Ideas & Debate

Make devolution serve the people


A farmer samples her withered maize in Embu County. FILE PHOTO | CHARLES WANYORO | NMG

The bitter-sweet irony to the ongoing presidential election dispute — now headed for the Supreme Court – is that we were supposed to be celebrating our first truly devolved electoral process.

In other words, a “bottom-up”, integrated — manual and digital — process with transparent results announcements at the level of the smallest voting unit (the polling station) flowing seamlessly upwards into tallied and unsullied totals at ward, constituency, county and national levels.

Indeed, while we always speak of the basic voting right as the right to be identified, registered and to actually vote, wouldn’t a “full cycle” perspective to elections also include the “right to a credible, believable result — regardless of who wins?”

Weird and outlandish as this may sound, it reminds us that institutions such as the IEBC as our electoral management body bear a reciprocal responsibility to deliver a credible, believable result.

But I guess that’s for the Supreme Court to decide. In the heat of our post-election discourse, it is easy to forget that Kenya is undergoing an important transition moment on the devolution front.

Many will widely acknowledge that, despite its exploratory nature, devolution’s “first wave” offered significant gains for the people — new roads, expanded health services and targeted support to the local socio-economy through, say, modern market facilities and household-level agricultural and livestock support.

Then there’s the impressive construction activity across the country, as former hamlets become trading centres and townships grow into modern towns and urban conurbations.

On the face of it, devolution is working. Yes, poor governance, waste and corruption are emerging concerns. Intergovernmental relations have been testy at best, while the increased buzz of activity still isn’t featuring in national GDP.

Yet, if voters had tested governors against the indicative performance criteria laid out in Section 113 of the County Governments Act, more than 25 out of the 47 might have lost the recent election.

Think about these criteria. One, the percentage of households with access to the basic services contemplated in Article 43 of the Constitution; that is quality health, adequate housing, reasonable sanitation, clean and safe water, freedom from hunger and quality nutrition, social security and education (that which falls under counties).

Two, the number of jobs created through local economic development initiatives including capital projects. In other words, devolution for job creation.

Three, the percentage of a county’s capital budget actually spent on capital projects. Simply, controlling recurrent spending —especially of ad-hoc or emergency nature — in order not to crowd out capital investment.

Finally, the continuing financial viability of county integrated development plans — the blueprints that guide counties every five years. Why don’t we, in our respective counties, use these as the criteria around which we will measure governor performance during the forthcoming second wave of devolution?

Isn’t it increasingly clear that Kenya’s socio-economic future is pegged to devolution’s success? And while the latter two criteria (on capital investment and financial viability) speak to governance, don’t the first two speak to fulfilment of the people’s basic rights — the real reason why devolution is so important for Kenya?

READ: Devolution pushes up cost of business permits

One suspects that our current state of electoral flux at the national level presents a great opportunity for incoming governors to mull over how to take devolution to its logical next level in their respective counties based on this simple mix of basic rights and governance performance criteria.

Beginning with the long-term visioning that was missing last time around their own Vision 2030s and county economic development strategies (strategies before plans, please).

Moving towards properly institutionalising devolution through innovative frameworks that support planning to results, service delivery to citizens and real public participation and accountability.

But mostly, because this has been devolution’s great weakness thus far, building real capacity around modern processes, systems and technology, as well as structures, staff and skills.

Capacity shortfalls are the number one reason why national government institutions invade county government space with directives, instructions, people, money and projects.

Smart governors could do worse than take time over the coming fortnight to envision the future of their counties from a basic rights and governance perspective, with institutionalisation at the forefront, and capacity as the most critical factor for success.

At bottom, the first wave “honeymoon” is over; devolution’s second wave must now deliver.