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Ideas & Debate

Our prosperity dream calls for re-engineering of the economy

digital economy
We are told that Kenya shall be a prime driver of Africa’s future digital economy. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

I will soon spend a working week in a country in Africa that a couple of years ago set out an ambitious vision to attain “first world status” by 2022. A shared definition of this status envisages “a country where all citizens are able to pursue their life goals and live lives of value and dignity”.

Five broad measures will be used to track development — economic indicators, educational attainment, health outcomes, government service delivery and infrastructure. Twenthy four detailed indicators are identified under these headings. A “home-grown” composite national development index will summarise progress. A strategic framework guides the actionable part of the national development plan supporting this index. Understanding their progress to date is likely to be the most intriguing.

I was musing about this in light of the celebratory tributes accorded to former President Daniel arap Moi at his state funeral and interment this week. Of phraseology about the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) being an extension of Mzee Moi’s “peace, love and unity” philosophy. Or more broadly, what the final two years or so of this Jubilee administration will be about. Is it Vision 2030? BBI-led constitutional reform? The “Big Four” (and its enablers)? The war on graft? The digital economy?

Not forgetting other stuff like the African Union’s Agenda 2063 (and its components) or the Sustainable Development Goals. Or, more primordially, mega-projects and mega-procurement.

Vision and high ambition is never a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t keep changing. My own recollection of our 2002 transition was that it gave us a chance to address three issues.

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First, “legacy”, mainly past ills. Second, “vision”, setting out a dream for the future, and then a pathway to achieving it (not the other way round). By this reading, the Constitution is our real policy vision. Third, “internationalisation”, basically returning as a respected member of the global community of nations, with new memberships, alliances and partnerships. Today it’s all mixed up.

On legacy, strong views exist about failure to implement past task force and commission reports. Questions continue to be asked about how these and BBI relate. On vision, we haven’t given ourselves the chance to fully “test-drive” the Constitution; instead we’re eager for an “engine overhaul”. On internationalisation, it’s about whether or not we have a working foreign policy agenda. In short, we have unfinished business.

“Digital” seems to be our latest universal remedy, so allow me to digress briefly.

We are told that Kenya shall be a prime driver of Africa’s future digital economy. I am reminded of the days when, as a young consultant, “ICT” and ‘computerisation” were viewed as the panacea for all business (and accounting) ills. We soon learnt an important adage; “never computerise a mess”, or more to the point, “computerising a mess will leave you with a computerised mess”.

This led us into the realm of business process review, improvement, redesign and most famous of all, re-engineering. We learnt that it was the underlying process, not the technology that mattered.

Yes, a country is not a company, but to get back on point, I have a similar feeling about our socio-economy. What does digitising a stuttering socio-economy in need of structural reform leave us with?

An Un-Restructured Super-Stuttering Digital (USSD) Socio-Economy?

For processes in business, consider, for argument’s sake, “value chains” across our sectors.

What is the working Basic-Tertiary-Professional-Career-Lifelong learning education value chain that we want to digitise? What of, say, the Prevention-Diagnosis-Intervention-Management healthcare value chain? Or the different Pre-Production-Production-Post-Production-Processing-Retail agriculture (crops or livestock) value chain? Or the Artisan to Retail trade value chain?

Fine, value chains don’t work uniformly across all sectors, so roads or rail infrastructure, or security, facilitates (or enables) other value chains. And there are other possible ways of linking different players across different sectors in a way that measures some form of value, even qualitatively.

One senses that, even as we reach out for “The Next Big Idea”, we refuse to “connect the dots” in a business-type re-engineering way but for a far more complex structure of individual and institutional interactions and transactions known as the economy. Shouldn’t that be the starting point for our public and private sectors? Or more broadly for Kenyans, a call for the re-engineering of Kenya?

Listening to those tributes this week, I got the distinct feeling that we will remain in “hakuna matata” (no problems) territory for as long as we refuse to acknowledge that we might have a problem.

Not only is this disturbing, it’s also a frightening thought for the future.

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