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Not a Good Time for Donors to Play God

The Nation (Nairobi), Editorial, 14 January 2001

Nairobi - For the first time in a long time, the Government is on the side of the angels. It is caught up in a plethora of difficulties with donors, but this time, it can, with an unprecedented level of credibility say: We are not to blame.

An International Monetary Fund team was expected in the country yesterday and it does not require the services of a crystal ball to surmise what questions it will be putting to government officials. In general, the IMF will be seeking to know how far the government has gone in implementing conditions to qualify for the tranche of loans expected in March.

The IMF has a standard set of prescriptions for countries such as ours: Selling off of public corporations, economic liberalisation, reduction of expenditure and fighting corruption. Specifically, there will be questions on the sale of Telkom Kenya, the Donde Bill on interest rates, the fate of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority and the civil service retrenchment programme.

The net effect of recent decisions by the Judiciary and Parliament has been to roll back some of the reforms that the government has worked fairly hard to put in place. For example, the banking sector has been operating under a liberal regime for the better part of the last decade. But, as will happen with social devices that are imposed as opposed to those that evolve, the mere fact of freeing the banking market did not provide adequately for the scope of that freedom.

As a result, the operations of the sector have run against popular sentiment and Parliament has had to act somewhat decisively. Another example: The Government had a deadline within which to set up the legal infrastructure for the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority. It did so, but because there wasn't time to examine every aspect of that infrastructure, the Kaca legislation has been judged by a constitutional court to be faulty.

The same case has applied to Civil Service retrenchment, an unpopular pill that the people are gritting their teeth and accepting because of the promise that it will improve the economy and bring relief to the crushing poverty resulting, partly, from other reforms.

The message that needs to go out to the IMF is that a country cannot be an uncritical consumer of reforms. There is no lever labelled "reforms" that the government only needs to pull for structural adjustment to be seamlessly implemented. Reforms have to be chewed, savoured and digested before they can be of benefit to society. We would like to believe what we are seeing is a process of debate, of fine-tuning of adapting which, of necessity must, accompany changes of this magnitude in a democratic nation.

After all, donors have been ardent supporters of independent, democratic institutions. It is the objective operations of these democratic institutions, namely, Parliament and the Judiciary, that are substantially holding back structural adjustment. The normal democratic process cannot be circumvented, it can only be egged on by persuasion and debate so that the train of reform is put back on the track.

This is not to say, however, that the government has no role to play in convincing donors that it is serious on reform. Kenyans are aware that it is in their best interests for the government, which is quite often insensitive to public opinion, to be kept on its toes, particularly in matters of governance. No, it must still convince donors, and Kenyans that it is willing to go beyond eloquent press statements to get reforms back on the right path.

To that effect, it needs to recall Parliament so that important Bills now pending in the House can be put through the legislative mill. Top on the agenda would of course be to unstick Kaca from the legal quagmire in which it is. Also topping the list of priorities is the Donde Bill, which urgently requires to be reconciled to a liberal banking market.

Even more important is the constitutional reform process. President Moi's order to the Chairman of the Review Commission, Prof Yash Pal Ghai, to cease contacts with the Ufungamano group can't be a good sign. Equally, sentiments by the Chairman of the Parliamentary Review Committee, Mr. Raila Odinga, that further contacts between his team and their Ufungamano counterparts is "a waste of time" is a bad sign as well.

Just as the government has been bold in reforming the economy, it should shed its timidity on the question of governance and political reforms. This is not the time to polarise, dig in and flaunt petty party and tribal positions. It is time to reach out in a statesmanly fashion, to build bridges between parties and classes and close ranks as a nation for the purpose of confronting very serious challenges with a united front.

It is also a time when playing God by the IMF could do more harm than good.

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