Kenya’s fiscal policy – the means by which the government adjusts its spending levels, revenue generation and collection, and debt to monitor and influence the economy- has been a defining feature of the current administration. The three have been characterised by almost consistent features and trends.
Some background information is useful. Kenya has had an annual growth rate of about 5.46 percent from 2004 until 2016. Initially, the economy was slated to grow at around 6 percent in 2017 but this has since been revised to 5 percent. According to Genghis Capital, it will actually be between 4.25- 4.75 percent due to the drought-induced contraction in agriculture, the negative effects of the interest rate cap on the financial sector and the prolonged electioneering period. The Government thinks the economy will grow by over 6 percent next year though the World Bank projects a lower rebound to 5.8 percent in 2018 and 6.1 percent in 2019.
Kenya’s economy is primarily services driven and according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), under the Kenyatta administration, growth has largely been on the back of government spending on infrastructure projects such as the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the expansion of the road network as well as electricity generation and transmission projects. Other significant contributors to growth include a resurgent tourism industry and growth in information and communication, real estate and transport and storage.
Over the past 6 years, government spending has grown at an average of 14.7 percent, yet revenue growth has only increased by 12.7 percent. Under the current administration, spending has gone up by two-thirds, from Sh1.6 trillion in 2013/14 to Sh2.64 trillion in 2017/18.
Back to fiscal policy, we will address each component separately: expenditure, revenue generation and collection, and borrowing.
Over the past 6 years, government spending has grown at an average of 14.7 percent, yet revenue growth has only increased by 12.7 percent. Under the current administration, spending has gone up by two-thirds, from Sh1.6 trillion in 2013/14 to Sh2.64 trillion in 2017/18. While some of this can be explained by inflation reducing the value of money, there is a consistent trend of notable increases in government spending.
(Source: Institute of Economic Affairs)
A fundamental problem in analysing fiscal policy at both national and county levels is determining the intended recurrent vs development budgets and comparing these to the actual expenditure pattern. The image below from the Institute of Economic Affairs Kenya (IEA) details this for the National Government:
(Source: Institute of Economic Affairs)
Overall, two key trends are clear, the first of which is that the national budget is still geared towards recurrent spending. Indeed, as the Treasury itself has admitted in the past, recurrent expenditure is reaching unsustainable levels.
There are several factors behind this aggressive growth in expenditure, the first of which is devolution. In 2010 Kenyans enacted a new constitution, which established a bicameral Parliament and 47 county governments. At the beginning of the implementation of devolution, a parliamentary report indicated that it would cost at least Sh36 billion to set up. Prior to devolution, it cost Sh6.6 billion per year to run Parliament, but that figure is expected to rise to Sh14.3 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Office has also stated that it will cost Sh21.75 billion annually to run the 47 county assemblies. Thus, while welcome, the reality is that devolution is expensive.
At the beginning of the implementation of devolution, a parliamentary report indicated that it would cost at least Sh36 billion to set up. Prior to devolution it cost Sh6.6 billion per year to run Parliament, but that figure is expected to rise to Sh14.3 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Office has also stated that it will cost Sh21.75 billion annually to run the 47 county assemblies. Thus while welcome, the reality is that devolution is expensive.
Linked to the point above is the public wage bill which, according to the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC), has ballooned from Sh465 billion when the Kenyatta administration took over to Sh627 billion in the 2015/2016 financial year, an annual average growth of 9 per cent. SRC’s projections show that it will be Sh676 billion in 2016/2017. Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) raised concerns, stating that Kenya is among countries that exhibit large increases in the wage bill, particularly in the run-up to elections. IMF is of the view that given Kenya’s rising debt levels (more on this later) the decision to increase spending on public sector wages is a concern as less funds are left over for economically productive development expenditure. The SRC pooh-poohed the IMF’s concerns, stating that wages were actually falling as a proportion of GDP: from 10.3 per cent in 2012/2013 to 9.5 per cent in 2015/2016.
A second factor behind the growth in expenditure, which the government has been eager to finger as the primary reason, has been the investment in infrastructure. According to the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), Kenya’s current estimated infrastructure funding gap is USD 2-3 billion per year over the next 10 years. To address this, government has allocated nearly a third of total budget expenditure to infrastructure between the 2016/17 and 2019/20 financial years.
The World Bank makes the point that the infrastructure investment drive in Kenya needs to be done in a way that is both efficient and sustainable. With such a robust commitment, key questions must be asked. For example, is Kenya investing in the right infrastructure? The Brookings Institution makes the point that a push for more infrastructure only raises economic growth and people’s well-being if the focus is on quality and impact, rather than quantity and volume. Has Kenya fallen short here? Has the government conducted an audit of infrastructure investment and the development it has engendered thus far? Has there been an audit of its quality? How efficient is our investment? Without an answer to these questions, the country risks wasting resources on aggressive infrastructure expenditure that generates no real benefits for its people.
Indeed, the link between infrastructure and economic growth is more tenuous than previously assumed. According to the London School of Economics, most recent studies on infrastructure’s contribution to growth tend to find smaller effects than those reported in earlier studies; this is linked to improvements in methodological approaches. Kenya, therefore, shouldn’t assume that infrastructure investment and development will automatically lead to significant improvements in economic growth. It is time for a fundamental rethink of the scale, nature and efficiency of the government’s spending on infrastructure.
Kenya, therefore, shouldn’t assume that infrastructure investment and development will automatically lead to significant improvements in economic growth. It is time for a fundamental rethink of the scale, nature and efficiency of the government’s spending on infrastructure.
The final issue regarding expenditure is linked to the mismanagement of public funds at both national and county levels. At the national level, allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement are legion and include: the National Youth Service (NYS) affair where the Auditor General stated a loss of Sh1.9 billion; Sh5.2 billion misappropriated at the Ministry of health according to an in-house audit report; mobile clinics valued at Sh1.4 million each being sold to the government at more than 7 times the price then abandoned in an NYS yard; inflated rig charges at the Geothermal Development Company (GDC) in which the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) found the tender committee culpable and six managers were sent on compulsory leave.
At county level, there are rising concerns with expenditure considering that the national government has sent to the counties more than Sh1 trillion since their establishment in 2013. Research by the International Budget Partnership Kenya (IBPK) reveals that county governments are not making available fiscal documents required by the Public Financial Management Act (PFMA). Only about 20 percent of key budget documents, including fiscal expenditure documents, meant to be online had been uploaded. Indeed, IBPK reports that in some cases, budget allocations are based on lists of projects drawn up by Members of County Assemblies (MCAs). There is no clarity on the criteria governing such allocations, and even less clarity on how county funds are actually spent. There is a distinct air of mischief informing this laxity. It is not a secret that the first iteration of devolution revealed how much autonomy county governments have in the planning and use of funds they receive and generate. This lack of transparency seems to be aimed at facilitating a culture of financial mismanagement and corruption at the county level in an environment where, frankly, no one is holding them accountable.
Further, county governments see themselves as expenditure units, not development units. This needs to change. Rather than concentrating on how much they have to spend, they ought to focus on the development dividends they are responsible for generating. Without this fundamental shift in thinking, county governments will continue to be like spoilt children, forever crying over what they are owed, but with nothing to show for the development they ought to deliver.
For example, 16 firms listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange issued profit warnings in 2016, which meant less corporation tax could be collected. Additionally, the 7000 jobs lost to downsizing and shuttering of firms, mainly in the banking sector, reduced Pay As You Earn receipts.
