Ideas & Debate

Think small firms and government for our post-polls growth agenda

NASA supporters welcome their leaders during a rally at Masinde gardens on March 24, 2017. FILE PHOTO | NMG
NASA supporters welcome their leaders during a rally at Masinde gardens on March 24, 2017. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Last week, a friend (who’s also a popular Nation Media Group columnist) asked me, in jest, which government would fail (and fall) first – America’s or South Africa’s. He then ran a mini-poll on his Twitter timeline. Arsenal’s long-term institution, Arsene Wenger, came top on a short-list of “heads most likely to roll”. Fellow capitalists and economic nationalists Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma weren’t far behind.

Mr Trump’s three-point agenda is clear. Secure America. Secure jobs for Americans. Downsize America’s government. To his mind, the first needs a physical wall and the second a paywall. The third requires that he collapses the brick wall that defines modern bureaucracy the world over. Good luck with that. So far, we are talking 32 executive orders in his first 78 days in office.

Mr Zuma doesn’t need an agenda, just a machine gun. He fired his Finance Minister at midnight. His new minister speaks the language of “economic transformation” around self-sufficiency outside of foreign (read, Western) influence. No worries about Standard and Poor’s “junk” rating this week. The December 2017 ANC conference – in which the next ANC leader (hopefully also the next President) shall be chosen – is more important.

The difference between America and South Africa, on the one hand, and Kenya, on the other, is that those guys can choose unusual leaders in the belief that they have a development base on which democracy is building. Current economic troubles suggest there’s a way to go on that theory.

Meanwhile Kenya - the “poster-boy” of average on most meaningful global and continental socio-economic measures, but a true darling of the international community - is pursuing a different route.

Call it development via democracy. That’s why we have a liberal Constitution that aligns the notion of an “enemy of the State” with that of an “enemy of the people”, because “the people are the State”. It’s also why the fundamental purpose of devolution was to reduce our interest in “the presidency.”

Taking this thought experiment forward, what does this mean for Kenya’s future, beyond August 2017? As the Jubilee administration has now exhausted official opportunities to “sell its story”, and the official Opposition isn’t selling us any alternatives – in personnel or ideas – here are three quick thoughts.

First, take the economic policy and development agenda to counties. Kenya’s future progress and prosperity can no longer rely on a Presidency and Cabinet based in Nairobi. California in the US is not the world’s 6th largest economy because of federal largesse. South Africa’s current socio-economic woes cannot be fixed from their Tshwane political, or Johannesburg economic, capitals alone.

That we’re obsessing over the NASA presidential candidate indicts us on the truth that all development, like all politics, is local. A smart party formation would focus on securing as many governors, senators, MPs and MCAs as possible, regardless of who becomes President. None exists now.

Second, let’s redefine the role of national government. Away with monster “old ministry” allocations, massive transfers to moribund parastatals and regional development authorities and the duplicative double counting we call our “public wage bill problem”. Think 10, not 100 mega-projects, based on true necessity and not corrupt proclivity. Remember our own wall? Sh980 million already spent. For what?

If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with the federal government bloat that drives America’s fiscal deficit.

Third, let’s think “inter-generational” needs not just in terms of people (children, youth, middle-aged, old) but business (start-ups, micros, SMEs, big business) if we want to pay for the government we want. And let’s do it without unnecessary extra-budgetary funds that provide quick fixes and faster money.

Now, imagine if we found some post-election thinking that gave prominence to county economic potential (including, say, industry clusters) and national government oversight (not meddling) within a context that promotes what Americans call “mom and pop shops”, the Germans refer to as “Mittelstand” and the Brits title “small business.”

That’s the growth agenda I’m waiting to hear in our increasingly nonsensical pre-election cacophony.

I suspect that – in their own specific contexts – this is what Messrs Trump and Zuma are seeking as well.