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Ideas & Debate

Treasury guidelines a feeble roadmap for public investments

International Monetary Fund representative in Kenya Jan Mikkelsen (left) and mission chief Ben Clements
International Monetary Fund representative in Kenya Jan Mikkelsen (left) and mission chief Ben Clements when they met MPs over the country’s debt burden in February. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Today is September 14, the day on which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) taps run out on Kenya. Coincidentally, it’s also the deadline for public comments on draft Public Investment Management (PIM) guidelines the Treasury issued as a proposal to manage and control Kenya’s project investment appetite. Yes, these guidelines are a global lender’s conditionality issued by our apparent IMF acolytes sitting in the Treasury.

My first instinct on viewing these guidelines was to do a comparative search for other countries.

Tanzania’s are far more elaborate, speaking to the clear differentiation between programmes and projects, but read like a pupil’s manual. South Africa’s capital planning guidance is far more sophisticated, speaking to both initial investment and ongoing maintenance of big-ticket investments, and is fully integrated into their medium-term expenditure framework (MTEF) planning and budgeting process.

The UK’s Green Book is from another planet, running through the full gamut of policy options, programming, project long and short-lists and official social discount rates.

Each of these documents is a heavy tome of reason and thinking about the best use of public money for ‘big things’. And I did not even need to go to Chile’s world-leading standards on project management, built over three generations.

Basically, IMF staffers are probably laughing their heads off at our 35-page attempt at guiding public investment. If you read the document on its own, after navigating grammar that is so bad that the Treasury urgently needs Nation wordsmith Philip Ochieng to offer a “Better English” translation, it would be simplistic to conclude that Kenya has ticked the ‘IMF box’ on project management.

Here are some of its opening words: “An efficient public investment management framework is a panacea for efficient project cycle management.”

Panacea? Please, project management is not a disease! Then: “Currently, the country does not have a public investment management framework.” Huh? So how did we invest in the standard gauge railway, Galana-Kulalu and the like?

Let us continue reading: “Without any methodological guidance on efficient public investments, the basis for consistent and comprehensive project appraisal is missing.” Whoa! Then: “…this not only leads to projects entering the budget without verification of their quality and their cost-effectiveness but also a greater likelihood of ad-hoc decisions on project funding.” Wow, is our National Treasury, the guys who keep saying “yes” when they mean “no”, finally throwing the Presidency under the bus?

We are still on Page One, which continues “the result is a bloated project portfolio, unpredictable funding, stalled projects, and inflated costs contributing to the under-execution of budgets and delayed translation of the investment in projected economic growth”. Somebody is under the bus.

The only commentary I have seen on these guidelines celebrates the creation of, you guessed it, more institutions as buildings and staff, not rules of the game. It is notable that the guidelines prefer no mention of legislative institutions — Parliament and “county assemblies, yet it is no secret that’s where our ‘pot-belly’, as opposed to ‘pork-barrel’ politics, works during the budget preparation process.

Most amusing is the acceptance of a category of projects known as “mega-projects” (Sh1 billion or more). These, plus “medium and large projects” (Sh100 million to Sh1 billion) must undergo a stringent feasibility study. Anything less than Sh100 million goes straight to tender, even in counties. Laugh, then cry. As usual with Kenyans, it is a “what to do” not “how to do it” document.

Then think about our successful counties, where policy equals the people, programmes respond to the people, and projects deliver programmes to the people. Makueni is a shining example, as is Kakamega. Watch out for Kisumu and Kitui in the near future.

There is a common thread in these counties. Their leaders listen to the people and respond. They do not self-design projects for the people.

What Kenya needs is a proper public participation process that provides inputs for policy people to respond to. That the Treasury is able to infest Kenya with half-baked guidelines confirms their pre-2010 constitution mindset.

And if we are to go really technical on this, let’s find a guideline that begins with a needs assessment that translates into policy opportunities to be implemented through law or programmes.

When the IMF staffers have stopped sniggering, let us have a real discourse with them and our other development partners.

In 2003, the Economic Recovery Strategy was premised on, among other things, aid as technical assistance, not aid as money. I think these poor guidelines tell me exactly what we need right now — the Treasury doesn’t need more money, it needs new ideas, period.

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