OPINION: Illusion of Kenyan leaders who scramble to pay people’s bills
By Eric Ndubi
If you are a 20-something-year-old job seeker like me, you are likely to have had an encounter(s) with giving.
Over the course of your life you must have both been given something and as well given something to someone, even if it is your time or ear.
Forget the unemployed millennial, it is in fact true that we all have experienced the beauty of giving and receiving.
So much so that Jomo Kenyatta’s founding Kenyan national philosophy Harambee to date sits on the coat of arms. We are effectively a giving nation, or is it a receiving one?
When I recently came back from a year of postgraduate study at the London School of Economics, I once again had the (dis)pleasure of tuning in to a local TV station broadcasting in my mother tongue.
It should have been a thrilling experience were it not for some curious programming schedule. The station ran a series of live broadcasts involving a local politician’s seemingly philanthropic exploits across the county.
This particular episode had the ‘Mama County’ dishing out an assortment of blankets, 2-inch mattresses and clothes to a group of godforsaken villagers paraded on a loosely-assembled platform at the centre of the township thronged by a crowd of equally impoverished onlookers not fortunate enough to have been beneficiaries of this arguably godsend intervention.
Each wiry, old, sickly or distraught beneficiary ascended to the platform with what looked like an apology on their face, their face lit up at the mention of the windfall they were stumbling on.
They would either break into a dance or tears of appreciation or sound a sincere prayer for the benefactor if not pledge devotion to her gubernatorial ambitions.
It was a depressing scene to watch, especially after being shielded from having to daily empathise with fellow countryfolk’s deplorable realities for over 15 months in the ‘bliss’ that is London.
I thought I should maybe reconnect to Twitter and get a more national outlook into my country’s evolving narrative.
I thought wrong, first I bumped into the self-congratulatory tweet of ‘super Senator’ Johnson Sakaja pompously informing us ordinary folk how he cleared the bill of 14 Riverside Drive terror survivor Emmanuel Omala complete with pictures and host of compliments from Tweeps who didn’t know better than to question the ‘true son of the soil’.
I was soon to realise that our esteemed pseudo-leaders would never miss a chance to broadcast even their most feeble attempt at giving.
Former Kakamega Senator Boni Khalwale abruptly showed up on my timeline declaring a handful dollar donation to a ‘unique admirer’ unaware of her newfound pawn status in his political relevance.
He pledged to fund her two-week diaper budget that should enthral a dwindling support base.
Next rolled up whom I would have a few years back declared a loner in the perfection of this self- praising populist pseudo-philanthropy, Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko.
He recently had come to the aid of veteran boxer Conjestina Achieng who contrary to the rallying Harambee Motto had been relegated to oblivion, sponsoring her mental health treatment. There is an applause online, the governor’s kind heart doesn’t go unnoticed.
Scrolling down on, South Mugirango MP Silvanus Rono was curtly replying to a the heart-breaking news report of a 14-year-old forced to travel alone from Kisii County to Shimo la Tewa Secondary School in Mombasa with nothing but a metal box and a handful personal effects.
The MP wanted it known that he had committed to paying the student’s school fees for the duration of study.
From the outset, there is nothing awfully wrong with these interventions and similar others. They seem to have been timely, absolutely necessary and are of benefit to the few individuals in the short-run.
What worries me is when elected leaders use these feeble reactions to underlying structural problems as compensation for incompetent policy-making.
It is even more infuriating that this supposed charity is applauded by Kenyans as a metric for the performing leader that in the 2017 general election several candidates incorporated it as a central campaigning strategy as evidenced, for example, in the Meru County Woman Rep race.
The downside to normalising pseudo-philanthropy that is synonymous to voter bribery is the mass acceptance of legislators’ dereliction of their basic duties reinforcing the attractiveness of a perpetually campaigning nation.
We collectively close the door to collaborative conversations about poverty eradication, universal healthcare and disregard institutions desperately trying to call attention to evidence-driven policy making.
I acknowledge that no institution alone has all the answers to our societal problems and even the fact that decisive solutions to some of our most enduring problems might be decades away or less subject to experimentation and iterative processes.
But do some of our most visible legislators have the incentive to do their job, or in the least lend an ear to innovation?
As demonstrated by a 2017 study on the political economy of disaster preparedness in Pakistan, a country ranked only five places lower than Kenya (142 out of 188) in the Human Development Index, politicians gain more electorally from disaster response than from preparedness and risk reduction.
This can be plausibly extrapolated to many other issues that we are grappling with including terror, healthcare and basic education.
The authors argue that politicians realise that citizens value their reactive efforts more, so they have a perverse incentive to spend less effort and resources on longer-term preparedness.
In their 2009 paper titled ‘Myopic Voters and Natural Disaster Policy’ social scientists Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra found that voters in the US consistently rewarded government spending on disaster relief but not for preparedness.
They posit that reactive spending is rewarded by voters because it feels “direct and targeted” whereas the results of longer-term preparedness are “less obvious” to an individual voter. This is despite the fact that reactive spending is much more expensive and does not improve future preparedness.
A case in point is the human cost and property destruction in the aftermath of the Solai Dam tragedy where we witnessed ugly imagery of politicians scrambling for a photo op to immortalise their ‘charitable’ acts.
Like I said before, we are a giving nation (yes?). And we absolutely delight in it. We also love receiving;, or is it not true that the hand that giveth is blessed? I do also have my own story about giving.
After landing from the UK, I had the pleasure of being approached by a local religious establishment I frequent, understandably blinded by the illusion of the European money tree that every African lucky to travel away from home is compelled to pick from.
I bet I will be sat on one of those ‘Guest of Honour’ seats in a few months in obedience to our very brilliant Harambee Motto – we will be literary pulling together to aid some social cause that faith-based organisations seem to be leading in.
But as at now am living in a neighbourhood interestingly named Zimmerman, a place where drinking water plumbing is laid shoulder-to-shoulder with rivulets of raw sewage and leaks are swiftly resolved with some sort of plastic taping.
I bet MP Waihenya Ndirangu will be on time to foot our hospital bills when the imminent Cholera outbreak comes. Thank heavens for charity fellow Kenyans.
Eric Ndubi is a freelance writer and a champion of evidence-driven policy making. He holds an MSc Global Media and Communications from the London School of Economics and Political Science.