The greatest concern beyond the moral question of the financial mismanagement of the public funds of a poor African country, is the issue of how corruption affects spending efficiency. As will be explained later, Kenya is getting into significant debt, particularly to finance development expenditure. If such debt is not being used as efficiently as possible and instead funds are stolen or dubiously spent, the country will be saddled with onerous debt without he means – the improvements in economic performance that were to come from debt financed development projects – to pay it.
Given the factors detailed above, there are several broad changes that ought to be made. At national level, the first recommendation is for government to commit more money to development expenditure and put more effort into actually absorbing the allocations given to the docket.
Secondly, the national government ought to be more consistent in the manner in which it presents data and should make it easier to track planned versus actual expenditure, particularly across the recurrent and development dockets.
Thirdly, large allocations to infrastructure projects need to be audited and a determination made on the effectiveness of the allocations, how funds can be better spent and recommendations on how to improve efficiency.
Finally, national government has to clamp down on financial mismanagement and prosecute and punish culpable officials. Without this, the government’s commitment to ending corruption will be seen as insincere and ineffective.
At county level, there are several issues that ought to be addressed the first of which is that there needs to be a very clear hierarchy of accountability for county expenditure. Governors and the County Ministers of Finance must be held accountable for their spending and individuals need to be punished if found guilty of corruption.
Secondly, counties must comply with the PFMA and provide breakdowns of their expenditure which includes a delineation between recurrent and development expenditure.
Thirdly, the principle of fiscal discipline should carry considerable weight when national government makes county allocations such that responsible use of resources is rewarded and poor performers are punished.
Finally, a citizen-led effort to create a ranking of county governments according to fiscal transparency with a focus on expenditure would likely create pressure on county governments to adhere to their legal obligations. Included in the ranking should be how well they comply with PFMA stipulations, with the top and bottom performers widely publicised.
REVENUE GENERATION AND COLLECTION
Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) has been falling short of its revenue targets for some time. For example, in 2016/17 total collection stood at Sh1.365 trillion representing a performance rate of 95.4 percent, and a shortfall of Sh66.64 billion- a significant number. In the first four months of this fiscal year, KRA has already fallen behind by Sh40 billion. There are questions as to why revenue collection consistently underperforms. I am of the view that KRA is given unrealistic targets, more informed by aggressive increases in government expenditure and oblivious to the serious constraints that mute tax collection.
Without this fundamental shift in thinking, county governments will continue to be like spoilt children, forever crying over what they are owed, but with nothing to show for the development they ought to deliver.
Revenue generation targets tend to be revised upwards over the course of the year. KRA’s original revenue target for the 2016/17 was Sh1.415 trillion which was later revised to Sh1.431 trillion, an increase of KES 16.24 billion. This is a concern because motivations behind the increases in targets are not clear. Do they perhaps stem from a realisation in Treasury that it cannot raise as much as anticipated in borrowing?
The second constraint is that the macroeconomic environment informs the extent to which revenues deviate from targets. For example, it is estimated that a 1 percent reduction in GDP growth reduces revenue by Sh13.4 billion and as noted earlier, this has been something of a tough year. A similar increase in inflation also requires that revenue targets be raised by Sh13 billion.
This is linked to sectoral issues which can affect the ability of KRA to collect tax. For example, 16 firms listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange issued profit warnings in 2016 –a rising trend since 2013– which meant less corporation tax could be collected. Additionally, the 7000 jobs lost to downsizing and shuttering of firms, mainly in the banking sector, reduced Pay As You Earn receipts.
Third, government policy decisions, particularly those related to tax policy, affect the ability to generate revenue. For example, the non-implementation of changes to specific excise rates in 2016/17 reduced revenues by nearly Sh5 billion. Additionally, the duty-free importation of essential foods (maize, milk, sugar) led to a revenue loss of over Sh4 billion in the fourth quarter of the same financial year. Indeed, it is estimated that government policy decisions cost it Sh13 billion in lost revenue that entire year. The government tends to shoot itself in the foot in other ways too. For example, delays in remitting income tax from public institutions costs it Sh823 million.
Finally, revenue generation and collection in Kenya like the rest of Africa is negatively affected by illicit financial flows from the country. According to the UN, Africa loses more than US$50 billion through illicit financial outflows per year. Companies evade and avoid tax by shifting profits to low tax locations, claiming large allowable deductions, carrying losses forward indefinitely, and using transfer pricing.
The main reason why consistent subpar revenue collection is worrying is because the national treasury continues to construct budgets based on the unrealistic targets. For example, revenue generated was meant to play a bigger role in the current budget, financing 60.7 percent of the overall deficit and 58.7 percent of the development expenditure. Since it appears as though targets will again not be met, government will have to borrow more than anticipated.
There ought to be fundamental rethink of revenue generation and collection in order to effect a sustained increase. There are several factors to address, the first of which is improvements in the business environment that increase profits and thus taxable revenue. A key component that is often ignored here is the environment for the informal economy. Current assessments largely ignore the sector in which 90 percent of employed Kenyans earn a living. More ought to be done to make informal businesses more profitable.
At the same time, the government ought to seek to expand the revenue base by encouraging the formalisation of these businesses. Concerted efforts must be undertaken to pilot schemes that remove barriers to – and create incentives for – formalisation, particularly of larger businesses that easily evade tax yet are robust enough to consistently pay.
As recommended by the Africa Progress Report 2013, alongside demanding the highest standards of propriety and disclosure from their government, Kenyans should push citizens of the developed world to demand similar standards from their governments and companies.
Finally, Kenya needs to work on curbing illicit financial outflows. The UN makes the point that G8 leaders have committed to the 2013 Lough Erne Declaration, a 10-point statement calling for an overhaul of corporate transparency rules. Among other things, the declaration urges tax authorities to automatically share information to fight evasion. It states that poor countries should have the information and capacity to collect the taxes owed to them. Kenya should join other African countries in lobbying rich countries to enact stricter laws against tax evasion. As recommended by the Africa Progress Report 2013, alongside demanding the highest standards of propriety and disclosure from their government, Kenyans should push citizens of the developed world to demand similar standards from their governments and companies.
BORROWING AND DEBT
In 2013, the Jubilee administration inherited a debt of Sh1.7 trillion after a decade of the Kibaki government. Less than 5 years later, that has ballooned by nearly 250 percent to Sh4.4 trillion. This year’s borrowing has been particularly aggressive. The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) says that the government is borrowing an average of Sh86 billion per month, the highest level since the bank started listing public debt in 1999, and over Sh30 billion more than the monthly averages of 2015 and 2016.
Despite this, it seems the government’s debt appetite won’t wane any time soon. The Treasury recently announced that it is seeking to issue another Eurobond, which could be used to repay the outstanding US$750 million syndicated loan the government raised in 2015 and which came due in October. What seems to be clear is that given expanding expenditure and subpar revenue collection, borrowing from both foreign and domestic sources will continue to grow. Further, as a Bloomberg analyst points out, Kenya has among the highest debt levels in sub-Saharan Africa, partly a result of having neither the commodity revenue sources of Nigeria and Angola nor the budget support from donor countries enjoyed by neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda.
Before looking at the specific features of Kenya’s debt, it is important to state that debt itself is not necessarily a problem. If used wisely, it can fund investment into activities and projects that catalyse economic development, GDP growth and growth in per capita incomes. Concerns only start being raised when the pattern of debt accrual and servicing seems headed in an unsustainable direction. If expenditure is growing in the context of muted revenue generation, that creates momentum for more debt than cannot be sustainably serviced. Further, if debt is not used efficiently and linked to increases in productivity and GDP growth, it also saddles countries with burdensome repayments. At the moment, Kenya is on the cusp where the government can either take decisive action to put the country on a better debt path, or continue with current trends that are edging the country closer to an unsustainable position.
