Lessons learnt: Yes we can and, no, they didn’t

Saturday August 6 2011

In a single week, Kenyans have contributed half a billion shillings to help their brothers and sisters ravaged by hunger and prolonged drought, mainly in the northern parts of the country.

Ordinary people from all walks of life contributed with the corporate sector stepping in to make the important difference in the relief effort crafted by the Media Owners Association.

The “Kenyans for Kenya” initiative demonstrates yet again that ordinary citizens, despite their cultural and political differences, are people who can and will marshall their often limited resources to rescue their fellow Kenyans.

There are several lessons to be learnt from this historic result of ordinary effort.

One is the obvious trust with which Kenyans regard the corporate world, and this is why they had no misgivings about whether the funds raised would reach those in need.

It is highly doubtful that if the government had made a similar appeal, the response would have been so overwhelming. This is because the government’s handling of funds has often been suspect even when it means that people could die from starvation or related causes.

Government intervention has only come after much outside pressure and is likely to be carried out behind opaque officialdom. Never mind that the government is spending taxpayers’ money.

Among the agencies at the forefront of this drive is the Kenya Red Cross, which has also been entrusted with the awesome responsibility of ensuring that money is speedily dispensed in order to relieve the suffering.

It is, therefore, important that the Kenya Red Cross live up to the expectations of the ordinary men and women and companies that have contributed to the fund, which targets to raise Sh1 billion.

One inspiring result of this effort is that there is already tangible evidence that it is working. For instance, on Saturday the first convoy of lorries carrying some 15,000 metric tonnes of food to the North was flagged off at Uhuru Park in Nairobi.

That Deloitte &Touche, a reputable firm, has been contracted to audit the use of the funds takes transparency to a level that helps to build confidence of the donors.

The biggest lesson, of course, should be to the government whose handling of the crisis has been the object of severe criticism for initially seeking to deny that drought has pushed whole communities to the edge.

Government functionaries have repeatedly said they have no proof that anyone has died because of drought-induced famine. But they must remember that no one should have to die to provoke them into action.

The fact that there are Kenyans whose future is uncertain and children whose growth is stunted by malnutrition should be sufficient to galvanise a sensitive government into action.

The biggest question, however, remains why the government never seems to heed the warning of the weatherman who forecast the current drought as early as last year.

Government departments like Provincial Administration and Agriculture and Livestock Production all have officers at the grassroots who compile status reports from their locations that are then sent up the bureaucratic chain to the division, the district and the province, and finally to the desk of the permanent secretary of the line ministry.

There is no evidence to indicate that the onset of the devastating drought was not captured by these field reports, and this is indicative of gross negligence at the highest levels of government. All these missteps must be urgently addressed because the well-being of the people remains the government’s primary responsibility. When it fails to deliver as expected, its legitimacy is compromised.

Another lesson the government needs to draw from the Kenyans for Kenya effort is that trust is built on a foundation of transparency and accountability.

And even as this massive relief effort gets under way, the government must realise that the economic mainstay of the pastoral communities is either at risk or has already been wiped out.

This means that even when climatic conditions improve, these communities will need help to get back on their feet. Therefore, the government is best advised to roll out mitigation measures well in advance.