By Mohamed Haji
Just under 3 years into devolution a lot has changed for the people of these counties and indeed the country at large. Our county governments have worked hard to set the ball of development rolling and implementing important projects albeit with forked teething problems. Measuring to expectations of a people marginalized for decades is excruciatingly difficult but leaders and county employees, with poor templates continue to work hard to improve our life chances and reduce the numerous unprecedented situational constraints. It is with unity of purpose, sense of direction and concerted effort that the much anticipated development can be achieved. As there is always room for improvement, we need competent personnel, selfless philosophies and passion for public service to propel our counties to ever greater heights. We must be able to exploit our comparative advantages and explore our competitive edge in order to compete with other counties.
As is evident, our counties are starting way behind others in terms of infrastructure, national government investment and institutional framework. It is therefore prudent to avoid the pitfalls of better equipped counties and instead learn lessons from their failures. The one-size-fits-all philosophy will not and cannot work for us. Most counties in the country have better institutions, more developed infrastructures and indeed more mature blue-print to implement their projects and programmes. Our priority is almost always different from theirs, our need for development funds more and the experience, expertise and level of exposure of their workforce is different from most of ours.
According to the most recent budget statements, combined recurrent expenditure of our 3 counties was just over 9.3 billion. This is 50% of our devolved funds and on average over 50% of this is eaten up in salaries. We cannot afford punching beyond our economic weight. I believe it is a grotesque misplacement of priorities for a poor county to spend over shillings 7.7 million on catering services! Nearly a million shilling less than it spent on tarmacking its roads! A county spends shillings 24 Million building baraza sheds for officials. These are baraza sheds where leaders lecture the electorate. They called it ‘’ to ensure conducive environment during public participation meetings’’ but to stretch it further these sheds that were constructed with taxpayers money is only open to officials while the electorate stand in the scorching sun for hours. This is malevolent incompetence or gross misplacement of priorities. Shillings 24 million could pay for more than 100 teachers for a year.
Must our recurrent expenditure match those with richer economies and less need for new infrastructures? Why must we spend the same or more on recurrent expenditure especially on employee salaries? While we are blessed with cheaper standard of living than say someone living, renting and working in Nairobi or Mombasa the recurrent expenditure of almost all richer counties is less than ours. This is because we are trying to match or exceed their employees’ salary and allowances structure. Conversely our allocated revenue from the national coffers is less than almost all other counties. Our recurrent expenditure must therefore be in line with this reality otherwise County governments will not be able to realize set development goals and implement projects in the expected time frame.
Implementing our more pressing development programmes will require greater efficiency savings such as urgently addressing our ballooning wage bill. We are spending way beyond our means on salaries and allowances. We are expected to live within our means putting our developmental stage and the level of needs of our particular populations into perspective. There is nothing that justifies the expensive salaries we pay our county executives and elected officials. Why would we pay an MCA just under half a million for example? What justifies this grotesque level of payment by a region where more than 84% of its people live on less than sh90 a day? These disparities will exacerbate inequalities and does not augur well for peace and stability. No community understands the drawbacks of insecurity and instability than our own.
Building essential infrastructures from scratch is a huge undertaking. We expect our county employees to look at the bigger picture and selflessly work for the good of society. Not milking a broken system and apportioning blame. I would like to believe that most, if not all, current county employees changed career or places of work to sacrifice their expertise and time for the greater good of our communities. We expect them to be contributors to our development not a cost. Given the relatively cheap standard of living in our counties the salaries and allowance we draw from our limited county coffers could be brought into an appropriate degree of harmony. Is that not how ethical businesses make their profit? The more we spend on development the more profit we are making as counties. Governments make a profit by developing and improving the lot of their citizens. We need to move away from the current ‘budget-based priorities to priority-based budgets’.
While Kenya’s senior government executives are traditionally paid way more than those in well developed nations, we are expected to make decisions in line with our income as counties, not swallow this faulty salary guide hook line and sinker. A Councillor in a much richer county in the UK for example earns just over sh9, 000 a month. This is a country with a GDP Per Capita of sh4.5Million. Conversely our MCAs’ take home is a minimum of sh500, 000. Kenya’s GDP Per Capita is 40 times less than UK’s! Our own counties’ GDP Per Capita need not said!
Methinks some of the decisions of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) are sticking plaster solutions far removed from the realities in our counties. The SRC should have considered individual county’s strengths and weaknesses instead of the one-size-fits-all salary structure. Our MCAs for example, could work as volunteers with a basic salary of ksh100, 000 a month and a pension after 10 years of service. In a crude sense it will save us sh150 Million a year. This will pay for 3000 midwives a year and the impact this will have on our shameful maternal mortality rate is anyone’s guess. Some will argue it is unconstitutional to tweak elected officials salaries but constitutions all over the world are replete with catastrophic errors and laws are there to work for us not the other way. Others argue that corruption and underhand deals will skyrocket in such arrangements but don’t these vices already exist? There is no limit to human greed.
The other issue that requires critical attention so as to bring down our expensive recurrent expenditure is to address the almost unnecessary allowances and travel expenses. The looming expenses scandal will engulf all of us unless urgently addressed. We spend gob smacking huge sums of money on meeting venues, traveling and the tea and biscuits we consume in our offices or seminar rooms. We call them entertainment allowances or catering services! Why would one with the weight of half a million people on his shoulders have room and time for entertainment? What conscience is this? Must we just emulate what other counties do without querying their merits or demerits? Unless we address the huge expenses our local workforce spends on the mundane, we will continue having less for our development projects and programmes.
It is time we abandon these race to the bottom. We cannot afford to spend less on development as we will not be able to reduce our shameful maternal mortality rate which is the highest in the country, our schools will continue to lag behind the rest and our inability to address the urgent needs of our populations will continue to rise.
Haji is a Social Commentator.