The IEA points out that as of June 2012, total public debt was composed of 52.9 percent domestic debt and 47.1 percent external debt. However, the share of external debt has been steadily growing and recent statistics show that today the situation is reversed, with external debt taking up more than half (52.3 percent) of total debt.
The National Treasury Report 2015 indicates that the external debt stock for Kenya is composed of multilateral debt (54.7 percent), bilateral debt (27.1 percent), export credits (1.5 percent), commercial banks (0.6 percent) and International Sovereign Bonds (16.1 percent). As the IEA points out, a large part of the external debt remains concessional (i.e. on terms substantially more generous than market loans) and mainly from multilateral creditors; however, the share of concessional loans has been falling over the last three years which means external debt is becoming ever more expensive for the country.
There are several factors affecting the composition of debt, the first of which is Treasury’s desire to reduce domestic borrowing in order to release domestic credit for the private sector. This was a major reason given for issuing the Eurobond. As shown by the statistics above, he government has stayed true to this intent in some ways. However, the cap on interest rates introduced last year, has perversely facilitated government’ ability to raise domestic debt as banks, reluctant to lend to the general public due to profit margin and risk concerns, have more aggressively pursued government securities. The attractiveness of government debt is thus pushing the domestic private sector out of the domestic debt market, which contradicts government’s original intent.
The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) notes that the government is borrowing an average of Sh86 billion per month, the highest level since the bank started listing public debt in 1999, and over Sh30 billion more than the monthly averages of 2015 and 2016.
It is important to note that, as reported in The Standard, World Bank data indicates that the average grace period on repaying new external debt has shrunk by half in the last four years. On average, in 2013, the country was given 8.2 years before starting to repay loans. This had reduced to 4.6 years by 2016. Shorter grace periods reduce the government’s room for flexibility and could be an indicator of jittery lenders keen on getting their money back as soon as possible. Indeed, Bank of America Merrill Lynch notes that Kenyan debt underperforms its peers as evidenced by the fact that yield premiums over U.S. debt have not narrowed as much as those of other sub-Saharan debt. In short, Kenya is seen as riskier to lend to than other African countries.
Informed by the expansion in borrowing, Kenya’s fiscal deficit has also grown. Its ratio to GDP has widened significantly from 6.4 percent in 2013/14 to 10.4 percent in 2016/17. The IEA points out that the large increase in deficit partly reflected the financing of the first phase of Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project.
Fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP
The government is targeting a fiscal deficit of 5.9 percent of GDP, in the 2018/19 fiscal year, down from an estimated 7.3 percent this fiscal year. Others however do not expect this will be met. Genghis Capital thinks Kenya’s budget deficit for this fiscal year will likely reach 8 percent of GDP. Further, the government doesn’t always hit its fiscal deficit projections. Indeed, according to Cytonn Investments, in the 2016/2017 fiscal year, the government’s deficit actually widened to 8.3 percent of GDP, some way above its revised target of 6.9 percent. In any case, despite the efforts it may be making to reduce the deficit, current government targets and performance are still higher than its own preferred ceiling of 5 percent.
The IEA points out that as the amount of debt held increased, the cost of debt has also gone up with debt servicing increasing from about Sh19 billion in 1990 to Sh400 billion by the end of 2015. A larger component of debt servicing emanates from servicing of domestic debt, but since the proportion of domestic and external debt to GDP are almost at par, it may indicate that it is costlier to service the former.
Debt service 1980 – 2016, KES billions
There are growing concerns as to how much revenue is being committed to servicing debt. In the first nine months of the 2015/16 financial year, the government spent four out of every 10 shillings it collected as tax to settle debts. In April, the IMF estimated Kenya’s debt-service to revenue-ratio at 34.7 percent against a threshold of 30 percent, and a report in the Business Daily pointed out that in the last fiscal year, the country spent more money to settle debt (Sh435.7 billion) than it did to finance development (Sh394.2 billion). If more and more revenue has to be locked into servicing debt, government will either have to ramp down spending on development (given the relatively fixed burden of recurrent expenditure) or borrow even more, none of which is good.
The IEA also notes that the ratio of debt to GDP rose from 40.7 percent in 2012 to 56.4 percent in June, which merited a ranking of 78 out of 138 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index.
Government Budget and Public Debt as % of GDP
(Source: IEA); GDP is for full year (FY) and measured in thousands; * Provisional estimates
As borrowing continues to grow aggressively, it will lead to higher imbalances that will raise concerns about sustainability.
Views differ on whether Kenya’s debt is sustainable. Some are of the view that given the massive gaps in key sectors such as energy and transport infrastructure, the country must continue to do everything possible to finance and address the gaps and that debt accrued now will pay off in the long term. Kenya remains below the World Bank’s debt-to-GDP ratio ceiling (or tipping point) of 64 percent. The IMF, in its review of Kenya a year ago, said Kenya’s risk of external debt distress remains low but notes there is need for reduction in the deficit over the medium term. While the IMF has raised concerns about Kenya’s public debt, it is below what they view as the applicable ceiling for Kenya – 74 percent of GDP.
The IEA points out that as the amount of debt held increased, the cost of debt has also gone up with debt servicing increasing from about Sh19 billion in 1990 to Sh400 billion by the end of 2015.
Others, however, are of the view that a debt-to-GDP ratio beyond 40 percent for developing and emerging economies is dangerous. The IMF itself envisages fiscal consolidation that targets a 3.7 percent of GDP deficit by 2018/19 (compared to the government’s own target of 5.9 percent) which it says is critical to maintaining a low risk of debt distress while preserving fiscal space for development priorities.
I disagree with the Treasury’s assertions that the national debt is manageable and that there is headroom for more. Kenya’s debt is only manageable if decisive action is taken to reduce expenditure, boost revenue collection and reduce borrowing. If this does not happen within the next three years, the country will start feeling the effects of debt distress.
The credit rating agency Moody’s has already raised concerns about the country’s accumulating debt. Indeed, the agency is currently assessing whether it needs to downgrade the country’s credit rating from the current B1 status on grounds of its weakening ability to repay debt. Moody argues that unless a decisive policy response is introduced, the upward trajectory in government debt will see the debt-to-GDP ratio surpass the 60 percent mark by June 2018, pushing financing costs for the private sector even higher. Its assessment points to the fact that in the latest fiscal year, the government spent 19 percent of its revenues on interest payments alone, up from 10.7 percent five years ago. It notes that persistent, large, primary deficits and high borrowing costs continue to drive government indebtedness ever higher. Further, government liquidity pressures risk, the danger that the government may not have enough readily available cash to settle its immediate and short-term obligations, is rising in the face of increasingly large financing needs.
Another credit rating agency, Fitch, has also indicated that it could downgrade Kenya’s rating due to its debt position. Fitch noted that the country was spending a larger proportion of its revenue on paying debt compared to its economic peers such as Uganda, Rwanda and Ghana.
Fitch gave Kenya a B+ rating, with a negative outlook. These credit ratings are important as a fall in rating will mean any new foreign debt taken on by the country will be more expensive.
