Danger of seeking private solutions to public problems
We have argued in this column before, and others have argued similarly elsewhere, that one of the biggest barriers to sustained development in Kenya is our culture of prescribing private solutions to public problems.
This past week, this was spectacularly exemplified by the Nairobi County Deputy Governor, Polycarp Igathe, who has since resigned from the post, in his misguided attempt to justify the involvement of the Governor’s private militia in public works across the city.
In the fateful tweet, Mr Igathe wondered why we are not all appreciative of the fact that the militia has managed to clean up and improve the image of the city in the face of county workers who “had already shown you that they cannot handle the task”.
Despite a robust engagement on social media from many quarters, the man remained adamant that Kenyans were being too critical and that the private militia was doing a great job transforming the city.
For the umpteenth time, I insist that the people elect a government for purposes of levying taxes in order to provide a set of social services. These services include security, infrastructure, health, and education. Provision of these services ensures that the populace is sufficiently enabled to pursue other economic activities that can then boost productivity in the country.
A government that fails to guarantee these services has absolutely no business governing.
Historically, our governments have institutionalised the “Igathe phenomenon” by allowing leaders and senior public servants to access private services at public expense.
When they fall ill, they spend public money on private hospitals, even going to the extent of flying out of the country at public expense to get treatment at “the best hospitals” in the world. In fact, several senior government officials are currently out of the country receiving treatment for conditions that are managed daily at our big public facilities.
Many of them are actually responsible for development and management of health systems, but have elected to seek healthcare elsewhere. This clearly demonstrates what they think of the health care common citizens deserve, and their low opinion of public health systems in this country.
When our security system became less than trustworthy, many public servants, including those responsible for security, have used public resources to procure private security.
In fact, it is not uncommon to find senior security officers being paid an allowance to purchase private security. The upshot of this is that the government cannot guarantee the security of its own officers, let alone that of common citizens.
The same scenario is played out in the education sector, in which every Kenyan is working hard to make enough money to be able to afford private schools for their children.
Indeed, in the recent past, the ministry of education has decided to implement a new education system that has mostly been shrouded in secrecy and mystery.
The only information we have about it is that it is competency-based and is good for our children.
Its philosophical underpinnings (why do we take our children to school?) remain vague and unexamined critically. Importantly, senior public officers with the ability to afford “better” are not lining up to take their children to public schools in order to benefit from this wonderful education system.
Those who can afford it are sending their children out of the country to places such as Australia, the US, South Africa, and the UK.
Across all sectors improvisation has become the lot of the common mwananchi, while the rich avoid public services like the plague.
As a result, the quality of essential services has deteriorated so much so that even the poor are finding them repugnant. We are therefore paying taxes but not availing ourselves of the services we are paying for, giving the tax-collecting government the incentive to steal or waste public funds. After all, nobody is going to ask where the money went if they are not using the facilities it was meant to pay for!
We cannot complain of corruption and wastage of public funds on the one hand while fashioning private solutions to public problems on the other!
Atwoli is Associate Professor and Dean, Moi University School of Medicine [email protected]