Sunday, 28 September 2014

Turkana County: A Reality Check

“The County Government now has 9 billion Shillings to dedicate to local people, their needs and concerns. We are determined to make this work” – Member of the County Assembly, Turkana 
“If this new local government is so open to the people why did you refuse to show us the budget and even bar us from viewing the debates?” – Journalist, Turkana 
“This is a forgotten school. And a forgotten place. Maybe because our village doesn’t have a strongman, that’s why they don’t listen to us” – Headteacher, Loima County, Turkana
Three very differing viewpoints on the relationship people have with their governments in one county, in Northern Kenya. All of which were expressed as part of Making All Voices Count’s new approach to working in-country, set out here and for whom I work.

This was the first of our outreach sessions which the programme will use to understand what those problems look like from the bottom up, and it took place in Turkana County, Northern Kenya. This is an area described by one of the new County Assembly Members in our public meeting as “traditionally marginalised” by the national Government in Nairobi. Turkana has among the highest levels of illiteracy, is partly desertified, is among the poorest counties in Kenya and is consistently vulnerable to cross border and communal armed violence. At the heart of the response to all of those challenges is the willingness and ability of government to respond to what people are telling them they need.

Last week in Lodwar, we called a meeting to discuss what our programme could do to most meaningfully address that challenge. We did so in the context of a new constitutional arrangement in Kenya which devolves significant budget and public policy making powers to a new level of county government. What that means is that a new political structure, and therefore a new political class has been created. They were well represented in our meeting, along with Chiefs, civil society advocates and journalists. It was heartening they all endorsed our idea that devolution was the area on which Making All Voices Count should concentrate.

Windows of opportunity

Several leading politicians expressed a strong view – and willingness – to utilise the new way of doing government as a means by which local people were fully informed and active participants. County Assembly members expressed support for the use of community radio to broadcast their discussions, in order for citizens in hard to reach places and with lower levels of literacy to follow, while others described having established ward level meetings which they sought to publicise far and wide. That the assembled media and civil society representatives also agreed, despite holding a healthy scepticism for what might actually be delivered, was an encouraging sign. Yet from the other form of local political power, the Chiefs, came a stark warning of simply repeating the old politics of decisions detached from people at local level, with one stating he felt “we are creating another Nairobi”. There was clear scope and a sense of urgency to get this element of citizen participation locked in as these systems evolved, as doing so after processes became entrenched would present real challenges that may be difficult to overcome.

Overcoming expectations

Sitting under a thorny tree between two dilapidated school buildings in a remote village far from Lodwar, one headteacher spoke of his experience – and expectation – of being and remaining ‘forgotten’ by the political class. Another, who was leading a school that unique among others had achieved a higher enrolment rate of girls than boys, illustrated his own living quarters. While he’d built a dormitory to try to secure those girls from potential attack, he himself was living in a mud hut next to a highly polluted lake. And used hot ash on his doorstep to ward off the snakes at night. Both spoke of children too tired to learn for lack of food, and neither had access to safe drinking water. These are the unsung changemakers in Turkana County; quietly dedicating their lives to transforming others in remote and rural areas. Neither had had a visit from local political leaders, or education officials, in years and had little if any expectation of this changing. This is the level of disenfranchisement that has been ingrained in this part of Kenya, and winning the confidence of these citizens will require clear results, and quickly.

Civic space & data

In the absence of sustained government assistance these schools had been relying on determined community based organisations who advocated on their behalf, and collected data to present to policy makers as they shaped their budgets. This included lack of textbooks, tables, water and the numbers of disabled children, for example. What these advocates described as missing – and what was also voiced as a real need by members of the new Council Assembly – was a civic space in which that data and those views could be presented, debated and acted upon.

Here was a real topic on which there was broad agreement, with professional and citizen journalists telling us that they saw such a space as a means by which they could contribute to informing local people and holding decision makers to account. Fertile ground, perhaps, for Making All Voices Count to invest in the data collection and policy brokering capacity of change makers from within civil society, the media and government.

Making All Voices Count

Two things were clear from this engagement. If you ask people in Turkana for their views they need no second invitation. Teachers in remote areas, social activists campaigning for sanitation or changemakers in county government all share the very strong desire to achieve something new with the opportunity that devolution presents. The problem is that many of them have very low expectations of that being achieved. Asking people in this county to dedicate time to new initiatives involves very real costs on their part, so they need to be convinced of the likely pay off. Their guarded enthusiasm is an essential, yet easily lost, commodity.

The other factor was that there is a very real race against time to make this work. A political class has been created and one which is in theory closer to the people they are there to serve, and thus therefore better placed to do so. Yet experience from across the world teaches that those classes become rapidly entrenched. If local Kenyans are to make all voices count in this new dispensation it will be important to do so in the coming months as the system retains the flexibility that comes with change. We will be following up with this in mind, and talking to others across Kenya with that same sense of urgency.

These are precisely the sort of conversations, gritty and close to reality, that we want to use to shape what and how we work. The experience of Kenya so far suggests it was the right course for us to take. But the real judges of our success will be those quiet changemakers in remote corners of this county, and the children and families that rely on them.

Note: This article first appeared here.