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IN PRAISE OF IDLENESS: Further reflections on knowledge, capital and growth

Why is society, even those countries in which more capital could not possibly appreciably improve standards of living, still obsessed with hard work, thrift and accumulation of capital? Why are Africa’s leaders forever trooping to the West and East, fawning, groveling and whoring for capital? By DAVID NDII

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In Praise of Idleness: Further Reflections on Knowledge, capital and growth
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“Modern technic has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor necessary to produce the necessaries of life for every one. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that at a given moment a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

Bertrand Russell In Praise of Idleness

 

In economics, we are concerned primarily with three things, productivity, efficiency and welfare. Productivity is simply output per unit of input. We measure productivity in terms of output per worker. Economic efficiency is a question of optimality, that is, whether the resources have been put to the best possible use. Economics is in fact known as the study of resource allocation. Welfare is a question of whether the way production and distribution are organized is good for society. We can summarize the three questions: are we good at it, are we doing it right, and what good does it do. In short, it boils down to purpose. What is it all in aid of? This is Russell’s beef with the industrious society. To what end?

In economics, we are concerned primarily with three things, productivity, efficiency and welfare.

Ms Agronomy and Mr. Capital are two young farmers. Both have inherited fifty acres of land on which their parents practice traditional farming, growing maize, beans, yams and livestock. Mr. Capital is an ambitious guy. He studied finance. He wants to modernize and mechanize.   Business plan, bank loan, buys tractors, harrows and ploughs and puts the whole 50 acres under maize. He is able to double his yield to 20 bags an acre. Next year he leases another 50 acres. Soon he is farming 500 acres. He has a fleet of tractors, sprayers, irrigation system, a combine harvester grain driers, silo—the works. He is producing 30 bags per acre.

Ms Agronomy went to agricultural college. She has small plots set aside on her farm where she experiments with different agronomic techniques such as zero-till farming, crop rotation, inter-cropping, organic farming, mulching and so on. She is still farming her fifty acres. For ease of analysis we translate all her different products into “maize equivalent.” Her production also works out to the equivalent of 30 bags of maize per acre.

Ms Agronomy and Mr. Capital’s economic accounts are summarized in the table below. Although both obtain the same yield, 30 bags per acre, Mr. Capital’s operation is evidently much more productive. Its total output translates to 750 bags per worker, two and a half times more than Ms Agronomy’s 300 bags per worker. It is not difficult to see how this difference has come about. Mr. Capital’s workers have more tools to work with, Sh. 3 million per worker against Ms Agronomy’s Sh. 600,000 per worker—five times as much. They are also working more land, 25 acres worker compared to 10 acres per worker in Ms Agronomy’s operation, obviously because they are mechanized.

Table 1

Table 1

But capital is not free. In economics we think of the cost of capital in terms of depreciation, wear and tear if you like, which is the rate of its consumption. Because Mr. Capital has all manner of equipment that need spare parts and replacement that Ms Agronomy does not have, his consumption of capital will be higher. Let us put it at 20 percent and Ms Agronomy’s at 15 percent. This translates to a capital costs of KSh. 600,000 and Sh. 90,000 per worker respectively.

To complete the accounts, we need cost of land and other inputs (fertilizers, diesel, electricity etc) which we call intermediate inputs in economic accounting jargon. The land rent is assumed at 500 per acre, Ms Agronomy has 10 acres per worker and Mr. Capital has 25, which works out to Sh. 6,000 and 24,000 per worker respectively. For intermediate inputs Mr. Capital uses more inputs including diesel, electricity fertilizer pesticides and so on. We assume that his input costs work out to Sh.80 per bag and Ms Agronomy’s are half as much, which adds up to Sh. 37,500 and Sh.6,000 per worker respectively. The price of maize is Sh. 1000 a bag.

What more do they tell us?