There are several broad strategies Kenya can use to better manage its debt the first of which is to aggressively reduce expenditure. Government must implement austerity budgets and limit unnecessary expenditure. I also think here should be a fundamental downward review of salaries of those in government. While those of technocrats such as Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries as well as professionals such teachers and doctors should remain attractive, there are far too many people in elected office on overly generous terms, and the related wage bill is not sustainable for a relatively poor African country.
Secondly, government needs to improve its recurrent vs development expenditure allocations. As elucidated before, year after year, more money is allocated to recurrent expenditure which is not economically productive. A reduction in recurrent expenditure is crucial and this can be partially addressed by a downward review in wages as explained above. The IEA points out that although in relative terms the proportion of recurrent expenditure to GDP has slightly declined while that of development expenditure has nearly doubled from 5.7 percent of GDP in 2007/8 to 11.0 percent in 2016/17, recurrent expenditure still remains comparatively high.
In April this year, the IMF estimated Kenya’s debt-service to revenue-ratio at 34.7 percent against a threshold of 30 percent, and a report in the Business Daily pointed out that in the 2016/17 fiscal year, the country spent more money to settle debt (Sh435.7 billion) than it did to finance development (Sh394.2 billion).
Development expenditure should be prioritised by considering projects which bring immediate returns to the economy. More money must be committed to spurring the growth required to pay debts, if Kenya is to avoid a repayment crisis.
Thirdly, government has to create strategies to ensure more development expenditure is absorbed. A November 2017 report by Controller of Budget showed the use of development funds for the financial year ending in June was at 70 percent, the highest since 2013. While this is good news and higher than the 66 per cent rate recorded in the previous year, it is not good enough. Indeed, the organisation Development Initiatives notes that the 2017/18 fiscal year actually saw a decline in total allocations to development spending by 12.3 percent, as a result of lower absorption of development spending by ministries in 2016/17. The problem is at both national and county levels. As Price Waterhouse Coopers points out, if the entire amount allocated is not being absorbed, it defeats the purpose of the budget especially around development expenditure. Given that the country is getting into a great deal of debt for development expenditure, it is crucial that absorption rates in this docket increase in order to spur economic growth.
Fourthly, government needs to better track how the debt which is financing the development docket, is being used. Given concerns with financial mismanagement of public funds at both national and county levels, it is crucial that the debt spending is meticulously tracked. This is because financial mismanagement of debt funds poses the dangerous risk of pushing the country into debt unsustainability as money is pocketed rather spent to generate growth.
This article has elucidated Kenya’s fiscal policy and position in terms of expenditure, revenue generation and debt accrual. It is important that the country reduces expenditure, increases revenue generation and better manages debt spending to put the country on a more sustainable fiscal path. We are in a position where Kenya’s fiscal health can be dramatically improved by taking decisive action as per the recommendations herein. It is my hope that the government takes the required action to improve the country’s fiscal path so that fiscal policy plays the positive and important role it can in driving the country’s development.
Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
10 min read. The rise of right-wing populist leaders in many countries across the globe suggests that democracy’s days are numbered. However, as PATRICK GATHARA argues, populism is less a cause of democracy’s demise than a consequence of it.
“Anyone can cook,” declares Chef Auguste Gusteau in the 2007 Pixar classic, Ratatouille, one of my favourite animated movies. The film tells the tale of an anthropomorphic French rat with a passion for haute cuisine, who against all odds, makes it from foraging in the garbage to cooking at a high-end restaurant and being declared “nothing less than the finest chef in France”. It is an inspiring story with valuable lessons about bravery, determination and following one’s dreams. Yet it comes with a caveat, as explained by the funereal critic, Anton Ego, at the end of the movie: “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Across the world today, democratic societies appear to have taken Gusteau’s maxim but not necessarily with Ego’s qualification. In Kenya, the death of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, has occasioned a by-election in which the ruling Jubilee Party has fronted a professional footballer who has spent much of the last decade in Europe and who, until a few weeks ago, had never even registered to vote or expressed any interest in politics.
“The world is going the Wanjiku way,” Mike Sonko, the populist Governor of Nairobi declared recently on the Sunday show, Punchline. “Take the example of the Ukraine. The President of Ukraine is currently is a comedian. They voted for a comedian. Because the Wanjikus were fed up with the leadership of that country. They were fed up with the politicians…Go to Liberia. They elected a footballer to be their president. Madagascar for the second time have elected a DJ, Rajolina, to be their president”.
He is not wrong. From Donald Trump in the United States to Bobi Wine in Uganda, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with and distrust of career politicians and the nebulous “establishment”. In Kenya, this manifests in a contest between the so-called “dynasties” (the wealthy families that have dominated the country’s politics for nearly 60 years) and the “hustlers” (the political upstarts who claim to not be a part of the establishment). It is evident in the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President, respectively, and their open feud with Deputy President William Ruto, the self-declared head of the “hustler nation”.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
Yet this democratisation of governance has created fears of its contamination by the unwashed and uneducated masses. A famous quote from the early twentieth century US journalist, Henry Mencken, encapsulates these fears: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” The quote is taken from Mencken’s piece originally posted in the Baltimore Evening Sun in July 1920 in which he rails against the candidacies of Republican Warren Harding and his rival, James Cox, for the US presidency, which he saw as proof of the tendency of democratic competition to result in a race to the bottom.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
“The first and last aim of the politician,” he wrote, “is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes – to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”
Arguing that “this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon,” he goes on to assert that as politicians increasingly pander to electorates, then “the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life” and the field is left to “intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes” – those without convictions and those willing to hide them.
Many recognise the fulfilment of Menckel’s prophecy in Donald Trump’s presidency, though it is notable that it had been applied to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him. However, it is clear that Mencken had a low opinion, not just of politicians, but of electorates as well. In fact, in his view, it is the ignorance and stupidity of the masses that, in a democracy, makes morons of politicians. And moronic politicians love ignorant voters as evidenced by Trump’s declaration during the 2016 presidential campaign: “I love the poorly educated.”
Menckel’s view is also echoed by a common maxim spuriously attributed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, is the slide into populist idiocy the inevitable fate of democracy? Can anyone cook? Or is Ego right that while good governance can come from anywhere, not everyone can be a great leader?
“Democracy is hard,” notes Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola. It “requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.” For most voters, this constant vigilance is a tough ask. In fact, for most, getting to grips with the issues and personalities is not worth the hassle.
As Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, puts it, “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all… there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election.”
And that’s not all. Even if one were inclined to be immersed in the policy debates and to investigate candidate platforms, the sheer size of modern government and the scale and impact of its activities means that one could not hope to monitor more than a tiny fraction of what the state gets up to.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma” (Father has read it). Baba is a reference to Raila Odinga, perhaps the best known politician in the country and the voters, many of whom had little knowledge of constitutionalism, were opting to take their cue from him. Others chose to follow the musings of pundits and other self-appointed “experts” or journalists or even comedians. The problem here, as with following politicians, is you do not know whether what you are getting is the truth, the real truth and nothing but the truth.
However, that turns out to be less of a problem than one might at first suppose. Truth (shock, horror!) is not always the reason one follows politics – or politicians. Prof. Somin notes that political supporters tend to behave very much like sports fans – less interested in the merits of arguments or how well the game is played than in whether their side wins. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of electorates voting against their own interests. For example, in the US, older voters tend to support the Republican Party, which takes a dim view of government entitlement programmes like Medicare and Social Security that primarily benefit the elderly.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma”.
