Devolution a miracle worker despite challenges

Devolution Conference

Leaders at the Biennial Devolution Conference at Eldoret Sports Club in Uasin Gishu County on August 17, 2023.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

It has been a busy past week in Uasin Gishu County as it hosted the first biennial devolution conference, witnessed the arrest and arraignment of a prominent son and key ally of President William Ruto, hosted Opposition leader Raila Odinga, who took extreme umbrage at the highly complimentary presentation made by US Ambassador Meg Whitman marketing destination Kenya as a second-to-none option for investment and applauded as the President made his first passionate pitch against corruption.

The county may not have been prepared for such a buffet of exciting events but then the devolution conference is not your usual one-dimensional convention. There is the political theatre usually played out in plenary when the President makes his opening address, followed by the Opposition leader on day two and the Deputy President on the last day.

Then there are the breakaway sessions where an array of technical experts in a wide range of subjects, meet with delegates of county chief officers, county ministers, directors, etc. to engage in highly informative discourse on topics ranging from digitalisation of county services, improving agriculture for food security, climate change, financing opportunities for county development, etc. etc.

The three-day jamboree had plenty of both.

Great stuff

There is no doubt that devolution has been responsible for great stuff over the past decade, even in those counties where the pioneer leadership was hell-bent on personal enrichment than on making the devolution dream a reality for county residents. Plenty of wonderful stories were told about the extraordinary changes devolution has triggered in the health sector.

Diagnostic facilities that never existed in counties now do, making available medical expertise that now finds it fulfilling to practice in counties. Level Five hospitals dot the country. Sophisticated imaging facilities are commonplace. Distances to medical facilities have been drastically reduced in most counties. Many happy tales about improved maternal and child health.

Despite the positive vibe, plenty remains to be done. The Universal Health Coverage objective that is the end-game of national and county health policies is still a long way off. Health affordability remains elusive and putting everyone on some form of medical insurance is every Governor’s dream. Maternal and infant mortality is a troubling challenge still.

Challenges remain in the other devolved functions. Agriculture’s dependence on the unpredictable weather patterns portends food insecurity even in counties traditionally known for food surplus. Investments in climate change mitigating actions – like tree planting, adopting sustainable agricultural practices, etc. – remain inadequate. Low and inconsistent incomes condemn large populations of small scale farmers to poverty.

In early childhood education, rural access, sports, gender and culture, the to-do list remains long for governors and their teams. The work going on could be significantly accelerated if county governments got some help from the national government. The one unanimous boost repeatedly stated is timely release of county allocations.

Although President Ruto received fulsome praise for releasing all the funds due to counties for 2022-2023 before the close of the last financial year, the backlog meant that the resources could not be speedily and efficiently deployed. And although the July disbursements were also released in time, the bureaucracy that requires a letter from Treasury to Central Bank for funds to be released is superfluous because the date for funds release is stipulated in the Constitution. Surely this should be a routine action.

And why, pray, is it necessary that the Controller of Budget gets an itemised shopping list from the counties before the funnel is opened to allow funds to flow? This is an unnecessary blocker that creates a bribery centre. Isn’t it the work of the Auditor-General to track how funds are spent? County finance teams are bribing national government officers for approval signatures to move their vouchers along!

It is the corruption that despite so much condemnation being directed at it, so little has been done to try and tame it. President Ruto’s erstwhile aloof approach to the vice was pushing the country’s collective despair into despondent acceptance until recently. His quick action after the KEMSA saga was a welcome start. Everyone is now following the saga of the arraignment of his friend, Senator Jackson Mandago, on abuse of office charges.

The President said in Eldoret that those accused of corruption can no longer leverage power, money and networks to frustrate the law. The Senator has plenty of these, including counting the President as a friend. This should not count though as the only test that matters is the test of justice. As he waits for his day in court, what is critical here is that there is movement where before there has been very little. It sparks an ember of hope for the redemption of Kenya.

The writer, a former Chief Editor of the Nation Media Group, is now consulting. [email protected];  @TMshindi