Kenya’s reverse economics: squander everything that’s scarce
Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta tells us that we are going on a national belt-tightening exercise. Government is going to cut out unnecessary foreign trips, workshops, and conferences by its leaders and functionaries; we are going to cut out all unnecessary hiring of cousins and sycophants; and we are going to suspend all spending on luxuries.
A question: why were we spending money on all those things in the first place?
Can anyone point out to me a single government conference, workshop, seminar, foreign trip, luxury vehicle or office that has returned more to the people of Kenya than was spent on it?
There is, of course, a sense of deja vu in all this: we have been here before. Finance Minister Simeon Nyachae once said our economy was in intensive care, and all sorts of austerity measures were necessary. If any austerity was visited upon ministers and their panjandrums, it was not obvious. Finance Minister Amos Kimunya once said we could not afford all the various limousines and 4WD vehicles allocated to cabinet ministers. If any were returned, it was not obvious.
As far as I am aware, we have never been a rich country. We are always in the lower leagues of economic development, in the slum periphery of the world. Yet you would never know it by looking at the lifestyles, pomp and ceremony that surround our leaders. Anyone would imagine that they have created a first-world economic engine, such is their reward.
There is a simple rule of life taught to pretty much every child in the world: cut your coat according to your cloth. If that rule was ever taught in Kenya, it is not obvious. Here, those that lead us imagine that we are the cloth-producing centre of excellence of the world, such is the sparkle and magnificence of the coats they cut for themselves.
It is common-sensical that you should conserve those things that are in short supply. In fact, a whole science known as economics was invented to deal with the problem of scarce resources. Well, neither common sense nor economics appears to be abundant in Kenya, for we are champions at squandering all those things that we have very little of.
Take tax revenues. These are very scarce in Kenya, since only a small proportion of the population is in formal gainful employment, and of those very few are willing to contribute systematically to the exchequer. Yet we are profligate in our management of this resource. We allow people with the highest incomes all sorts of loopholes through which to escape, while ensuring that the lowest paid are taxed punitively at source.
Electricity is in short supply in this land, as those who generate it are always pointing out. But walk around Nairobi during the day, and look at all the streetlights that are left blazing at all hours. One of the worst places for this is Processional Way. Do you know it? It is one of the few new roads that have appeared in the city for years, designed apparently to connect the president to the world, and long enough to accommodate his entire motorcade. What does it take to switch off the lights during the day – the flick of a switch? We must have hidden electricity sources so abundant that such diligence is unnecessary.
Water is scarce in this land, as every expert keeps trying to tell us. And so we use decrepit, crumbling colonial-era pipes with which to transport this most precious of commodities. We allow leaks to remain unaddressed for days on end, and let water swill around on the roads. Why worry? The rain will bring it back.
Trees are scarce in this country, which explains why we allowed the Mau Forest to be excised, and why we keep ignoring all attempts to reclaim it. And why we are allowing property developers to turn Nairobi rapidly into a tree-free zone.
Competent and ethical people are probably the commodity in the shortest supply in this land of ours. Instead of protecting and nurturing them, we shun them, vilify them and make their lives a misery, so that they end up leaving to make their lives elsewhere. And so we have highly capable Kenyans making a wonderful contribution to the economies of many, many countries in the world. They occupy high positions and generate ideas and knowledge. They just don’t do it here, where they are needed the most, because we fail to appreciate them. Maybe we just think we’ll procreate a few more when we need them.
The more I think about it, the more I realise the economics I was taught has no place in Kenya. Here, that which is abundant (corruption, larceny, ineptitude, apathy) is preserved and protected; and that which is scarce is depleted and dismissed. There’s a PhD dissertation right there for any of you budding economists in our universities wanting to leave your mark on the discipline. Please explain this perversity to future generations.