I find the argument that the government should divert the money it plans to spend on buying laptops for primary school children to paying better salaries for striking teachers foolish.
As taxpayers, what we should be asking is whether it makes economic sense to spend a high share of the budget for education on teachers’ salaries compared to what spend on textbooks, laboratory chemicals and equipment, exercise books – even laptops, for school children.
We are experiencing what economists call a severe recurrent costs financing crisis. How do you tell that you are drifting deeper into such a crisis?
It is when you find that a far greater proportion of the money you collect from the taxpayer ends up in paying salaries, pensions of civil servants and teachers, and interest on borrowed money.
You will build many hospitals, health centres and dispensaries. But since a far greater proportion of your budget for health will have been consumed by salaries, you will not have enough for hospital beds, medicines and ambulances for your dispensaries and health centres.
Since agriculture is the backbone of your economy, you will devote a very large share of the money you collect from the taxpayer to fund agricultural and livestock programmes.
But because a disproportionate share of your budget will have been consumed by salaries and other recurrent costs, what is left will not be enough to adequately fund agricultural extension services in rural areas.
The recurrent costs financing crisis we are experiencing manifests itself in many other ways: Police stations without enough fuel to run their cars, secretaries without enough computers and stationery, and government drivers who sit idle the whole day because there are no cars to drive.
How did we get where we are today? Until Dr Richard Leakey and the Dream Team came to town around 2000, the central government’s wage bill as a share of the GDP was at around 9 per cent.
In those days, a civil service job for a university graduate or a person coming out of government-owned training college was almost a God-given entitlement.
Dr Leakey and his team mounted one of the most aggressive civil service retrenchment programmes to happen in Kenya.
This is the around the same period when the government discontinued automatic employment of graduates.
When you track the trends, especially after the retrenchment programmes, you will find that the ratio of the wage bill to GDP dropped to around 7 per cent from the late 1990s to the current situation where it is at an unprecedented 12 per cent level.
In the last three years, the annual growth rate of the wage bill averaged about 13 per cent.
But things went haywire last year: the wage bill grew by 27 per cent in just 12 months, mainly as a result of pressures posed by an expanded State, salary awards to teachers and the police, and proliferating constitutional commissions.
This is the context against which the current spat between the government and the teacher’s union must be understood.
I am not saying that teachers don’t have a point. Indeed, this strike is basically a response to inequalities in public service wages.
Within the public sector today, you have tiny enclaves of highly-paid public servants working side by side with poorly remunerated colleagues even where they have comparable skills.
High salaries awards to judges, MPs and permanent secretaries have added to a sense of unequal treatment, especially among the more organised groups such as doctors, pharmacists, dentists and engineers.
How can you convince a school teacher demanding a pay rise that the government has no money?
He or she will ask you where the money to pay high salaries to judges, MPs, permanent secretaries and members of the mushrooming constitutional commissions came from.
We must start discussing harmonisation and rationalisation of all public sector wages. We should be discussing how to tighten the link between pay and performance.
A public sector wage freeze should be tabled for debate. We can’t continue like this.