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The National Dialogue Agenda

Monday June 9 2014

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Our leaders seem to oscillate on the idea of a National dialogue over a number of issues including tribalism, national security and the ever-increasing public sector wage bill. 

If they pass the existing institutional framework and the agenda is adopted, then I am afraid they may not do much.  To begin with, and beyond institutions, more stakeholders need to agree on the agenda because the issues that have been proposed are consequences of underlying root causes.  What we need to deal with are the root causes, not symptoms.  

The root cause of our problems is the scarcity of resources.  Resources are scarce because we are not as productive as other countries.  In simpler terms, we are not working smart enough and perhaps that is why others say Africans are lazy.  Let me elaborate on these statements. 

In the past few weeks, an old lady from Kirinyaga has been following her title deed at the Ministry of Lands.  The Ministry, including the Cabinet Secretary, has her contacts but every time she comes, she is told to return the following week.  Someone should have taken up the issue and undertaken to call the woman when the title was ready. 

IMPROVING REVENUE

Such an action would have saved the scarce resources this woman is using to come all the way from Kirinyaga only to be told to come again. This perhaps is happening to thousands of people.  The resource saved is what amounts to productivity gain as a result of better communication.

Another example with the Ministry of Lands is when the Banking Hall was automated.  The revenue at the Ministry jumped from Sh800 million to Sh9 billion a year.  It was only the front end that had been digitized, but at the same time it generated great resistance.  Once the back end is digitized with the current exercise, the Ministry could generate as much as $1 billion or at least 10 per cent of national expenditure. 

If the same were replicated in all other registries, revenue to the Government would markedly improve and with same resources deployed, it means we would have improved our productivity levels.  Productivity too is one of the variables that impacts on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. 

Our farm outputs have constantly dropped over a period of time, yet we have never found it necessary to dialogue about it as a national issue that will deal with food security and income to peasant farmers.  In the mid-1980s in Kitale (the breadbasket of Kenya), a farmer could easily harvest 40 bags an acre, but today productivity has dropped to below 10 bags an acre.  That is why we are importing maize at this day and time. 

India in the sixties had gone through such a crisis when the Indira Gandhi government decided to deal with the issue comprehensively.  With more than 1.3 billion people, India today is food secure.  It defeats logic when the GDP of a natural resource-poor and small country like Belgium is equivalent to that of Sub Saharan countries with enormous amount of natural resources.  We have some 60 per cent of global arable land yet we go out there to beg for food.  Just what is wrong with us?  This in my view is what we Africans ought to be asking ourselves. 

The sum total of efficiencies can very easily lead to lower tax rates and therefore productivity gains must be a core factor in driving economic growth in our country and not merely viewed as the result of economic activity.  Indeed most developed economies do not just look at GDP but productivity growth which has greater impact on GDP. 

Vision 2030 is our long term vision that provides us with the much needed focus, coordination and guidance for sustained productivity improvement.  Without the focus then any dialogue would be palaver and it is not what Kenya needs at the moment.  It is dealing with such root causes of our problems that will lead us to “Canaan.”

OPPORTUNITY OR UNREST

If our economy is increasingly productive (more efficient), the economy will grow at rates of more than 10 per cent, way above the birth rate of 3 per cent.  With such a growth rate, we shall be able to absorb most of our youth into productive activities. 

Prof Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation says that “the youth population in Africa in the next 30 years is going to grow from 200 million to 400 million. That's a recipe for economic opportunity or for real social unrest, and we've got to get ahead of it.” 

We do not have a youth crisis as politicians often say.  What we have is a youth management crisis that precipitates crime.  So if we want to deal with National Security, let us deal with the root cause of the problem – managing the youth – for economic transformation.

Tribalism too can be traced to scarcity of resources.  If everybody had food, shelter and clothing, they would rarely brave the night to go and steal from a neighbour, or even care where the next neighbour comes from. Countries that have managed to provide for these basic necessities generally are stable and prosperous.  The US for example has by far the most tribes of in the world but it has managed to remain a nation with many opportunities. 

So instead of putting tribalism on the agenda, let us discuss how we can improve food security through mechanization of farming, how we can start land consolidation in order to create sustainable land use, how we can provide social services such education and healthcare to all, how research at our universities can come up with affordable housing for all, and finally, how we can take advantage of the youth bulge to become the global manufacturing hub and rid our people of buying mitumba (used clothing).

The public sector wage bill is not ballooning; it is GDP that is not growing faster than inflation.  We must therefore ensure that we work very hard to make the economy grow faster and justify the current wage bill. 

GDP NOT GROWING

Some public servants rarely want to work.  Teachers for example abandon duties for business in their localities.  If teachers are not teaching, agricultural extension officers are not doing their job in educating farmers about new and more productive varieties, and medics are not attending to patients, then how can the economy be more productive? 

In my view these are the issues our leaders need to talk about. It is worth knowing that the ratio that has brought this discourse to the fore is derived by expressing the public sector wage bill as a percentage of GDP.  If GDP grows, it will drop to acceptable levels but if on the other hand we deal with it without dealing with GDP growth, it will be an exercise in futility.

In his speech on Madaraka Day, President Kenyatta spelt out some key issues that will transform the economy.  Let me single out the directives to the Ministry of Interior and Information and Communications to develop a single source-of-truth portal, as well as ensuring that the country moves towards a cashless economy.  These directives will deal a major blow to corruption in the country while creating thousands of jobs.  Many studies show that corruption happens in offices that have face to face contact with the public, and that automation helps reduce the vice due to better traceability. 

These are projects that need to be done without necessarily spending scarce resources.  They can be done fairly easily through a public-private partnership where the contracting party will commit to develop the system, then earn from productivity gains such the ones discussed under the Ministry of Lands.  Yet again, corruption cannot be discussed as an agenda in the abstract without tangible way forward proposals.

Abraham Lincoln said “When I'm getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say--and two-thirds thinking about him and what he is going to say.”