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Ideas & Debate

Issues Kenyans ought to discuss in the next 2 years

President Uhuru Kenyatta
President Uhuru Kenyatta. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

What might Kenyan news and views look like in 2022? Asked this question in January this year, we probably foresaw a raucous pre-election political climate, following two years of mud-slinging around "Building Bridges" and a referendum that may or may not have happened.

Add lamentations about our "average" GDP growth over the previous 10 years; capital-led output growth that hasn't created the millions of "good" jobs we were promised. Throw in cries that our war on "graft and thievery" hasn't borne major fruit. Or that devolution hasn't been more transformative; judiciary is "slipping"; and parliament and the public service are still pre-constitutional fossils.

On an everyday basis, the 2022 media would still highlight Kenya's socio-economic challenges – from individual and household poverty and inequality to counter-people practice by the state, in agricultural negligence, educational confusion, health care incapacity and national (in)security and (un)policing.

We would read, watch and hear about our three "anti-macro" states – unsustainable debt (and pending bills), unrealistic plans (read, "Big Four") and uneconomic mega-investment (again). As well as more positive news and views about great successes in our creative and youthful tech and innovation space.

Nothing new here, right? Of course there's much more, but let's treat this as our original baseline. The 2020 Economic Survey (on 2019 economic performance) provides useful data for this baseline – faltering agriculture and manufacturing, more "bad" jobs, growth in finance, insurance and real estate, et al.

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Let's ask the question again, but today. What might Kenyan news and views look like in 2022? Well, the statements above will continue to hold water, but we're now in a world of coronavirus and Covid-19. Today, our public health emergency is in embryonic "test-contact trace-quarantine-isolate" state despite an extended lockdown and curfew and we don't really know if we're behind or ahead of the virus curve.

With a "fear of spread" epidemiological response, and "spread of fear" economic reaction, a worst-case stabilisation as late as mid to late 2021 will make 5.4 per cent GDP growth in 2019 look like nirvana, especially if 2020 expectedly delivers negative growth (contraction). I'm not buying the World Bank's latest rosy 2021 "rebound" story (to 5.6 per cent). In the hole we're in, we don't need more spades. In 2019, we created 78,000 formal jobs; yet it was also reported this week that the Ministry of Labour estimates we've lost at least twice that in the past four months, furloughed (sent on unpaid leave) a quarter of formal private sector (excluding pay cuts) and rendered inactive 60 per cent of the informal sector. Let's not forget the business closures and job losses that were happening before this pandemic.

Suddenly, BBI and politics matter less, and people matter again. Yet, perennial drought and famine didn't wake us up. Locusts and floods are passing us by. We ignored the youth bulge. We verbalised corruption and waste without results. Now we're treating coronavirus as a "passing cloud", something to be "finished" before we get back to "business as usual". This is the real "spread of fear" one sees with official comment that "we are already implementing our post-pandemic economic recovery." It's why we're re-opening restaurants and eateries without proper plans, guidance or instructions.

The smart people in Kenya tell us there is no "back to normal"; we have a "new normal." Let's put it another way. We have a new baseline (in flux), with the data unsettled because the virus hasn't gone. So let's ask the question a third time. What might Kenyan news and views look like in 2022? To begin, we must internalise our new baseline. Not as government, but as Kenyans. Allow me in this "shelter-in-place" moment to return to my preferred "family" view and "back to basics" questions. Article 43 of our great constitution might help us here too.

First, food. How should our families and households secure safe food and sound nutrition? Next, basic rights. What does future education, health, shelter, water and sanitation and community life look like for us? Third, income and livelihood opportunities and access to assets. How will we create our own "good" jobs and better livelihoods? What access do we need to assets and resources we can sustainably utilise? These are the questions of self-reliance (not selfishness) and resilience we must reflect upon.

We are citizens too, with rights and responsibilities. So, fourth, political and civic participation. How must we hold leaders to account, not simply by voting, but through active participation in decision-making, service delivery and transparent reward and sanction processes? Finally, rule of law. What are our rights and obligations regarding safety, security and fair justice in public and private spaces?

Yes, "digital" is being touted as a "game changer" in this new world order, and I don't disagree. But in this quiet and poignant moment, we are all learning that "choices have consequences", and we get the leaders we choose. Over this long weekend, let's reflect on household basics, before the tools and toys. It's a great time to create a human and humane Kenyan conversation for 2022. More on this next week.

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