OPINION: Why it is wise to build trust before pushing policy

By Michael Cherambos

The recent move announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on Jamhuri Day that the government will rescind the 1.5 per cent housing levy is an adept and progressive move.

Previously, the law demanded that all employees and employers contribute to a housing fee, whether or not this benefitted them directly. The aim of the law was to raise money to build more affordable homes, part of the Big Four Agenda.

The need for building better housing has not changed – about half of urban dwellers live in informal settlements, or slums. As this number grows, so does the need to come up with creative solutions. That is why the government tried demanding that salaried workers and their employers pay an extra tax from their salaries to contribute to building.

But this move was criticised because people wondered why they would have to pay to build other houses when they had a hard time affording their own, or did not feel benefits themselves. These are fair arguments and should not be cast aside.

The initial intention of the levy is certainly commendable – find a way to build more in order to alleviate our housing problem. But citizens spoke up, and they do not agree with the means. Together, we need to work with the government to find better solutions. This can include more initiatives between local communities and the government to create more homes, repurposing old structures to turn them into apartments, and more volunteering to help the homeless.

Housing is a collaborative effort, and Uhuru’s decision to listen to the people’s complaints and backtrack on a previous mandate is very commendable. It would not be unusual for a president to keep pushing an agenda he set forth at the beginning of his term even as it becomes clear that it is not beneficial to the nation.

Take, for example, U.S President Donald Trump’s contentious campaign promise that he will build a border wall. It is increasingly obvious that building it is extremely expensive and funds could be more beneficial if channelled elsewhere. But he still has not reneged.

President Kenyatta seems a more thoughtful and humble type. His intentions are good and typically the laws he passes are for our benefit. But when we collectively begin to discover that something is not working, it is okay to change course, to rethink the solution, and to admit that the original plan is not a good one.

This is the spirit of the BBI – shaping a government that is formed by the will of the people. A government that holds onto power at all costs cannot last for so long. On the other hand, an administration that makes it clear on a regular basis that it is listening to citizen complaints is the one that will be successful. That kind of government will leave a favourable legacy of prosperity and good will.

And while legally requiring that people contribute from their hard earned wages to help build housing for others might seem like a good move, we are not yet in a place where it can be demanded.

Folks are still nervous that their tax money is going to line the pockets of corrupt leaders. And that’s a legitimate concern. The situation is improving, but it is not perfect yet. And the Head of State’s acknowledgement that there are holes in the system that need to be patched up is exactly what we need right now.

The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) functions in the same spirit. At the present, we have a list of recommendations based on consultations with people from all over the country. The next step in the process is determining feasibility and how to implement them.

It has nothing to do with maintaining the status quo as some pundits have claimed. It is all about paying attention to the needs of constituents and admitting when something is not working.

The BBI is a remarkable acknowledgement that everything is not perfect, and that we need many changes if we are to charge forward with economic development and prosperity during the next century.

Both the BBI and Presidnet Kenyatta’s compromises on the housing levy are unprecedented moves in African political history. This indicates to me that we really are in an era of rejuvenation. The old has been thrown out the door and opening up to new solutions is Kenya’s way forward.

Michael Cherambos comments on topical socio-political issues; Michaelcherambos1@gmail.com

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