Although Mr. Capital’s operation has higher output per worker, Miss Agronomy’s operation has a labour surplus of Sh.196,500 against Mr. Capital’s Sh. 88,500 per worker, that is Sh.108,500 more. The labour surplus is what is available for consumption. If Miss Agronomy were to farm Mr. Capital’s land, she would create 50 jobs, two and half times more than Mr. Capital, and generate afford the society Sh. 5.4 million more consumption. With the same financing her operation would employ five times more workers (100 compared to 20) and six times the labour surplus (Sh.10.8 million compared to Sh.1.77 million) OF Mr. Capital’s operation, but it would require twice as much land—and that would be a problem wouldn’t it. As this columnist has remonstrated for the better part of three decades, if society entrusts landlords with the allocation of its resources, it ought not be befuddled that they seek to maximize rents

Mr. Capital’s workers produce Sh. 450,000 more, but the capital stock consumes more than the additional output. In economics we say that Mr. Capital’s operation has over-accumulated capital or if you want to be esoteric, it is “dynamically inefficient.” The idea that economy can over-accumulate capital runs counter to conventional wisdom, which maintains that consumption is bad, and investment is good. A particularly irksome variant of this conventional wisdom maintains that the more government spends on “development” by which we mean brick and mortar stuff, and the less is spends on recurrent, especially the wage bill, the better.

Suppose an economy starts out with a GDP per capita of $1000 and no physical capital stock. You can think of this as a pastoralist economy where the GDP is simply the value of each pastoralist’s annual off-take— for example, that each family sells four steers per person at $250 each. GDP is also equal to consumption.

Now, this economy decides to develop by “adding value” —feedlots, abattoirs, meat processing plants the works. It also needs infrastructure— electricity for the cold rooms, water etc. To finance this, it needs to save and invest. The table shows how the economy would evolve under four different investment rates 10, 20, 30 and 40 percent, and the associated economic growth rate, output (GDP per capita), the capital stock (obtained by depreciating investment at 20 percent per year), and consumption per person. At a 10 percent investment rate, GDP per person grows by one percent per year.

Ten years on, the GDP is just about 10 percent higher – the economy has accumulated $460 of capital stock per person – but people are still consuming $6 less than before development started. The elderly who die during this period would have been better off without development. They will have to be satisfied with bequeathing their children a better future—hopefully. At an investment rate of 20 percent, the economy would be breaking even after ten years, with consumption $75 higher than in year zero. Thirty percent investment rate consumption rises by another $12. But at 40 percent investment, the per capita consumption in year ten is $62 less than at an investment rate of 30 percent. What’s driving this?

[An] economy decides to develop by “adding value”…At a 10 percent investment rate, GDP per person grows by one percent per year. Ten years on, the GDP is just about 10 percent higher…but people are still consuming $6 less than before development started. But at 40 percent investment, the per capita consumption in year ten is $62 less than at an investment rate of 30 percent. The elderly who die during this period would have been better off without development…What’s driving this?

Mathematically, it is the relationship between the investment rate and the growth rate. A 10 percent investment rate increases growth by 1 percent. From 10 to 20 percent it increases by two percentage points. The increase declines to 1.5 percentage points between 20 percent and 30 percent, and to one percentage point between 30 and 40 percent investment rate. This is not a sleight of hand. It reflects two things. First the returns to capital decreases with the amount of capital—the law of diminishing returns. Secondly the more capital an economy accumulates the more resources are consumed by maintaining and replacing it. In the 40 percent investment scenario the replacement cost of capital amounts to a good 30 percent of GDP— three quarters of the 40 percent investment rate is simply maintaining the level of capital stock.

This economy has violated the Golden Rule saving rate. The Golden Rule saving rate is the rate of capital accumulation required to maintain a stable rate of consumption growth. It is called the golden rule because it requires each generation to do what it would have other generations do. Save too little, the capital stock declines and the next generation’s consumption will fall. Saving too much deprives the current generation only to burden future ones with maintaining a bigger capital stock than they need. The Golden Rule saving rate for this economy is somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. The economy ought to shed some capital. The question is, what will it shut down? No capitalist will volunteer to close down their plant for the good of the country. Since none will, recessions come every so often and sorts them out.

