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Why talk is not cheap in Kenya

Mar 20, 2005 Success, Sunday Nation

Are we a very poor country or a very rich one? I only ask because I find it very confusing most of the time. Read the statistics books and you will be left in no doubt: a country with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world cannot be described as anything other than impoverished. A country that has nearly three people out of every five living below an absolute poverty line can only be called needy. Walk into any slum in Nairobi and look at how people live. You will be left with no doubt whatsoever. We are poor. Period.

But wait a minute. Spend some time amongst our leaders, our movers and shakers, the wise and the wonderful in our midst. Listen to our national budget speeches. Observe how ministries spend money. Look at what is given priority, and what is not. Take a look at the lifestyles and spending patterns of this group. Then doubts begin to creep in. Perhaps we live in a rich country after all.

Can anything other than a rich country be one of the world’s leading supporters of the Mercedes-Benz brand? Can anything other than an affluent nation pay its MPs world-class remuneration, exceeding those afforded by many European countries? Can anything other than a filthy-rich paradise afford to squander such a large proportion of its budgets on senseless waste and rampant misappropriation? If we were really poor, wouldn’t we be more worried about using what little we have more efficiently and effectively? If we really had so little, wouldn’t we place far more emphasis on good managers and effective controls? Just asking.

If a poor country had massive problems to solve, how would it set about doing it? Wouldn’t it first ensure that it raised all the resources it possibly could by plugging all tax loopholes and cracking down on evasion? Wouldn’t it then craft a thoughtful plan to focus on only the very key investment areas – such as health, education and security, recognising that its human capital is its most vital resource? Wouldn’t it ensure that it did all the essential things that boost investment – decent roads, affordable power and modern telephony? And wouldn’t it leave aside all other things for the time being, to a time when they can be afforded? Sounds like a plan.

And wouldn’t this country then ensure that it made the most of every penny, that it tightened all its procurement procedures, that it instilled prudence into every act of spending? Wouldn’t it ensure that the best project managers and auditors were put in place to ensure nothing is wasted or stolen? Makes sense to me.

Also, this country would clearly avoid all shows of ostentation, would it not? It would know that its leaders are not entitled to enormous vehicles and first-class foreign travel until the country can afford it, yes? It would keep everything simple and discreet, would it not? No huge conferences, no large motorcades, no silly celebrations – or what?

Actually this poor country of ours appears to do things very differently. It seems to feel no need to make hard choices in its investment decisions – it simply budgets for everything possible and then waits for development partners to feel the pangs of historical guilt and step in to help. It invents absurd ministries that have no connection to development whatsoever. It creates cumbersome commissions to deliberate at length on issues where the answer is obvious from day one, and allows them to ponder and pontificate for months and years on end. It populates these commissions not with lean teams of say six or so action-oriented men and women; no, “representation” demands that panjandrums from all corners, all tribes, all religions and all stakeholder groups in the country must pack the committees to bursting point.

And so this poor country has reportedly spent over a billion shillings (that’s one followed by nine zeroes, if you’re counting) on these grand commissions and committees in recent times. Any results? Wrong question. The point is to do it with style, with pomp and ceremony. The point is to make a magnificent display of doing something. The point is to meet and talk, and then meet again and talk some more.

And such style! The offices must be lavishly furnished, to a finish befitting the status of those who have lent their time and knowledge to the task. The allowances must be generous, compensating these people for the difficulties and hazards that we are putting them through. The venues must be five-star. And when these committees “retire” to write their reports, they must do so in Mombasa, where the gentle breezes and the sea air will aid their thought processes, as though they were writing sublime poetry. All paid for by the patient and generous taxpayer.

There is an alternative, Kenyans. There are other people we can empower to spend our money and solve our problems. These people are not famous, nor do they represent anyone. They do not have many letters after their names. All that they can offer is that they know what needs to be done, that they live where it needs to be done, and they know that it must be done quickly. And that they care deeply about the poor people who will benefit.

Margaret Mbogo is one such person. She runs the Nyeri Hospice, an organisation whose main aim is to make life less miserable for the afflicted and the dying. She has been a nurse for 19 years. Her organisation worries about all those people suffering from cancer, HIV/AIDS and other killer diseases being left to rot away in the homes of the poor. These people often have open wounds and horrible sores, and are usually in appalling pain.

Margaret and her team go out into the community, dressing wounds, administering painkillers and offering counselling. Most importantly, they show that someone cares and that someone is willing to show concern and offer help. It is the type of work we have all forgotten; we think attending workshops and pontificating amongst fellow worthies is what matters. Margaret and people like her always struggle to obtain funding. They always face an uphill battle in raising money, because their work is not fashionable, not sexy, not in the public eye. But when they do get money they count every penny, spend it wisely and frugally, and achieve a result.

The poor and the dying in this country do not care two hoots for all the committees, task forces and commissions we have set up, ostensibly to address their problems. They do not get to hear the noble words spoken and eat the lavish lunches consumed on their behalf. They do, however, get some benefit, however small and however unplanned, from Margaret Mbogo and her ilk.

It is really time we started focusing our resources on the people who do, rather than on those who talk volumes about doing. We need more empowered Margarets and fewer well-funded committees. In a poor country, talk isn’t cheap; it’s cripplingly expensive.

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