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Why I didn’t listen to the Budget Speech

A minister reads out a written speech full of numbers, for more than 2 hours. A couple of hundred people, mostly elderly males, gather round him. Most are in varying degrees of somnolence. From time to time they wake up and clap – with their feet. And all of this is presided over by a black man in a white wig, wearing red robes reminiscent of Santa Claus…

May I be forgiven for not wanting to listen to the Finance Minister’s annual Budget Speech in parliament last week? I find the whole thing farcical on many counts.

Let’s start with the setting. If a ritual requires that you read a speech to people who are not interested enough to stay awake, get rid of the ritual! What is the point of doing something so boring that it acts as a sleeping pill? Secondly, is reading out lists and lists of numbers not one of the more pointless things you can do in this day and age? What on earth were bar graphs and pie charts and slide presentation programs and projectors invented for, if not to convey an easy understanding of what numbers mean?The whole two-and-a-hour thing could be done in 45 minutes by a tech-savvy presenter. The audience would also become more willing to be subjected to the torture!

Why do we persist with these archaic forms of communication? Because that’s what the British taught us, half a century ago? There comes a time when a country must grow up and do things that are right for its people in their time – not what was right for dead people from another world. The speaker’s attire, the feet-clapping – please, let’s move on and find our own means of expression.

The event aside, I also take issue with the annual circus that surrounds the Budget Speech. In June, everyone becomes an expert on the economy, and seems to know exactly where the money should go. This is the time of year, for example, that all the accountants in Kenya emerge as chat-show guests, opinion writers and analysts. What do they do the rest of the year? Auditing, mostly.

We can’t blame this on the accountants – they merely fill a gaping whole in our national discourse. Because they understand numbers, it is assumed that they know how the macro-economy works. And true to their training, they add up, down, and sideways and pronounce on the big issues of the economy. But where are the people who should be engaged with understanding where our resources go – the economists, chief executives, engineers, sociologists, even artists? Since when did a country become a balance sheet?

The media join in happily to provide PR opportunities to all and sundry, and to betray their own ignorance on what makes the economy go round. And so we will get wall-to-wall coverage on the budget for a week in June, followed by a return to the politics of the day. At the end of it all, there is usually an inane chart in every newspaper and TV news report: “Winners and Losers”. That is what it boils down to, in the popular discourse.

The economy is a rich and interesting thing, and understanding it cannot be confined to accountants and journalists. It is also an ongoing conversation that cannot be summarised in sound bites. What motivates people to work hard, save more, innovate, invest and trade is a fascinating subject. These behavioural issues are the things that drive the economy forward, or hold it back. We need to be having a far more rewarding conversation as a country about what makes us rich or poor, and the annual budget is not the place to have it.

What is a budget, after all? Merely an allocation of resources to competing ends. It is the way of making sure that money moves to places where it will have the most impact. Government can indeed make meaningful investments, and does, but its more important role is as a manager of incentives and penalties to regulate behaviour in the economy. We have got this back to front: we confuse ‘the budget’ for ‘the plan’, and ‘the plan’ for ‘the strategy’.

Kenya’s ‘strategy’ and ‘plan’ is these days called Vision 2030. That is where the thinking has happened, and true to form, it was done by a handful of people from a particular class. That is where we are not asking the hard questions. How inclusive is Vision 2030? How mindful is it of the fact that in the long run, education is the only known driver of development? And how willing is it to face down the demon of corruption that holds this economy by the throat?

Those are the hard questions, and they are the ones we don’t ask every year as we settle down to watch the budget circus. If it’s entertainment we want, give me a good football match instead, every time.

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