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Kimunya delivered a young man’s budget

Jun 25, 2006 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Last week Mr. Amos Kimunya was the youngest Finance Minister in my memory to present the country’s annual budget. And it showed.

KPMG Kenya’s Richard Ndungu, writing in The EastAfrican, entertainingly described Mr. Kimunya as our Chief Plucker – a play on the meaning of his name in Kikuyu. And the Minister certainly proceeded to pluck many feathers off our backs. Plenty of hissing has ensued, as it does every year: the Minister taxed too much; he conceded too little; he missed too much; he hit too many.

This happens every year, regardless of who presents the budget, and regardless of what’s in it. And it will keep on happening, for country budgets are highly stylised rituals that keep a whole industry of economists, journalists and pessimists buzzing for a month or so. As with most budgets, they don’t mean a great deal – the outcomes generally bear no resemblance to the intention. Yet the measures they contain can have a dramatic effect on incentives in the economy – and therefore on livelihoods.

Which is why I return to the question of Mr. Kimunya’s youth. Reportedly in his mid-forties, he is no spring chicken; indeed, he is a few years older than I am, and I feel quite old these days. But his age puts him in the right generation to be taking the crucial leadership decisions in this economy. He has seen much; but not too much. And he is in a different generation from most of his peers in key government positions: hair dyes only work on follicles, not the brain cells beneath!

This is not a commentary on the wisdom (or not) of the Minister’s overall package for Kenyans this year. There is a procession of informed worthies who have waxed analytical and done that for you. What interests me is what Mr. Kimunya managed to zoom in on precisely because he is a relatively young man.

Consider this: we have been hearing about computers and computing being the backbone of modern learning and effective management for a decade or more. Yet it is only now that we have managed to zero-rate the damn things. Finally, there is a significant drop in computer prices across the board – you only have to venture into the shops to see. Finally, more schools, students and businesspeople will be able to afford these essential tools.

Equally, we have heard our elders drone on about the youth being the future, blah, blah ever since I was in shorts. It is indeed true that the young make up the most economically significant part of our population, and that if we don’t have a strategy to absorb the enormous numbers of youngsters entering working age every year, we are cooked. But what have we ever done about it, other than mouth platitudes and engage in vicissitudes?

This year, there was something tangible for the youth. Mr. Kimunya set up a Youth Enterprise Fund, and promised to overhaul the provision of technical training aimed at the young. This demonstrates something important: that this minister and his advisors have finally cottoned to the fact that was glaring at everyone for years: that we absolutely have to provide skills and incentives for our young people to act in their own betterment. Universal primary education is merely the ‘must-do’ – the basic foundation. Without emphatic and significant investments in the building of marketable skills, we will merely produce mouths, not brains.

I fear that these realities have not been apparent to our bigwigs. It’s not entirely their fault: there are many reasons why we can’t expect too much understanding of modern issues from many of those ministers and bureaucrats with creaking bones. Here’s a quick tally.

First, I suspect that many of our oldie leaders may have never actually sent an e-mail, researched something on the Internet, or worked an electronic spreadsheet. That matters: it is only through repeated personal usage of a technology that you can appreciate its power and potential. Mr. Kimunya may well be the first ‘wired’ minister to present the budget: no wonder he scrapped taxes on computers and accessories.

Equally, he not only has a professional qualification and a strong grounding in matters financial; he has also reportedly done a stint overseas and has run his own firm. Exposure to learning, to the wider world out there, and to understanding the intimate workings of a competitive business: these things matter a great deal. If we had more leaders with that kind of CV (regardless of their politics), I believe we would become a different economy very soon.

What we tend to have instead are people who have spent decades in lofty perches in academia earning meaningless doctorates simply to impress their peers; or career bureaucrats who spent a lifetime grinding their way through the machinery of government. These people have never wrung out a profit; never faced a creative and dangerous competitor; never had to think about marketing, communications and brand building; never observed the inner workings of advanced economies at first hand.

Yet people like these have always occupied the top echelons of government (and, until quite recently, of business itself – the youthful management team is a fairly recent phenomenon). Old fogeys who don’t ‘get’ modern business and never will in this lifetime, have usually been charged with the responsibility of managing the freedoms and incentives that actually allow a modern economy to take off on its own. We never took off, did we?

Mr. Kimunya showed refreshing signs of having ‘got’ it. What did he ‘get’? That there is simply no point in government taxing an essential tool of progress and disincentivising its usage. That to transform a demographic group into a workforce, you need to provide skills and incentives. That the cold deadweight of government (in the form of arcane and antiquated licenses and regulations) needs to be taken off the backs of small businesses. That government needs to get out of business, as quickly as possible. And that something finally needs to be done about the ridiculous amounts spent on toys for our old boys.

What he did, however, is as nothing compared to what needs to be done. Enlightened economists will tell you this: every country that has undergone an economic transformation has done it through just two things: its people; and the knowledge they have been armed with. All else is window dressing. That will require ten more intensely focused budgets that prioritise knowledge building above all else. Then we might get somewhere.

Young Kimunya also managed to bring a certain light-heartedness to his delivery. That, too, was novel; that, too is generational. His predecessors have always emphasised pomposity over humour. Perhaps next year Mr. Kimunya would care to go a step further: perhaps he will present the entire budget on a PowerPoint presentation beamed up on a giant screen. No briefcase needed, just a tablet computer. Rather than spend two hours reading out hundreds of numbers, he could present them visually and effectively using graphs and charts.

I guarantee the whole thing would be over in 45 minutes. And if we do that, perhaps we can also get the Speaker to stop wearing that silly colonial wig.

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