Table 2

Table 2

It should also be evident that capital on its own cannot deliver the kind of growth in prosperity that we observe in reality. I gather that my smartphone has millions of times more computing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) aboard the spacecraft that took Man to the moon. The AGC was the first computer to use integrated circuits (ICs), the now ubiquitous microchips. It cost $150,000 (about US$ 1.1 million in today’s value). My smartphone cost $1000 dollars and you can get a good one for a quarter of that. One very big difference is that the AGC was crash-proof. That aside, fifty years down the road, the cost of AGC will buy you 5,000 infinitely more powerful handheld computers to do the most frivolous things.

Capital on its own cannot deliver the kind of growth in prosperity that we observe in reality.

It is science, not capital that enables us to waste computing power on selfies and fake news. The reason we can afford to consume knowledge, frivolously or otherwise, is first, not subject to diminishing returns. Secondly, knowledge can be used by many people over and over again at no additional cost.

Suppose Ms Agronomy were to acquire another 50 acres of land. She would with very little capital, simply replicate her knowhow and be producing at peak output in no time. And of course, Ms Agronomy would be continuing with her experiments. So by this time, she would be up to 35 bags per acre, or 40. In fact, every one of Ms Agronomy’s workers could go off and replicate her methods at no extra cost. Mr. Capital’s workers cannot walk into the bank and walk out with a tractor. Mr. Capital would be back to the bankers who would in turn deploy more of society’s savings to equip his operation. More of societies savings would have to be mobilized. New equipment would need to be manufactured. Producing more equipment needs more workers. So instead of producing food, Ms Agronomy’s workers will now be hired to produce the equipment to produce food.

It is science, not capital that enables us to waste computing power on selfies and fake news. The reason we can afford to consume knowledge, frivolously or otherwise, is first, not subject to diminishing returns.

Why then is society, even those countries in which more capital could not possibly appreciably improve standards of living —think Japan— still obsessed with hard work, thrift and accumulation of capital?

Why are Africa’s leaders forever trooping to the West and East, fawning, groveling and whoring for capital?

Bertrand Russell: ‘From the beginning of civilization until the industrial revolution a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard and his children added their labour as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by priests and warriors. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger. At first sheer force compelled them to produce and part with the surplus. Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness. [But] a system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impression upon mens thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world.

Says Bertrand Russell: “Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness.”

Warriors, priests, chiefs, bureaucrats. And bankers.

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David Ndii

David Ndii is one of Kenya's leading economists and public intellectuals.

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The Politics of County Economies: Why Central Kenya MPs are wrong

DAVID NDII pulls apart the old myth of Central Kenya’s economic dominance.

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The Politics of County Economies : Why Central Kenya MPs are wrong

One of our problems is to decide how much priority we should give in investing in less developed provinces. To make the economy as a whole grow as fast as possible, development money should be invested where it will yield the largest increase in output. This approach will clearly favour the development of areas having abundant natural resources, good land and rainfall, transport and power facilities, and people receptive to and active in development.” – Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya.

Can Central Kenya contribute 60 percent of Kenya’s GDP, as recently claimed, nay, asserted, by the region’s members of parliament? If 12 percent (old Central Province) or 20 percent (including Meru, Embu, Tharaka Nithi and Laikipia) percent of the work force is responsible for 60 percent of the economy, what does that say about the rest of the country. What would make Kikuyus or GEMA community four or five times more productive than other Kenyans?

The word “contribute” is a loaded one. It suggests that there is a common kitty called economy to which some people put in more than others. This is of course not the case. The economy is the sum total of the goods and services produced in the country. When Nyandarua grows potatoes that are consumed in Nairobi: which county has contributed more to the other’s economy? Neither—they have exchanged value, with each profiting from the other. The argument can also be a self defeating one. It justifies domestic import substitution. If we can champion “buy Kenya build Kenya”, why not “Buy Kilifi, build Kilifi”?

The word “contribute” is a loaded one. It suggests that there is a common kitty called ‘economy’ to which some people put in more than others.

The Central Kenya MPs are most likely to be under the impression that the region contributes more to the tax kitty. This is also a fallacy. The tax base and the economy do not overlap. Ideally they should but they do not. In an economy with our structure we have, a large informal sector and largely untaxed smallholder agriculture account for half the economy, the correlation between the economy and tax base is pretty low. The main sources of tax are profits, payroll taxes and consumption taxes (excise and VAT).

