Ideas & Debate

Our deficit, debt reflect failure of constitutionalism

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Six years into devolution, the shape of our overall GDP hasn’t changed much. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • The next time we go to polls let’s find out if aspirants understand the Constitution.

After watching the chaotic scenes in the National Assembly on Thursday during debate on the 2018 Finance Bill, and amendments therein, I am increasingly convinced that any person seeking an appointed or elective public position in Kenya must demonstrate that he or she has actually read and internalised our 2010 constitution.

My understanding of the constitution is simple. It was intended to, through a proper system of checks and balances based on Kenya’s history, counter the Executive incompetence or impunity through a diverse legislature of thinkers and a clever, honest and impartial Judiciary. We are clearly struggling on the first two fronts at national and county levels, and the jury is still out on the third.

I have a second understanding of the constitution. It was supposed to transform the colonial administrative state we inherited (orders from above) into a modern policy state (views from below).

That the work of the national government would be restricted to policy, inter-governmental facilitation, and “last resort”, not mainstream, development and service delivery. That the work of county governments would be to domesticate and execute national policy through growth-directed plans and budgets that attracted private sector investment while offering efficient service delivery at the grassroots.

We are in fiscal crisis because of a “big brother” national government that is essentially unreformed from the pre-2010 constitution days. Read, state capture of national policy. Think, grand corruption that consumes our fiscus and feeds our borrowing spree. Consider why few measures in the President’s memorandum to amend the Finance Bill hurt the Executive the least.

We are in economic crisis because we are unable to envision counties as our new centres of growth, whether on their own, or as viable regional economic zones. Six years into devolution, the shape of our overall GDP hasn’t changed much. Surely, devolution was as much about the economy as it was about politics. This will not happen with an unreformed national government. The ease with which Parliament was able to cut County allocations is telling.

I am a great advocate of painless revenue collection, but let’s not talk about the “stealth taxes” that will replace the reduced VAT on fuel. Let’s instead hang our heads in shame at watching quietly over a Jubilee administration that has taken us on an unsustainable borrowing spree, and is now killing us with taxes on the back of the “tyranny of numbers”.

In perspective, this is probably the earliest ever time that the National Treasury has ever presented Supplementary Budget Estimates for parliamentary approval. Three months into the financial year? That’s a crying shame.

“No pain, no gain?” Please! Let’s see the returns from the mega-borrowing. Please! Let’s find a political leadership that implements the constitution, not “development”. “Big Four” is fine, but it is no innovation. It simply responds to the demands of Article 43 of the Constitution.

And, please, I do not buy the lazy lament that our constitution is expensive.

In normal countries facing challenging econo-fiscal times, this is a “Strategy 101” moment based on five questions. Where are we now/How did we get here? That’s the context question. Then, where are we going/where do we want to go? That’s the visioning question.

In between these two, the core strategy question, how do we get there/where we want to go? Following this, how do we organize to get there; and finally, how will we know when we’re there/how far we are? This final one we call the monitoring and evaluation question.

The IMF doesn’t need to tell us what to do. In this Strategy 101 moment, shouldn’t we begin with a five-year public spending, revenue and performance review, including audit results, leading to an economic review that provides us with a 2017/18 baseline, or context? Then a proper baseline of fiscal norms based on proper activity-based costing that links people to activities and activities to results? That’s how we reformat national and county government.

Then let’s look at 2022 from an econo-fiscal, not political, perspective. And set, effect and monitor realistic targets, supported by a realistic, and flexible, roadmap for spend, revenue, deficit and debt reduction that deliver the promise of our constitution. Strategy 101 in practice.

As former GE boss Jack Welch once said, “Strategy is not a lengthy action plan. It is the evolution of a central idea through continually changing circumstances”. The last time I checked, the constitution, not development, is the basis of our central idea.