program can tackle or solve the increasingly complex social problems we face as a society.

Their approach called for multiple organisations or entities from different sectors to abandon their own agenda in favour of a common agenda, shared measurement and alignment of effort.

Unlike collaboration or partnership, Collective Impact initiatives have centralised infrastructure – known as a backbone organisation – with dedicated staff whose role is to help participating organisations shift from acting alone to acting in concert.

These two almost similar approaches could provide a powerful guide to solving our many problems. We have a broken healthcare system. A problem like Madaga’s should have been the trigger to get the necessary teams of experts to provide a solution.

There are many social problems that we can subject to this approaches and begin to deal with in a more structured way. For example, poverty is an agenda that has dominated our economic discourse since Independence.

It is a common social problem that different organisations have tried to deal with independently and failed, hence the need for a common agenda.

In my view, we should empower the Vision 2030 secretariat to become the backbone organisation that would take up national issues like healthcare, poverty, education and coordinate solution seeking activities independent of political institutions.

This will necessitate that the development budget be managed by a collective impact secretariat responsible for agenda setting and solution delivery. The secretariat will, therefore, be mandated to oversee policy execution agencies.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.