Listening to government officials explaining policy positions exposes how out of touch they seem to be with the public’s concerns about how their country is run on a daily basis.
Sitting in on the recent Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations (KARA) bi-monthly meeting on 20 March 2018, it was clear that state functionaries need to communicate their policies a lot better than is currently the case.
The meeting examined the options for Kenya’s debt sustainability in light of existing debates which have unfortunately slipped into the typical dichotomy of whether the issue at hand is simply good or bad.
Obviously, such a subject that is likely to affect 40 million plus Kenyans is never that clear-cut.
While it is commendable that government officials are taking time to explain economic policy in line with the spirit of public participation; they are still not adequately responding to citizens’ fears over how the acquisition of these loans will directly impact them.
Kenyans are concerned that much of the economic brunt of continuously- borrowed money will negatively affect the majority poor and the middle classes significantly more than the rich in relation to the proposed increase in taxes.
They are also worried that the country is getting into a cycle of debt in which it is taking up one loan to pay off another thereby leaving very little or no resources available for the required investments to uplift its citizens from poverty.
Public scepticism, critique and complaints over debt are therefore well founded in a long history of always getting poor returns on investments whether it is in terms of implementation of projects or administration of previous debt that has led to growing inequalities within Kenyan society.
Knowing your audience is therefore a very important aspect of any public engagement.
Bureaucrats should therefore not respond to members of the public by labelling them as intrinsically unpatriotic, pessimistic, overly political, ungrateful, or downright lazy, as it happened in not so many words.
This not only smirks of a very dismissive attitude towards the democratic mechanics of Kenyan political processes but is also very disrespectful of citizens who have taken time to engage on such subjects in a constructive manner.
Consequently, officials should consider taking note of the following when they discuss issues of Kenyan debt.
Much of the public cynicism arises from the fact that as the country borrows more money there are people-both within or outside government-who are always angling to steal large sums from state coffers. This thereby jeopardises the ability to service payments of these loans in one form or the other.
While it is clear that the country’s debt is still within constitutional, legal and international best practice thresholds, it doesn’t help to insist on using outlandish comparisons to make the point that all is well in the country.
Using the example that Kenya’s debt is okay just because its loans are way below those of Japan, the United States or Singapore without any reference to the fact that these countries experience much lower levels of corruption is disingenuous.
Secondly, government officials should learn to answer immediate citizen policy queries more directly.
Kenyans are eager to know what effect the acquisition of these new loans will have on current policies towards income tax and value added tax (VAT), because this is where the shoe pinches.
Not speaking to these taxation dynamics increasingly offends public sensibilities about government priorities.
Therefore, if these issues are continually not addressed conversations around debt sound more and more like a story of a man who has a crack in his water bucket. While fetching water in this cracked container the man tells everyone he is better off than his poor neighbour who has a hole in her pail.
Meanwhile, he also claims that because his bucket is the same colour as his neighbour’s Jacuzzi, it holds water just as well the rich man’s bathtub and therefore no one has any right to point out that his bucket is leaking.
Government officials should therefore stop acting like the imprudent man and listen carefully to the citizens’ interrogations on the crack in the bucket, so that they can address public concerns adequately.
The author, Leonard Wanyama, is the acting coordinator of the East Africa Tax and Governance Network (EATGN).
Photo courtesy of the The Standard Newspaper (Kenya).