Why devolution is both a curse and a blessing

By Ephraim Njega

Following the passage of the constitution in 2010, the voices of celebration are yet to die. However, the honey moon will soon be over as the impact of the ill thought out devolution system begins to bite. At the moment, Kenyans are already reeling under the weight of an inflation infested economy.

Matters will be made worse by the newly enacted VAT Act 2013. The Act now allows levying of VAT on basic commodities such as processed milk, books, mobile phones, newspapers, electricity, gas and so many more items that were not subject to VAT before.

Even before the ink on the VAT Act drives up, the Nairobi County government has handed city residents a bitter pill laced with double grief by increasing both the cost of living and dying. The county has increased the cost of nearly all its services from parking fees to burial rates.

Many people are in favour of increasing funds to county governments without thinking about where that money will come from. This is the same mistake that the Committee of Experts that came up with the constitution made. In fact this was a committee of lawyers and not experts! They looked more into issues of devolution politics and paid scanty attention to devolution economics.

Devolution and economic production

One of the controversial aspects of the devolution system is that it focuses more on consumption and less on production. The revenue sharing formula does not pay attention to a county’s production capacity. It doesn’t make sense to invest more in unproductive counties while starving the productive ones. Counties should focus on self-sufficiency and not on dependency on the national treasury.

Some may argue that this is the same thinking that caused the northern parts of this country to lag behind for years. However, these issues need to be viewed objectively and not sentimentally. There are many factors which have caused the north to be underdeveloped and they have nothing to do with resource allocation. For instance issues of insecurity fueled by clan conflicts and banditry make the place unattractive to investors.

It should be our aim to ensure that counties fund most of their budgets from internally generated resources. Babysitting and spoon-feeding county governments will stifle creativity and capacity to generate revenue. With funds readily available from the national government, there will be less motivation to create business friendly policies that can enhance county revenues. It would have been more prudent if the revenue generation capacity. It is patently immoral and intellectually lethargic to discuss revenue allocation while remaining silent about revenue generation.

Petty politics key threat to devolution

Many county governments have chosen to ignore the bigger picture and they wallow in comedy and mediocrity. Some county governors are more obsessed with accumulating power rather than serving the electorate. There have been cases where governors have been fighting over petty issues such as titles, flags and even vehicle number plates. A lot of revenue is being wasted on status symbols such as vehicles, entertainment, foreign travel and mansions.

Some counties are engaged in boundary related war of words with a view to controlling resources. The utilization of resources meant for national good should not be left to counties. Shared resources should not be monopolized or become a source for discord. Cases where a county government starts laying claim to resources such as water and imposes levies on other counties using the same for industrial and domestic purposes should not be allowed.

County government must work harmoniously with national government. Both levels of government must work together in fulfilling their constitutional mandate. Petty suspicions and disagreements between the two organs will lead to deterioration in service delivery, insecurity and instability. Devolution should not under any circumstances threaten national unity.  All citizens must have equal rights to live and invest in any part of the county. Any attempt to favour native county members against immigrants should be frowned upon.

Devolution must not advance corruption

County governments must subscribe to the highest levels of efficiency, accountability and transparency. Functions must not be devolved to counties which have no capacity to deliver. The recent attempt by some counties to short-circuit the budgetary process by creating budgets which are not tandem with the law should not be taken kindly.

Anyone who criticizes devolution is quickly demonized and labelled an enemy of development. This should not be the case. County government must follow the law and take professionally appropriate advice seriously. Lack of proper fiscal structures and systems will see funds being misused. If the people do not  reap the benefits of devolution, then optimism will turn into doubt and despair. Eventually, the future of county governments will be threatened by the governors themselves and not the shadows ther are always fighting.

It is also critical that vices such as nepotism and tribalism do not cripple the capacity of the county to assemble a professional team that can deliver on the aspirations of the people. Unethical practices common in the past must not be devolved to the counties. No county government should sacrifice merit at the altar of political expediency and ethnic bigotry.

Counties that embrace tribalism will face severe challenges in generating progressive ideas for development. An ethnically homogenous county government runs the risk of intellectual in-breeding resulting in substandard and sub-optimal strategies.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The good side of devolution is its ability to push resources to the grassroots where if well invested, they can boost the quality of life. This will only happen if sufficient funds are spent on development rather than recurrent expenditure.

Devolution provides an opportunity for people to determine and influence their destiny bearing in the mind their unique circumstances, opportunities and challenges. For instance, while installing traffic lights may be a priority in an urban setting, digging a borehole or setting up an abattoir could be a priority in an arid or semi-arid rural setting.

The bad side of devolution is in structural and professional issues. Since not all functions are devolved, county governments still have to maintain a good relationship with the national government to ensure smooth service delivery. The perception by some that devolution is a weapon with which to fight the national government and neighboring counties in pursuit of autonomy is highly mistaken and unfortunate.

The ugly side of devolution may be revealed if county governments spend most of the funds on recurrent expenses with no tangible development. Wastage, pilferage and poor prioritization of funds are serious risks. If corruption and tribalism are allowed to thrive, then devolution will be a curse. Increase in conflicts related to devolution within counties, between counties as well as between counties and national government is devolution rearing an ugly head which unless quickly smashed can cause lots of grief.

Devolution should be re-engineered

We need to rethink devolution as currently structured. The number of counties is too large for a small country like Kenya. Having 47 county governments will create a situation where resources are spread too thin to have any meaningful impact. Furthermore, there will be excessive duplication and wastage of resources. For instance, each county has a public service board creating 47 such organs with duplicated roles and staff. The counties should be collapsed into a maximum of ten. This will ensure better use of resources.

Current devolved units are ethnic monuments devoid of any diversity. This creates a fertile ground for corruption to thrive. It also creates a basis for discrimination of minority groups in the county. While reducing the counties into ten, the boundaries should ensure members from different ethnic groups are pooled together to break ethnic hegemony and monotony.

Lastly the functions allocated between counties and national government need to be harmonized. County infrastructure including of schools should be left to county governments. The devolution of functions must however be synchronized with county capacity.

The bigger picture

In conclusion, county governors must behave less like dealers and more like leaders. They must exert themselves fully to the service of their people. The challenges facing us are urgent and there is no time to waste. Those who serve well will be rewarded with re-election and even higher national duty. Those who underperform will be punished by the voters. So let the work start and all the best as we deliver on this historic opportunity.

The writer is an entrepreneurship, management and marketing consultant.

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