Even the few neutrals out there tend to talk only to like-minded others or follow the game through like-minded media. In either case, there is little scope for voters to have their views challenged or their horizons expanded. As the former British Prime Minister put it, “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh… before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”
A civic ritual
If voters don’t care about politics, why do they even bother to vote? According to Prof Somin, “The key factor is that voting is a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues. For many, it is rational to take the time to vote, but without learning much about the issues at stake.”
Voting has thus become a civic ritual, much like going to a football game and cheering your favourite team. It provides the satisfaction of participation – one can brandish a purple finger as a marker of having fulfilled one’s duty without actually doing the hard work of wrestling with the issues. Voters pick their teams based less on ideas than on arbitrary considerations, such as ethnicity or place of birth.
The media exacerbates this trend in two ways; both in the content of their reporting and in the manner they do so. By far, the mainstream press is the most important avenue through which people access and organise information about what is happening in the world. Despite the growth of the internet, which has enabled many more people to get in on the act, news is still largely what the media says it is, whether it is an earthquake or a war in some far-off place or the latest tweet by Donald Trump.
However, as Prof Cas Mudde of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia writes, the media tends to report the news, rather than analyse and explain it. The addiction to scoops and “breaking news” and the competition to be first even when every outlet will have the story in the next few minutes and though social media means there is less attention paid to “trends behind the day-to-day news”. Further, in order to attract a larger audience and sell more advertising space or more newspapers, the media prioritises what is sensational over what is important and stays away from anything that cannot be reduced into a soundbite or squeezed into a two-minute news segment.
It also propagates and perpetuates false notions of “objectivity”, presenting itself as a reliable neutral observer rather than as an active participant. Yet through its curating and shaping functions, the media wields tremendous influence not only on how events unfold but also on how on they are perceived. Like a chef, the media takes events and fashions out of disparate events, to be served up to audiences in bite-sized chunks on its many channels.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity. If the world is so simple, then fixing it requires no specialised knowledge. Anybody can cook.
It is no wonder then that today there is a lot of angst about the state of democracy and fears that the ship of liberal democratic constitutionalism is floundering on the rocks of populism. The emergence of right wing populist governments and movements in countries as far removed as Brazil, Italy and the Philippines, and in Western countries once thought to hold the high ground for liberal democracy, such as the UK (which is steeped in a constitutional crisis over Brexit) and the US (where President Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry) has many thinking that democracy’s days are numbered.
William Galston has called populism an internal challenge to liberal democracy. Populists, he says, weaponise popular ignorance “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism”. Liberal norms, institutions and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people and thus should be set aside.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity.
Populism, though, is less a cause of democracy’s demise than it is a consequence of it. Democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time. Galston blames this on immigration which, he says, has not only upset the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites – where the former would defer to the latter as long as they delivered economic growth and prosperity – but has also profoundly challenged existing demographic and cultural norms, leaving many feeling dislocated in their own societies.
However, it is that compact that is at the root of the crisis, transforming as it does the understanding of democracy from a system where people participate in governance to one where they elect others to govern them. Further, the gnashing of teeth over historic decline in voter turnout blinds many to the fact that, like populism, it is also a symptom and not the problem.
As Phil Parvin notes in his paper, Democracy Without Participation, the decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens and the eclipse of broad-based citizen associations by professional lobby groups have resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections. Participation in governance in the periods in between elections is actively discouraged. Those who are dissatisfied with government policies are routinely told to shut up and await the opportunity to do something about it at the next election.
This model of democracy as reality show, where elites compete on who gets a turn at the trough (with the media providing a running commentary and the public choosing the winner) is at the root of the malaise. The professionalisation of democratic participation – outsourcing it to politicians and activists – leads to an increasing polarisation and tribalisation, with everyone claiming to be the authentic voice of the silent and silenced population. Alienation, as political debate focuses on the problems of elites rather than those of the people, becomes inevitable.
It is into this void that the populists have stepped, claiming to do away with the edifice of “the establishment” when in fact, they are seeking to entrench elite rule by doing away with even the appearance of popular consultation. This is what they mean when they evoke the idea of a “strong leader” – one who is not bound by the charade of democratic politics and can thus instinctively channel a pure form of the people’s will. But, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says, this is to ignore the lessons of history. Strongmen, as Africans know from bitter experience, tend to reflect, not the aspirations of their people, but their own.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections.
The solution may be to do away with elections altogether as a means for selecting decision-makers. In any case, what is required is not less popular participation, but more. We can no longer afford to continue to treat governance as something voters get to participate in once every election cycle, to pretend that democracy is a fire-and-forget proposition. Constant vigilance requires citizens at all levels willing to get their hands dirty, learn about issues, debate openly and engage with representatives – citizens who collectively insist on being heard and who demand accountability from those in power, not simply wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.
Paradoxically, the internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, to participate in petitions and to organise outside the parameters set by the elite or by the state. The question for societies with democratic aspirations should be how to make the voices and concerns of ordinary folks, rather than just their votes, count and not be drowned out by the din of elite politics. How do we truly get to the public interested in the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests
8 min read. Africa is losing its forests at an alarming rate, yet the very forces that claim to be protecting them are responsible for their destruction.
“When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”
As the trade war between the world’s superpowers continues, the global South is the one getting the short end of the stick. The economy of most African countries depends on massive exportation of raw materials, usually controlled by large foreign companies. The exploitation of the local resources, such as wood, never seems to stop, even if massive deforestation in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia is bound to have catastrophic economic and environmental consequences.
Who are the main (local and foreign) players behind the progressive loss of forested areas in East and South Africa? What are the causes and, more importantly, the effects of this apparently unstoppable exploitation of land on local economies and climate change? How much is corruption responsible for this devastation? Are there any virtuous players trying to staunch this wound, or is it just the usual Western hypocrisy that preys on the unavoidable dependence on “development aid”?
Land grabs and exploitation
The Western world’s hunger for African resources, including land, has only grown more intense due tp the increased demand for carbon and biofuels. The whole continent becomes more dependent on overseas trade day after day. Internal trade between African countries is extremely weak, and most of these countries are large importers of pricey finished goods and services provided by other global partners. Most African countries are exporters of raw materials that generate profit margins that are quite small on their own and are made even smaller by the fact that most of the lands where these goods are produced rest in the hands of large transnational companies.
In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best. In exchange for an alleged economic return that in many cases never follows, national governments exempted foreign companies from repatriated profits on taxes and taxes on imports of capital goods. All these land grabs are notoriously unjust to the original inhabitants of these lands – usually small farmers and pastoralists who, in some cases, have even forcefully been evicted with the help of the army.
The largest African and global development institutions, such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the World Bank, always sold this process as a much-needed transformation to help the growth of less developed countries. The idea of shifting toward large-scale commercial exploitation of lands and resources has been presented as the perfect recipe to overcome the stagnation of African economies; a transformation that would bring progress, modernity, and riches to all the impoverished lands and populations of the global South. Now the whole continent has been integrated into the global trade system with a relationship of complete unilateral dependence, chained to the volatile prices of commodities, enslaved by continuous “development aid”, and bent under the weight of totally asymmetrical agreements.
The effects of foreign liberalism
The free market didn’t help low-income to countries flourish; the only economic effect was purely cosmetic in nature. The shift towards large-scale commercial exploitation of lands came with promises of better employment opportunities, improvement of existing infrastructure, new opportunities for development, knowledge transfer, and professional specialisation. We saw this happen elsewhere as well, such as in Central America – all these promises eventually turned out to be empty, and only resulted in more poverty, hunger, and unfair exploitation.
