Why The Ruling Class Fails To Strike A Cord With The Masses

Harris Mungai By Harris Mungai, 15th Feb 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Columns & Opinions

For half a century, Kenyans have been duped by a voracious centralized bureaucracy and made to believe that their development requires technical expertise they don't posses.
Kenya's weak state capacity has been worsened by corruption and skewed allocation of resources.

Ngochi Village

Sometimes last year i visited Ngochi village.Nyina Wa Kuria,a cheerful old lady who lived there had died.Ngochi is a little hillside hidden right behind the bustling Githunguri town in Kiambu.
It's an unremarkable place. It's only fame is a tease that, "Ngochi has no level". The village earned the tease from a local tippler who had a habit of falling down on his way home late at night after having one too many whence he would be heard complaining loudly that Ngochi is not level.
The track to the homestead was rusted as ever-the kind you couldn't drive on at more than 10 km an hour without breaking something. It has been like that for the last thirty years i have been vising the place.I came four days later and the road was as smooth as a tarmac road. The county government had promised to repair it before the funeral,and did.

Step Forward

I have not been to Wajir but something in a newspaper story I read recently caught my attention. The county government has installed solar street lighting in all the sub-county headquarters. That is remarkable enough. But what caught my attention was what a local trader in one of the towns interviewed for the story said. Not only was she making more money because she stayed open longer,the street lights had brought the town much relief from snakes bites.
Jason Lakin,sets out to trivialize the public finance changes that the constitution portends. He goes on to split all sorts of hairs on the public finance provisions of the consultation that are of marginal relevance to my article which was about politics and political economy, not budgeting. I don't know which school of public finance Dr.Larkin went to but,it cannot be a good one,this is why.

Setting Preferences

Let's start with the theory. One of the fundamentals tenets of economics is that individual preferences are 'sovereign'. This means that in economics we evaluate resource allocation taking people's preferences as given.Another principle known as Arrow's Impossibility Theorem demonstrates that if voters have three or more distinct alternatives. It's not possible to objectively translate the preferences of indivuals to a community preference.
Now let's apply the theory. Let's say that the people of Ngochi have identified classrooms, a dispensary and street lighting as their priority projects but there is money for one project.The sovereign principle dictates that if they hire Dr.Lakin or myself to advise them,we cannot come and tell them that they should consider a borehole. That is imposing preferences. What we can tell them is that according to our calculations, the dispensary has the highest rates of social return,followed by the classrooms,with street lighting coming last.

A Little Economics

But the choice is theirs.Given self-interest there will be well-off residents who didn't use public health facilities who will oppose,and probably also older residents who don't have school going children. The village may in the end settle on street lighting since everybody uses it.
Instead of using rates of returns criteria,we could t choose to go the participatory planning route and ask each of the residents to rank the projects in order of preference and then agreggate these preferences into a community wide priority list. Arrow's Impossibility Theorem demonstrates that there is no objective way of doing so in a manner that doesn't introduce arbitrariness or violate an important social value. The long and short of it is;public resource allocation is a political not technical undertaking. It's the job of the political leader to persuade the people of Ngochi village to support the dispensary if indeed they are persuaded by the technical analysis that it is the best project.


The primary task of political leaders is to help us to make unpleasant choices and to make them palatable so that the people who wanted street lights can continue popping in for a cup of tea at the houses of those who wanted and got a dispensary. Reflecting in African democratisation in the late1990's,Bruce Berman one of the foremost authorities on Kenya's political history (co-author with John Lonsdale of the two volume book Unhappy Valley) wrote:
"Efforts to promote democratization in Africa have thus far targeted the wrong institutional levels and missed entirely those where bureaucratic authoritarianism,patronage and ethnicity are entrenched. For ordinary people,the central problem lies in the day-to-day contact with local authorites and agents of the state where they cannot and do not expect disinterested competence and fairness. Instead,they expect and mostly get incompetence,bias,venality and corruption. Without replacement of decentralized despotisms in the country-side,there can be little hope of fundamental change".

Who Is To Blame?