The Central Kenya MPs are most likely to be under the impression that the region contributes more to the tax kitty. This is also a fallacy.

The regions that contribute more to the tax base are those with larger corporatized economy. Though I do not have figures, I would expect the coastal counties to constitute a larger tax yield (revenue to GDP ratio) than central Kenya on account of high concentration of the corporatized economy— tourism, manufacturing, mining and logistics industry. The tourism establishments for example sell more highly taxed alcoholic beverages than consumed in central Kenya. They pay more VAT on food, and their employees pay PAYE which the presumably more productive and prosperous farmers of Central Kenya do not. If Central Kenya is so much more prosperous, the more pertinent political question would be whether it is paying its fair share of tax.

That cleared up, we can now turn to the question of county economies. Which counties have the strongest economies? The simple answer is we do not know. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the national statistics agency, only publishes national accounts for the whole economy. It is now publishing “County Statistical Abstracts” but these do not include GDP. Six years on, the counties have not found it worthwhile to measure the sizes of their economies even though this is part of their mandate, and it is not particularly difficult or expensive.

In response, I posted a graphic with two sets of figures of the relative size of county economies. One is an estimate of county GDPs computed by World Bank researchers, and published in a paper titled Bright Lights, Big Cities: Measuring national & sub-national economic growth from outer space in Africa, with an application to Kenya and Rwanda.

Which counties have the strongest economies? The simple answer is we do not know. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) only publishes national accounts for the whole economy. It is now publishing “County Statistical Abstracts” but these do not include GDP. Six years on, the counties have not found it worthwhile to measure the sizes of their economies even though this is part of their mandate, and it is not particularly difficult or expensive.

This methodology is actually more technically sophisticated than it sounds. If one looks at a satellite image of earth taken at night, it becomes apparent that the night lights closely mirror the economic geography of the world. In fact, because the intensity of lights is captured accurately up to a square kilometre, they provide much more detailed geographical coverage than statisticians use to calculate national GDP. Moreover, night lights provide real time data while statistical samples can fall hopelessly out of date, as revealed by the latest rounds of “rebasing” which saw upward GDP revisions ranging from 13 percent in Uganda, 30 percent in Tanzania, to 90 percent in Nigeria. One only frowns at the night lights if they do not know what statisticians do in the kitchen. But as it turns out in fact that over time, the night lights estimate tracks the statistically estimated GDP growth quite well.

For the second series, I used household consumption expenditure shares from the most recent household budget survey data published by the KNBS, the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey (KIHBS 2015/16). This is the survey data that is used to measure poverty as well as to update the consumption basket used to calculate the rate of inflation. Household consumption expenditure is the largest component of GDP. Although the percentage is bound to vary from county to county, we have no reason to expect that to be very large. In general, survey data is more reliable than the methods used to estimate GDP, hence it provides a good check for the night lights data.

Another useful source of information is the relative size of a county’s workforce. In a fully integrated economy with free movement of labour and capital, the size of a region’s economy would be proportional to the labour force: if County A accounts for 5 percent of the workforce, then it should also account for 5 percent of GDP. This is because labour and capital will move to where the opportunities are until capital per worker, and in effect production per worker is the same across the whole economy.

Readers of this column may recall that I used this argument to respond to the urban legend, which still persists, that Nairobi accounts for 60 percent of GDP (people who make up numbers seem to like 60 percent). I argued that Nairobi’s GDP was at best between 15 and 20 percent of GDP. This was based on Nairobi accounting for 10 percent of the national labour force, and allowing for more capital than the national average. As we will see shortly, the estimate was overgenerous.

The conventional definition of labour force is population aged 15-64. Ideally, we should use actual participation rates because many young people between 15 – 24 are in full time education, and many older people also work full time, but this data is not readily available on a county by county basis. We will just have to assume that the youth and older people’s participation rates do not vary too much across counties. I use the data published in the Labour Force Survey Report 2015/16, which is part of the KIHBS 2015/16.

We want to see whether the three sources tell the same story. We call this research strategy i.e. cross-validating different data and methodologies, triangulation.