In a continent where the vast majority of the population depends on agriculture for a living, uncontrolled liberalisation is nothing but a recipe for disaster. Even the most developed nations of the West know the limits of free markets very well and keep sustaining their own farmers with generous subsidies.
In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best.
For example, Ethiopia’s annual GDP growth rate kept increasing by nearly 9% between 2004 and 2014, but very few Ethiopians enjoyed the benefits of this growth. Nearly 80% of the population is still composed of farmers and pastoralists whose livelihoods are even more precarious than before after their land was impoverished – their income still incredibly low, at $0.14 per day in some areas. The rural population has been marginalised even further, and local labour is often hired only on a seasonal basis, leaving very little opportunities for the professional and economic growth of all these vulnerable households. Knowledge is kept in the hands of the Western professionals, and their investments on ameliorating the infrastructure are too minuscule to represent a valid trade-off.
This non-inclusive model largely depends on the constant flow of capital, which necessarily come from foreign investors, creating an unbreakable cycle of dependency. Technology-based land exploitation has caused the environment to be degraded, and has substituted traditional sustainable and labour-intensive agriculture with intensive use of fossil fuels, pesticides, and widespread deforestation. The loss of biodiversity of large-scale monocultures and the destruction of large forested areas weakened the ecosystems against unexpected weather changes and other natural disasters.
Deforestation and greed
The constant demand for crop and grazing land, as well as wood for fuel and construction, have a tremendous impact on soil conservation and weather management. Deforestation, in particular, is one of those problems that, if left unchecked, may cause a planetary disaster.
Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ethiopia’s forest coverage reached almost 40%. Year after year, almost 200,000 hectares of forest were lost; by 1987 it was reduced to just 5.5%, and in 2003 it had gone down to a mere 0.2%. According to Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA), between 2000 and 2010, Uganda lost forests at a rate of 2.6% every year. Over the last century, West Africa has lost almost 90% of forest coverage.
Losing forests has devastating effects on the indigenous population, the local ecosystem, and the global environment as well. Forests are critical to lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, to stabilising the weather, and preventing soil erosion. Among the highest causes of carbon emissions from human activity, deforestation is the second after burning fossil fuels, accounting for approximately 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions.
Soil erosion alone may cause the drying of lakes, such as in the case of the three lakes in the Rift Valley that recently dried up. As the soil is massively washed into the lake, the water is pushed up to a larger surface and rapidly evaporates. Without water, droughts ensue, causing famine, starvation, and poverty.
An estimated 100 million African people rely on forests for support and finding freshwater, food, shelter, and clothing. Forests support biodiversity as well, and many plants and animals only exist in these regions. Without forests, many animal species, such as chimpanzees, are endangered since they can’t survive without their habitat, and entire towns are at risk of rainforest flooding.
Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing.
But the ecological devastation caused by the alleged modernisation of agriculture is not the sole reason behind the massive deforestation occurring in Africa. African forests store 171 gigatons of carbon, and there is a wide range of different interests swarming around them. Everybody wants to put their hands on this gigantic loot, no matter the consequences for the local populations or climate change.
The frequent conflicts that ravage the continent take their toll on forests as well. For example, after the South Sudan crisis in December 2013, nearly one million refugees, mostly women and children, have sought shelter in nearby Ethiopia and Uganda. Once there, they started chopping wood to build their encampments and to fuel their stoves. This had a significant impact on local forests, according to experts.
The impact of corruption on deforestation
Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss. The estimated value of illegal forest activities accounts for more than 10% of the value of worldwide trade in wood products. And corruption in the forest sector may increase the cost of forestry activities by about 20%.
Most countries in Central and Western Africa that are particularly rich in forests and other resources score particularly low on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a global index of public sector corruption established by Transparency International. Without a transparent and democratic administration whose framework is built on solid ethical principles, the land rights of local communities and marginalised groups are constantly violated. In sub-Saharan Africa, one citizen in two had to pay a bribe to obtain a land service, such as registering land for his household.
The forest sector is especially vulnerable to grand and petty corruption activities because of the non-standardised but high-priced timber products and low visibility. Government officials often collude with powerful European, American, or Asian companies since they offer forest as a highly valuable commodity in exchange for power and money.
Many indigenous populations have no access to information and justice, cannot claim their rights, and have no chance but to bend the knee when land grabbing laws are enforced by corrupt governments. Foreign companies know how easy it is to violate national regulations and often do so with total impunity knowing that punishment would probably be very light. Funds generated from the profit of the forests are usually embezzled or siphoned out of the continent to be laundered through complex schemes of multi-layered shell offshore businesses. Money that could be invested in social services, jobs, and better infrastructure ends up being devoured by greedy officials, money-hungry corporations, and shady smugglers.
Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests
Luckily, not all is as bad as it seems. Ethiopia has just started a restoration process that includes a reforestation programme that should replace 22 million hectares of forests and degraded lands by 2030. Even better, in 2018, the government finally revised the National Forest Law to provide better recognition to the rights of local communities and acknowledge their importance in managing lands and crops. The new law also includes much more severe penalties for those who endanger forest ecosystems or who extend farming into natural forests.
Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss.
In Uganda, Project Kibale focuses on restoring the Kibale forest and has managed to restore 6,700 hectares of forest so far. On lands owned by subsistence farmers, the Community Reforestation project coordinates hundreds of small community-based tree planting, education, and training initiatives. Similar projects are in operation in Kenya as well, such as Carbon Footprint, B’n’Tree, WeForest, and the Green Initiative Challenge.
Although certainly commendable, many of these reforestation efforts simply seem to be a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The core problems – corruption, grossly uneven distribution of power among players, and poorly-designed regulations – are not addressed at all. The handful of trees that get planted only help these parasites to get more wood to harvest in due time.
It can also be argued that many of these brave steps toward sustainability are nothing but green rhetoric spin for Western audiences. Wilmar’s hypocrisy, for example, was exposed back in 2015. The multinational of palm oil had abused human rights in Indonesia for years, expropriated lands with no qualms, polluted the environment, and destroyed crops and forest in large areas. After being named by Newsweek as “the world’s least environmentally-friendly company” in December 2013, the palm oil giant adopted a “no deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation policy” and became a champion of environmentalism. However, this was just window-dressing that was rapidly unmasked in subsequent years by NGOs in Uganda, Nigeria, and Liberia. The icing on the cake? In previous years, Wilmar was financed by none other than the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
When the rules are made by those who dominate the markets, globalisation becomes a source of profound inequalities. The blatant asymmetry in bargaining power between the global superpowers and the global South has all but abolished the few safety nets that national laws could provide. All the regions that are rich in resources and commodities are quickly transformed into no man’s lands where the indigenous populations become unwanted guests to be displaced. Entire ecosystems are ravaged and exploited, no matter the consequences. And when newer, fairer rules are established by a more ethical administration, they are rapidly dismantled by leveraging corruption and bribes.
The word “development” has been mentioned so many times that it is now empty and meaningless. Nonetheless, the only way to shift toward a more sustainable economic system is to focus on the real development of African countries. Reforestation is just palliative therapy that is trying to heal some of the wounds of an already terminally ill patient. Africa can flourish only through a more radical approach that allows Africans to grow, develop, and fully exploit the immense value of their enormous resources instead of leaving them in the hands of foreigners and global corporations.
The Persistence of Small Farms and the Legacy of the Monoculture Mindset in Kenya
12 min read. PAUL GOLDSMITH explores the evolution of agriculture policies in Kenya that failed to recognise the importance of smallholder farming, which has proved to be more resilient than large-scale agriculture projects.
