Ratio Blog: Decentralising Corruption?
Monday, 15 November 2010
The Star’s Corridors of Power is usually a fun read and, I hear, very popular with the elected honorable representatives of the people. Not, mind you, popular in a ‘hey I really enjoy this’ way like I anticipate hiding away with a cup of coffee and a fresh, shiny, beautiful UK edition of Marie Claire. More in a sweaty-handed, goodness-has-anyone-found-out-HOW-did-they-find-out? manner. Of course it’s one of my favourites, too, and one of the last items really made me laugh: a short paragraph describing how a good number of the aforementioned honorable elected representatives of the people opened one of the large dailies and found the exact allocations to each constituency development fund (CDF) printed in that paper. You know that ice-cold rush of terror when all your blood drops down to your toes at the same lightning speed as recognition of your predicament forms in your brain? Yes, that one.

Apparently the problem with having the CDF allocations plastered all over the papers was that everyone and their pet fish, but most importantly the respective constituents could read it. The honorable, I learned, were not well pleased with this journalistic move since the information published may not entirely, not 100%, correspond with what they had told their constituents about the exact sum given to the constituency. Blasted transparency!

See, this always baffled me: Who on earth thought it’d be a good idea to hand over taxpayers’ money to an MP? Political theory points you towards the 101 of democracy, which contains the concept of the separation of powers: Those who make up the legislative legislate (or should – when they are a) present and b) not resting their eyes). Others execute. This distinction isn’t always clear cut: If the cabinet is taken from the legislative, there is an overlap – something that will come to an end once Kenya’s new constitution is implemented and MPs can no longer be ministers, or rather cabinet secretaries.

Actually, my question above was rhetorical. The people who thought giving the CDF to MPs would be a good idea are the MPs, obviously. And asking an MP whether this really was such a smart move in managing public finances, and whether they spent it wisely is not a sensible use of your time. Don’t do it, because all your skeptic eyebrow-raising will give you wrinkles and then you’ll need Botox and before you know it, we’ll all sit here with permanently astonished facial expressions.

But baffling still: Knowing all we know about how MPs get elected, and manage their affairs, and crank this up a notch once they become ministers (or assistant ministers), why is there still this broad sentiment that yes, there are a few issues, but overall the CDF is a good idea? Way back when I actually bothered asking one of the MPs, he told me that it was a great idea because it brought money to the people to decide what they wanted to do with it. Yes, that is, in principle, the idea, but it will come as not so great a surprise that more often than not, this is not how it works: Read any investigation of the CDF, and there are the usual tales of money disappearing, not being accounted for, being spent on the honorable’s brother’s firm that, in turn, sub-contracted to the honorable’s second wife’s firm whilst the cousin was employed to manage the CDF. With possibly a handful of exceptions, this is a slush fund.

And, more importantly, it is also an admission of defeat: If the local levels of the public administration worked, then they would be responsive to what constituency needs are, starting with the provision of water, of roads, of hospitals and schools and so on. If the CDF money is used to build a health post or a school, but has no budget for the recurrent expenditures of running this, it solves no problem, and it will not benefit from economies of scale. And the CDF is not, by any means, the only vehicle set up to bring financing to the lower levels of the public administration. So ever more additional layers are built around, and tagged onto, a local administration that is, in principle, responsible for looking after the government’s functions on that level, but doesn’t. You’ll find similarities with many NGOs: Their raison d’être is that the government doesn’t provide crucial basic services like drilling boreholes, providing a minimum level of healthcare etc, so they step in. Except their work relieves government of the need to shape up, ever. The new constitution provides for far broader decentralisation, but the real question is: will this be a decentralisation that will make government work at the local level and be responsive to the citizens, or will it be a decentralisation of incompetence and corruption – that then requires fixing and patching up?

Reprinted with permission of the Star.

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