For half a century Kenyans have been duped and belittled by a voracious despotic centralized bureaucracy and made to believe that their development requires technical expertise and managerial acumen that they don't posses,and which only they-the bureaucrats-have. The people have been made to believe that development failure is their fault. They don't plant their crops on time,keep too many cattle,or too few,or the wrong type, have too many children,or wives or spend too much on funerals. The people's backwardness has however never stopped the bureaucrats from feasting on their chickens and goats as they pontificate about the Government's brilliant plans for this and that.
The model gets tweaked,five year development plans,district focus for rural development,forward budget,participatory planning, poverty reduction strategy,medium term expenditure framework,but always a centralized,complicated bureaucratic process clothed in economic jargon.

There Is No Money

The results are always the same:government by the elite for the elite. It couldn't possibly be said better than done by one famed 'the father of CDF' writer in his book Episodes From An MPs Diary:
"In the same country where the government was building sky-scrapers,villagers couldn't get a single culvert to cross a stream that swelled every season. We had world class universities but children were dying of minor ailments because there was no clinic anywhere for miles. We boasted many beautiful universities,yet children in many rural areas were not going to school because there was simply no school to go to. Reason? There was no money. They would be done when money became available. And so I set out on a mission to try and make money available for the so called 'small things', a primary school,a dispensary,a water borehole, a produce market,a small bridge,education bursary".

Money For Small Things

I chose the phrase,"Money For Small Things" for the title of my contribution to a recently published book on CDF (Constituency Development Fund) titled Distributive Politics in Developing Countries (edited by Mark Baskin and Michael Mezey). It is said that if you want to hide something from Kenyans,you put it in a book. I don't agree but since it may be a difficult book to find,allow me to quote myself:
"The CDF is arguably one of the most succesful and popular development policy innovations in Kenya's recent history. It has certainly realised its founders vision i.e. making funds available for the local concerns-the so-called "small things". Consequently,the performance of CDF must be judged in the context of Kenya's weak state capacity that has,over time been further eroded by corruption,bureaucratic inefficiency and perhaps most importantly spatial distributional grievances associated with skewed allocations of budgetary resources.

Words Vs. Actions

The fact that the CDF,which only commands 2.5 percent of the budget has become the most visible development effort in Kenya suggests that the historical failure of Kenya's executive-led development may be even more profound than most observers have contemplated".
We now have a better idea of just how profound. The people of Ngochi village were promised road repair in three days. Delivered. The people of Wajir can work late and walk home without fear of being bitten by snakes. Soon they will come to expect competence and fairness from government as the norm. No chickens to welcome DOs,no goats to send off DCs. This "the displacement of the decentralised despotisms in the countryside" is the revolution. It is not televised. Dr. Lakin is sleeping through it.
Finally Dr. Lakin seems to have totally missed my point on accountability. While I was making a broader point about enhancing political accountability to citizens,Dr. Lakin goes on and on about auditing.That said,reading his article left me wondering which school of public finance he went to. It cannot be a good one.


Accountability, Corruption, Negligence, Politics

Meet the author

author avatar Harris Mungai
I developed an interest in writing when I was in elementary school and since then this passion keeps on burning in me.Thank you Wikinut for this chance to express myself here.

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author avatar Carol Roach
17th Feb 2015 (#)

I don't have much faith in any government they say they have no money but can go out to a dinner at 1.000 on the tax payers dollar

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author avatar Harris Mungai
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Very true Carol.
Thank you for the comment.

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author avatar Harris Mungai
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Very true Carol.
Thank you for the comment.

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author avatar Grant Peterson
17th Feb 2015 (#)

I have never had the privilege of going to Kenya.In the west we take things like streetlights for granted, when we should not.

It is true that democracy in Africa is very corrupt, there hardly seems a nation where a politician is not lining their pockets, but do nothing for the ordinary person. The regimes are corrupt at every level but in reality it is the capitalist world that is to blame for this mess. You should take a look at some of the articles that I have written about the state of world capitalism.

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author avatar Retired
18th Feb 2015 (#)

Great post! Educational!

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author avatar Harris Mungai
18th Feb 2015 (#)

Thank you Carmen.

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