Ideas & Debate

What to watch for when ‘building back better’


President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister display a copy of BBI Report during the presentation at Kisii State Lodge. PHOTO | PSCU

The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) trundles along, as Kenyans are carried kicking and screaming into a constitutional moment we never asked for. On the bright side, it is possible that the “goodies” in the proposed constitutional amendments offer us an interesting policy, as in problem-solving, moment.

Take the highly touted proposal to increase the minimum equitable share to counties from 15 to 35 per cent (and let’s ignore the per capita allocation caps for now). Could this be the chance to finally and conclusively slim down national government, as the constitution we are now amending originally envisaged? Will we use this space to eliminate national-county duplication through a proper allocation and costing of functions? Shouldn’t the constitutional amendment have gone further to reconfigure the pretty random and confusing Schedule 4 division of labour between national and county government?

Let’s try another one. A new Article 11A is inserted “to anchor the aspiration of a new economic model based on value creation and that (sic) provides equitable opportunities for all the people, promotes industrialization and supports small and micro enterprises”. OK, as I have said before, this sounds more like Vision 2030/strategic planning stuff, but maybe it gets us to finally appreciate that our current economic model built around bureaucratic capitalists and the landed gentry is completely out of date.

Here’s a final one to ponder. Article 132 will be amended to get the President, in his annual State of the Nation Address, to explicity “report on the progress made towards achieving the economic and social rights guaranteed under Article 43”. Further, Article 203 is amended to “expand the criteria for determining equitable share to include…the need to ensure the attainment of the economic and social rights guaranteed under Article 43”. Does this mean we finally get to systematically operationalise the socio-economic rights agenda? Or differently, do we begin to address inequality?

Of course, the decision on whether or not this constitutional amendment process proceeds is now for the courts, and then, the people. But the examples above are important anchors of what a “Building Back Better” (BBB) Kenya is all about: devolution, economic opportunity and social and economic rights. Here’s a thought; is this BBI helping us get to BBB? Answers on the back of your voter’s card, please.

Permit me to add one item to this BBB backdrop, our demographics. Here’s a quiet story. In 1963, Kenya’s nine million population was 92 percent rural. In 1978, 15 percent of our 15 million were urban. By 1992, 83 percent of our 24 million were rural.

Ten years later, our 32 million were 21 percent urban. Another ten years later, in 2012, 76 percent of our 41 million were rural. In 2019, almost 30 percent of our 50-odd million were urban. Question. What has Covid-19 done to this settlement pattern?

Remember, of course, that devolution has grown us quite a few new urban centres, so it’s not just Nairobi and Mombasa we are talking about. We shouldn’t also forget our youth bulge in all of this. Beyond government’s own planning, what do these changing patterns mean for business?

If that’s the backdrop what are the BBB trendlines to watch for? As I said last week, BBB is not simply about recovery, it is about reflecting and learning, and then reimagining and reengineering. The “d” word springs to mind. Digitalisation, not simply digitisation. I like to think that the former is about doing things differently, and better, while the latter is doing things faster. Effective versus efficient. The thought leaders in this field tell us Covid-19 accelerated ten years of digital change into less than a year.

How is business, big and small, rethinking itself in a digital context? Beyond 4IR, AI and other buzzwords? How far along the road is government in its known (like Huduma Namba and land titling) and unknown (GIS mapping etc) work, and what does this mean for its role as a business enabler?

The “g” word comes next. What does the green agenda mean for business, in a practical sense? What opportunities exists to reconfigure agro-processing, manufacturing, construction and financial services? Here’s a thought from a recent World Economic Forum podcast on four green things to watch in 2021: electric aviation, low-carbon cement, sun-powered chemistry and zero-emissions fuel (green hydrogen). Where are we on this agenda, even as we sort out our basics? Ok, plant that thought in the garden.

So there we have it. Devolution, economic opportunity and social and economic rights as our BBB anchors. Demographics as a key variable. Digital and green as important trendlines (as well as, in many countries now, diversity and inclusivity). This is the time to really build our “capitals”: human, social and knowledge on the soft side; physical, financial and economic on the other.

A final ramble from last time. It is impossible not to see that this BBB moment offers brand new space for more effective public-private sector cooperation in Kenya than we have seen in the past. We have a real opportunity for constructive joint dialogue and action to guide Kenya’s socio-economic future.