Ideas & Debate

Devolution work in progress with unfulfilled goals

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Council of Governors Vice Chairman Governor James Ongwae speaking during the 7th Devolution Conference held at Makueni County on Friday, November 26, 2021. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG

Devolution was in my opinion the most notable change in the 2010 constitutional enhancements and with it came elevated expectations by Kenyans. After two terms of nearly ten years, there is debate as to whether county governments have sufficiently delivered on their mandates.

Questions also linger as to whether lessons learned in the past ten years will make voters wiser in electing the third cycle of county governments.

However, what is not in contention is that devolution motivated and mobilised many Kenyans to move their capital, expertise, and even domicile to counties to pursue what they correctly believed were unexplored and unexploited opportunities.

Investors saw county governments as centers of focus for economic development providing systems to nurture and multiply investor participation. My opinion is that it is the private enterprise that has driven most of whatever major changes we see in counties today.

And the national government has played its part in delivering critical infrastructure (roads, electricity ) and security to counties and these have catalysed even more investments in counties while reversing migration away from the big cities.

The county governments on their part have continued to provide basic municipal services, while upgrading rural infrastructure.

A major cross-cutting achievement from devolution has been structured allocations of national revenues and resources , which prior to 2013 were arbitrary and mostly political, with many parts of Kenya left out of critical socioeconomic development.

This is already pushing previously marginalised areas towards the national average, as counties prioritize and multiply what they are endowed with.

In the past ten years there are a number of counties which have demonstrated professional stewardship of county resources by delivering real changes with creation of many new jobs and improved quality of lives.

However, for a number of other counties it has been ten years of trial and error, with many missed opportunities.

Financial mismanagement has been the biggest disappointment with many counties losing value of monies allocated by the exchequer either through wastage, or dishonest diversion of public resources.

The consequence has been recurrent expenditures far exceeding development budgets , with minimal value delivered to the public. Unsettled invoices are known to have been deliberately and irresponsibly passed on by outgoing county officials to incoming county governments.

However, there are those counties that are making notable financial governance progress, and these stand a strong chance of attracting development partnerships with various organisations.

We have multilateral and bilateral development partners waiting to work with credible and progressive county leadership.

There are also PPP investment arrangements which can be harnessed by forward looking counties to fund critical county projects. The Laikipia County development bonds model is another creative and workable source of development funds.

Counties will therefore need to be progressive and prudent in expanding sources of development funds.

With inadequate allocations from the exchequer, it is becoming evident that development monies from outside Treasury is what will differentiate average performers from super performing counties.

It was anticipated that counties with similar economic opportunities would form economic blocks for the purpose of creating critical mass to improve economies of scale. Counties are essentially small economic/political units making it necessary to collaborate across borders to scale-up development projects for the purpose of economic sustainability.

This is more so with agriculture where common crops cut across county borders. We have seen half-hearted attempts at setting up such blocks, but these have not achieved necessary momentum nor institutional formats.

Agriculture is a devolved role which has not been fully prioritised by county governments, and this remains a major disappointment. Incoming county governments will need to support farmers (and pastoralists) by providing professional extension services and effective marketing systems, while protecting farmers from marauding cartels.

Agriculture is the common denominator across most counties and is also the economic lifeline of Kenya. As such, agriculture deserves undivided and shared focus by both national and county governments.

It is important to acknowledge good performance by a number of counties, a proof that the quality of elected county leadership is a major variable in determining extent and quality of county development.

It is also true that when good governors are given a chance for two terms, they can achieve sustainable development which cannot be the case with one-term governors. On the same argument, poor county performers should be shown the door immediately after their first term.

Yes, many great socioeconomic opportunities remain untapped in counties. This is why we need creative county leadership that correctly balances politics with value-adding development.