I once drove up the eastern side of Mt Kenya with a manager working in the California horticulture industry. We passed through the Mwea irrigation scheme’s mosaic of rice plots and the smallholder coffee zone in Embu. After crossing the Thuchi River, we transited through the mix of tea farms, coffee plots, and patches of small fields of maize, pulses, and bananas framed by the heavy tree cover blanketing the hills and valleys. The Meru lowlands stretched out to the east, the miraa-dotted slopes of the Nyambene Hills loomed close as we approached Meru town. In the space of three hours we had transected one of the region’s most agriculturally variegated and productive landscapes.
Two days later we drove across the northern saddle of the mountain, leaving the smallholdings created by late colonial-era settlement schemes before cruising past the wheat fields of Kisima and Marania farms and their neighbours. The road carried us past the uniform blocks of horticulture farms and greenhouses stretching across the high plains of the mountain’s northwestern quadrant en route to Nanyuki. Over a plank of some insanely delicious beef at one of the town’s famous local nyama choma joints, my guest tells me she was impressed by the kick-ass agriculture she saw during our trip.
I remarked that we had crossed an area that produces the world’s best tea, some of the planet’s premier Arabica coffee, and the country’s most sought-after potatoes, French beans and other vegetables that grace European tables. I also informed her that we had skirted the range hosting Africa’s most sophisticated agroforestry system, home to the Horn region’s most prized Catha edulis.
“That’s interesting,” she said, clarifying that she was referring to “the area of proper farms we passed through this morning”.
Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings. Approximately 26 per cent of the earnings are indirectly linked to the sector through linkages to agro-based manufacturing, transport, and trade.
The sector is a major employer, with an estimated 3.8 million Kenyans directly employed in farming, livestock production and fishing, while another 4.5 million engaged in off-farm informal sector activities. Agriculture remains a key economic sector with significant unexploited potential for adding value through post-harvest processing.
The relationship between large-scale and small-scale producers in Kenya continues to evolve. Smallholder farmers generate the larger portion of overall agricultural value; large farms are still critical contributors to domestic food security and export production while pioneering new technologies and marketing arrangements.
Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings.
The economists and policy-setting bureaucrats at the World Bank and other important financial institutions, however, now question the small farm sector’s capacity to satisfy Africa’s future needs. The experts have tacitly supported the controversial trend of external investors’ acquisition of the continent’s underexploited land to develop capital-intensive plantations and ranches. Agricultural progress means big fields, straight lines, greenhouses, and large grids of sprinklers, as the comments of the manager reaffirmed.
The rise of monoculture
Assumptions about the superiority of large-scale agriculture have remained unchallenged since the migration of Europeans to the Americas, Asia, and Africa. They came, saw, conquered, and converted the wide open spaces they found into plantations producing sugar, cotton, rubber, tobacco, soybeans, and a long list of other crops for export to the industrial world.
When European diseases decimated the indigenous inhabitants in the New World, the planters plundered Africa to replace them. Steam powered the Industrial Revolution; colonial plantations and mines provided the raw materials. The textile mills of Lancashire generated the profits financing Great Britain’s global empire, and America’s South supplied the cotton.
Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry. The reign of King Cotton, for example, relied on increasing quantities of land and imports of African labour to compensate for rapid soil fertility decline. Southern land owners were poor farmers who added little value to the development of their agriculture beyond the use of the whip and the noose.
Class dynamics also contributed to the rise of the large commercial farm. The working conditions of the working-class adults and children working the looms was only marginally better than that of the slaves producing the fibre. Growing numbers of the freehold farmers in Europe who were driven off their land avoided this fate by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, attracted by the US government’s recruitment campaigns offering access to land. The industry of the displaced farmers powered the nation’s westward expansion. The American Civil War decided the contest over which system – freehold or plantation – would dominate in the virgin lands beyond the Mississippi River.
Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry.
The outcome was the same. Within several decades, the massive herds of bison were decimated and the indigenous inhabitants reduced to paupers on reservations. Science and technology came into play. The impressive advances generated by agronomic research and mechanisation extended the ascendency of commercial farms and plantations into the modern era. Economies of scale enabled by railways and the steamship extended the dominance of single commodity farming systems across the world.
Relegation of pre-industrial agricultural populations to the status of pre-scientific peasants preceded the imperial occupation of Africa. The Europeans established their plantations and large farms across the continent’s savanna and highlands. Like the colonialists before them, both capitalist and socialist governments’ rural policies were predicated on the need to introduce modern scientific agriculture. The choice was as basic as the difference between a tractor and a short handle hoe.
The Kenya conundrum
A matrix of physical, climatic, spatial, and social factors complicated the installation of large-scale agriculture production in Africa. Agriculture played a singular role in the development of the modern Kenyan economy, but commercial agriculture and ranching developed by European settlers are only partially responsible for the sector’s progress.
Free land and inexpensive labour facilitated the establishment of commercial farms during the early decades of colonial rule. Drought, locust invasions and crop losses to pests and wild animals, and to vector-borne diseases posed a serious challenge. The effects of the latter were minimised by quarantining the locals in native reserves and demarcating the band of ranches that ring-fenced the so-called White Highlands. Not all the white settlers survived; some left to start over in colonies to the south, but those who stayed on prospered with the assistance of the colonial state.
After World War I the government offered land concessions to war veterans boosting the population of approximately 6,000 white settlers in 1917 to 20,000 in 1936. This abetted the diversification of the new estate sector, which came to encompass coffee, tea, cattle, sisal, cotton, wattle, and other export commodities that sustained the colony’s finances. Expansion raised the demand for African labour while fueling frictions over land between settlers and their African neighbours. It also made managing settlement considerably more difficult for the government and civil servants in the countryside.
Indigenous producers evolved intricate mechanisms of adaptation and risk management to shifting environmental conditions and chronic climatic instability. The over 100,000 African squatters on European farms by 1947 demonstrated their resilience in new circumstances. Despite the restrictions they faced, they out-performed the owners in many ways. The surplus reinvested in livestock led to competition for pasture on the estates, and this prompted restrictions limiting the size of cultivated plots and the number of livestock the Africans were allowed to keep. The number of days of labour owed to the estates also increased over time, doubling from 90 to 180 days a year.
Dependence on native labour in effect led to the parallel development of two distinct large-scale and small-scale systems on the same landholdings at the same time. The contradictions inherent in this situation, combined with the political threat of the Mau Mau, forced a rethink that led to the Swinnerton Act in 1954, which opened the way for the production of export crops in the African reserves.
The sectoral duality generated by these developments has vexed Kenya’s agriculture policy ever since. Kenya gained independence committed to preserving the economic stability provided by the estate sector while satisfying the political expectations of its citizens. The latter translated into the transfer of settler lands under the Million Acre Scheme, support for the cooperative movement, and the deployment of small farmer extension services.
The structural inequalities symbolised by the contrast between the landed elite and the masses nevertheless fueled strident opposition to the Jomo Kenyatta government. Kenya’s status as an island of stability in a turbulent region encouraged international support for the development of schemes and projects mirroring a succession of theories and economic models debated by academics and institutional experts.
One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme. Attempts to rectify flaws in the Bura Irrigation Scheme, the world’s most expensive at the time, proved futile when the Tana River changed course.
How do we explain the failure to acknowledge the results of such “experiments”?
In a 1988 article, Goren Hyden attributed the syndrome to Africa’s monoculture legacy, which he defined as “mono-cropping in agriculture, single fixes in technology, monopoly in the institutional arena, and uniformity in values and behavior.” The rise of hegemonic economic monocultures, he went on to observe, are usually preceded by a period of competition and experimentation.
