Ideas & Debate

Make the census count to citizens more than today

Knowing the exact number of citizens is key to planning. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Knowing the exact number of citizens is key to planning. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Outside our noisy and often fruitless politics, the handshake of a month ago appears to have improved market, business and economic confidence across Kenya.

The speed with which we have moved to ratify the Africa-wide pact on a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) – one of the 12 flagship projects under Africa’s Agenda 2063 – can only be good news.

Now let’s get going with the integrated high speed train network, the African virtual and e-learning university, the African commodities strategy and e-network, the Grand Inga Dam project (which could electrify the entire continent), the African Stock Exchange, Monetary Fund and Central Bank.

This is not forgetting earlier protocols already signed on the African passport and single air transport market even as we commit to “silencing the guns” by 2020. The African Outer Space strategy is one for the future.

Domestically, our next big national focus is the Annual Devolution Conference later this month. It will focus on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “Big Four” legacy agenda.

“People’s President” Raila Odinga has endorsed this ambitious agenda, and will – with the President - be at the conference.

The meeting of minds between Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga provides Kenya with an unusual platform for reform. Mr Kenyatta comes across as a moderniser from a “status quo” background; that is a background unaccustomed to change. Mr Odinga could be seen as a change agent from a pre-modern era.

Yet reform is essentially the sum of change (think mindsets, or software) and modernisation (think rules and structures, or hardware). Transformation is a simply a fancy way to characterise the result of a sustained reform effort, that is, of a continuously positive process of change and modernisation.

So the accord between these two leaders could be transformative. And any resistance, overt or covert, from either side of the political divide should be read as a preference for the status quo – our current rules of the political game, lack of economic complexity (necessary to build a manufacturing base) and biting social fractionalisation – keeping voters stupid helps in any election that is essentially an ethnic census.

How do we change this for Kenya? We start by translating the “top-down” handshake into “bottom-up” development for the people. Or, to quote Aspiration 6 of the seven African aspirations under Agenda 2063 - “an Africa, whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for children”. But these are just words.

How? We have an unlikely opportunity to create a platform for this “change plus modernisation equals reform” process in the next three years.

Through the 2019 national census, an exercise as important for political scheming as it is for socio-economic planning. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics is busy planning for this process. One expects that people and their animals will be counted but not much else.

Let’s think differently. Consider the census as one element of a larger national identity project. Then recall one of Mr Kenyatta’s big, but unfulfilled, ideas from his first term – the development of an integrated national digital registry service covering people, establishments (companies, societies and other registered group entities), land and assets.

Not the mélange of parallel systems (and procurement projects) today. Not the Integrated Population Management “system” (IPRS) of scanned documents.

First, individual identity. Use the census to issue all Kenyans with fresh, authentic identification (e-IDs or m-IDs) in Estonia-like fashion. The lack of identity is one of the key grievances among Kenyans who see themselves as marginalised.

Fresh identity moves from “census counting” to an “inclusion” project. It also works as an important security, socio-economic planning and public service delivery project.

Second, integration. To begin, link individuals to establishments, and eliminate Anglo-Leasing style “ghosts”. Then, link individuals and establishments – through transactions - to land and assets.

There are multiple benefits here: Clarity on our national land cadastre; better land use planning; a higher tax take; asset/wealth disclosure; graft prevention; retail sector marketing and financial services outreach.

Third, alignment with national and county prioritisation. Much of Kenya’s planning is based on data generalisation and guesswork about individual conditions and group circumstances.

A national digital registry service supports better governance. It modernises as it changes. It creates a new game before 2022. It helps the “Big Four” agenda. Out of the box, yes, but it’s a chance for Kenya to lead in Africa.

If in doubt, ask the world’s human development leaders Finland or Sweden about their “continuous census” national identity systems that are about people and everything else too.