Ideas & Debate

Budget: A firm foundation better than more projects

budget briefcase

The National Budget briefcase. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Today (Friday April 30) is the official submission deadline to the National Assembly of detailed 2021/22 expenditure by nature and expenditure by purpose budget estimates by the Executive, the Judiciary and Parliament.

Nationally, these are the Jubilee Administration’s ninth (not tenth, owing to their shorter overall term) and final estimates before Kenya’s 2022 general election. Think about this as Jubilee’s final semester exam.

Today’s budget deadline also applies to counties, with each of the 47 county governments presenting theirs to respective county assemblies. The trouble for counties is that their estimates will be based largely on proposed equitable revenue shares yet to be approved by Parliament. It isn’t clear that our Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) considered this county “budget unpredictability” (not knowing budget quantum), let alone “budget uncertainty” (not knowing budget funds flows).

Because government doesn’t have any money of its own; watch for a quieter third deadline inspired by our courts. Yes, today the National Treasury must make public its tax and other revenue raising proposals through the Finance Bill, and any related legislation. Now I have your attention, right? Get out the calculators and spreadsheets; if you’re not ready for 2021/22 by next Monday, you’ll never be.

Of course, the law says that Parliament makes the budget, so there’s “room for discussion” before the Treasury CS presents the Budget Statement in a biblical 40 days, on June 10. If you’re thinking nationally, this is your “deep dive” moment to understand this legacy budget in a mixed IMF bailout and austerity, BBI cacophony and 2022 political succession context. Don’t forget Covid-19.

If you’re thinking locally, this is your public participation moment. While, correctly, we tend to focus on the national agenda, you’ve actually got a better chance to quietly and usefully interrogate and influence the logic and realism of your own county’s final-term budget choices and spending proposals. Remember, Kenya is the sum of its counties.

This is no idle moment, as a couple of intriguing recent commentaries suggest. In The Elephant, anti-graft expert John Githongo posits that the context underpinning our transitional journey towards 2022 could determine Kenya’s political and economic direction for years.

Daily Nation columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo goes further to envision the initial seeds of an “old money to new money” transition. On the ground, increasing “maliza uende” (finish and leave) calls to this administration reflect exhaustion with Kenya’s half-century post-Independence status quo, and the inevitable clamour for a new dawn.

Let’s take this further. Knowing full well, despite suspicious emerging political noise that the 2022 transition must, not might, happen, what would Kenya’s next political leadership inherit? This is the opening inventory question that Kenya’s political transitions always refuse to answer. Setting aside the actual politics, let’s use the national level as our “technical” basis of discussion.

On the one hand, the 2022 inheritance will include the completed SGR and other mega projects, especially in energy and roads, the inconclusive Galana-Kulalu, laptops, sports stadia and mega-dams experiments, a mountain of debt, endemic corruption and, if we’re not proactive, a Covid-19 nightmare.

Add a new education curriculum, health sector and social protection improvements and “baby steps” on the Big Four and strategic parastatal arrangements (transport and logistics, electric power, aviation).

Throw in the less public and likely quasi-budgetary outputs of the “national security industrialisation enterprise” (guns etc) and all of those spatial, geospatial, airborne geophysical and resource mapping surveys we read and hear about. Don’t forget all of the other low-cost military/security work done on rail and roads, or the ease (not cost) of doing business improvements effected through new laws.

Inheritance ideas

What might Kenya’s next national political leadership also inherit? Here are three incomplete official ideas.

First, real “digital government” (conceived as Umoja Kenya), the truly integrated national digital identity infrastructure that links people, companies and establishments, land and assets building on episodic efforts under Huduma Namba, ArdhiSasa, TIMS and the like. Keyword? Integration.

Second, the small business “Biashara Kenya” idea not simply as a merger of youth, women and other small enterprise funds, or the latest SME guarantee scheme, but as a US-style Small Business Administration as much about facilitation, entrepreneurship and markets as it is about actual money.

Third, from the other two, Government 2.0, not as the current spray-and-pray mix of sectors, institutions, multi-agency working and “all of government”, but around a fresh paradigm of a whole-of-society multi-stakeholder platform for national development built to foster what Joe Biden’s Diversity America is now talking about – inclusive growth.

Now, how do we get these three foundational ideas into the 2021/22 budget, and clean up the opening inventory that our next political leadership will inherit? In the ideal, at both national and county levels.

Think of this as my pre-reading take on these final semester budgets.

Bloated “business as usual” won’t wash. Neither will lots of motion without movement to launch all manner of project toys and gimmicks. How about making the unspoken 2021/22 budget theme “leaving a strong foundation”, not “the mad rush to finish and go”?

It’s the least we must demand in this less-than-usual transition moment for us.

Mr Kabaara is a management consultant and institutional reform specialist.