No such selectionary forces informed the large-scale solutions designed to alleviate Africa’s agriculture malaise. The continent’s initial conditions were different. The unique regional political economies of the precolonial era did not count. The formal protocols governing exchange among diverse communities were obsolete. The need to differentiate between size and scale did not apply.
Small as the new big
Africa’s lost decade highlighted the neglect of small-scale farmers. In an article in the same edited volume featuring Hyden’s monoculture legacy thesis, Christopher Delgado noted, “It is unlikely that more than 5 five cent of current African food production comes from large farms. A 3 per cent growth of productivity of smallholders would be equivalent to a 60 per cent growth of productivity on large farms.”
This point segued into the large body of empirical evidence marshalled in support of a new policy focus on the smallholder sector. But there was a problem, as he and other pro-smallholder analysts recognised: The high variability in conditions and circumstances within and across African countries complicated cost-effective delivery of the services, inputs, incentives, and infrastructure need for the interventions to pay for themselves.
One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme.
Asia’s breakthrough was an outgrowth of substantial international research supported by national research centres into two basic commodities. The same approach has not worked in Africa because technical enhancements need to contend with multiple crops systems, variations in soils, spatial differentials complicating access to water, markets, and service, local pests and diseases, transport and communications infrastructure, and political variables linked to ethnic constituencies, to name a few of the factors determining the productivity of small farmers.
Research attesting to the more efficient per capita and land unit output of small farms also indicated that there was still considerable scope for raising household incomes by enhancing the productivity of labour. The Kenyan government’s support for small-scale dairies, tea production, and the efficacy of extension services furnished proof. Like the case of colonial squatters before them, smallholder producers began outperforming the large farms and plantations.
Kenya and its bimodal policy frame was often cited as a success story at the time, but was this because government policy focused on concentrating the limited resources available in relatively fertile areas? The failure to replicate these successes further down the ecological gradient invoked a more complicated set of variables.
Other state-supported initiatives, such as smallholder cotton, floundered, and even a tested policy like fertilizer subsidies proved difficult to implement because the cost of delivering the input to small farm households often ended up cancelling out the benefits, especially during years when low rainfall or other external factors reduced output.
During the early 1980s Kenya’s agricultural sector reached the zenith of its development under state control. A matrix of factors, including lower prices and higher market uncertainty, declining civil service terms of pay, gradual closure of the agricultural land frontier, and the highest demographic growth rate in recorded history explain subsequent developments.
Institutional entropy set in. The food security problem became a full-blown national crisis around the same time as government mismanagement of strategic maize reserves exacerbated the impact of the 1984 famine. The food catastrophe marked a turning point, concretising the case for the structural adjustment policies that came into effect during the following years.
The donor-mandated policies included foreign trade liberalisation, civil service reforms, privatisation of parastatals, and liberalisation of pricing and marketing systems, which later involved relaxing control of government agricultural produce marketing and reforming cooperatives.
Increases in quality and efficiency tend to translate into lower commodity prices over time, and the same appeared to hold for institutional reforms. In any event, the policies designed to increase efficiency and decrease state involvement in the economy did not reverse the decline in agricultural production. Declining prices for traditional agricultural commodities and Africa’s terms of trade in general was seen as emblematic of a larger malaise stemming from poor governance and economic mismanagement in Kenya and other African countries.
Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society” qualifying the observation Thomas Picketty offered in his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty First Century: “wealth accumulated in the past will inevitably acquire disproportionate influence”.
In Kenya, the consequences included the revolt of smallholder coffee farmers in Nyeri, the burning of sugarcane fields in western Kenya, the collapse of cooperatives, an increase of subsistence production on small farms, the commercialisation of livestock raiding in the rangelands, and the rise of cartels that seized control of export commodities and local produce markets.
The situation in Kenya was symptomatic of the forces that eroded the impact of the pro-small-scale agriculture policy framework that had gained traction during the same period.
The release phase and agrarian transition
Subsequent developments in rural Kenya invite us to revisit Picketty’s choice of words in the observation cited above: the reference to “quasi-stagnant” is indicative of a larger dynamic. From an ecosystems perspective, the turbulence arising across Kenya’s agricultural sector and the hollowing-out of state institutions corresponds to the release phase in ecological cycles.
The role of forest fires that remove old growth, allowing regrowth and revival of species suppressed by the canopy of large trees, is the standard example used to illustrate the release function. In the context of human societies and other complex systems, it refers to transitional episodes in “an adaptive cycle that alternates between long periods of aggregation and transformation of resources and shorter periods that create opportunities for innovation.”
For present purposes we can equate Picketty’s quasi-stagnation with the onset of a transitional phase of reorganisation leading to renewal. Support for importation of large-scale capital-intensive agriculture to meet Africa’s future needs, in contrast, correlates with the old school ecological succession model. The degradation of rangelands resulting in the replacement of overgrazed grass and shrubs by less nutritious invasive species is a common example.
The African land grab by foreign investors now taking place in many sub-Saharan countries is in effect a case of replacement substituting for the adaptive processes underpinning indigenous African production systems. The government’s willingness to allocate large tracts of Tana Delta land as an incentive for foreign government investment in the LAPSSET mega-project is an example of this replacement strategy in Kenya.
I was part of a team that undertook a three-year study of commercial agricultural models in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia. Initially motivated by the problem of large-scale agribusiness investments, the research design focused on three models: large commercial farms, plantations, and contract farming. The team’s general conclusion underscored the emergence of large- and medium-size commercial farms in the three countries.
Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society”…
My personal take was slightly different, and although they may be particular to our Kenya research, two issues warrant mention. The first is the resilience of smallholder households in our surveys and life histories.
Without getting into the intricacies of the data, several factors support this. The time series data showed improved food security for most of the households sampled, and a corresponding decline in conflict over land: only one respondent complained about the ownership of the large farms and plantations in the area.
While the poorer families were hard-pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.
High levels of mobility within the region and a general trend of reversed urban migration add further support to this point. For example, urban unemployment rates of 19.9 per cent for 2009 and 11.0 for 2014 per cent were about double of rural rates.
The process of consolidation underpinning the large farm formation across agro-ecological zones is underway, but it is slowed by the reluctance to sell land and a correspondingly high incidence of leasing land. This is also true for large holdings outside our Mt. Kenya research area, such as the Rift Valley, where owners are holding on by leasing out parcels to smallholders. The successful estates and horticultural firms have developed mutually beneficial links with their smallholder neighbours. This is based on outsourcing production, the sharing of technological innovations from the production of certified seed potatoes to electronic wallets facilitating rapid and verifiable payments to contract farmers, and multi-stakeholder participation in the management and conservation of water sources.
While the poorer families were hard pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.
Our sample divided the household into two categories: those involved with the large commercial farms and those who remained independent. The scores for involved households were significantly higher for crop yields, fertilizer use, income, and most other variables. All of these observations attest to the synergies generated by the large-scale small-scale symbiosis that began to emerge during the final years of the colonial era.
This brings us to the second point – the enduring influence of the monoculture mindset. It resurfaces in the World Bank’s categorisation of both large and small organisational units’ contribution to the continent’s socio-economic transformation. Dualities deceive; learning by trial era works.
The elephantine LAPPSET project, the hallucinatory Galana-Kulala scheme, the government’s Big Four agenda, all suggest that the Chinese version is more of the same.
Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
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