We are in luck. The three sources are remarkably consistent. The correlation between the night lights GDP and household expenditure is 70 percent, between the night lights GDP and labour force is 73 percent, and between household expenditure and labour force shares is 90 percent (see charts). The strong correlation between the night lights GDP and labour force shares tells us that the bright lights GDP is pretty good. We can conclude from these correlations that all these data are telling us the same story. What is the story?

Chart 1

Chart 1

Second, all three tell us that Nairobi has the largest economy as expected, but it is a far cry from 60 percent. The night lights GDP puts it at 12.7 percent, while the expenditure share puts it at 20 percent. But the labour force share weighs in close to the night lights GDP at 12 percent.

The counties with the largest economies according to the night lights GDP are Nairobi(12.5%), Kiambu (11.1) Nakuru (8.5%). Between them, they account for 32% of the GDP.

The household expenditure data have the same order, and their combined share is also about the same (31%) but Nairobi’s share is much bigger (19.8%) while Kiambu and Nakuru are closer at 5.6% and 5.2% respectively. Eight other counties have large economies between 3 and 4 percent of GDP (Nyeri Kilifi, Kajiado, Machakos, Kwale Mombasa and Meru). With the notable exceptions of Nyeri and Kwale, their expenditure shares are also in line with the GDP shares. However, when it comes to the GDP and labour force, Kiambu, Kwale, Nyeri and Nakuru have much larger shares of GDP than their share of the labour force. I will come back to this shortly.

Nairobi has the largest economy as expected, but it is a far cry from 60 percent. The night lights GDP puts it at 12.7 percent, while the expenditure share puts it at 20 percent.

At the other end of the scale, Isiolo, Lamu, and Samburu have the smallest economies accounting for 0.2 percent of the national GDP each, followed by Marsabit, Tharaka-Nithi and Elgeyo Marakwet at 0.4 percent, Nyamira and West Pokot follow at 0.6 percent and Baringo and Tana River, 0.7 percent each, complete the ten smallest county economies. There is very close correspondence between the between the GDP and household expenditure in the small counties.

It’s worth pointing out here that the size of the county’s economy has no bearing on the incomes and well being. Whereas Lamu, Isiolo and Samburu are the smallest counties, Lamu’s incidence of poverty (28.5) percent is well below the national average of 36 percent; both Isiolo (56 percent) and Samburu (75 percent) are much higher. In fact, in terms of incomes and poverty Lamu, the smallest economy compares favorably with Nakuru, the third largest. This should put to rest those who are wont to argue that small counties are not economically viable. The Seychelles (Pop. 100,000, less than Lamu’s 130,000) has an average income ten times Kenya’s.

Chart 2

Chart 2

What explains the large difference between Nairobi’s GDP and household expenditure share.   Why are Kiambu and Nakuru’s GDP estimates so much larger than their shares of the labour force. Are there plausible economic explanations, or is it flaws in the data?

For Nairobi, cost of living is a plausible and likely explanation, in particular housing costs which are much higher than elsewhere. According to a national housing survey conducted by KNBS a few years ago, housing costs for house-renting Nairobi households take 40 percent of expenditures, a third more than the next highest, Mombasa and Kiambu, at 30 percent. Rural house renting households spent an average of 13 percent. Although the report does not give the percentages, we do know that Nairobi has a much larger percentage of renting households than other counties. Overall, 70 percent of urban households are renters, while 90 percent of rural households are owners. You would not know it from listening to Nairobi’s navel-gazing middle class going on about home ownership and mortgage interest. In aggregate 70 percent of Kenyans live in their own homes, and a good percentage of urban renters own decent debt-free rural homes. Home ownership is not a national priority, but I digress.

The large divergence of GDP and labour force shares is perhaps the more economically meaningful and insightful one. The straightforward interpretation of this observation is that the GDP per worker in Kiambu and Nakuru is considerably higher than average. Is this plausible? In the Census of Industrial Production conducted in 2010, Kiambu had 206 factories, second to Nairobi with 1090, out of a national total of 2252 establishments. In effect, Kiambu accounts for close to a fifth of the factories outside Nairobi. This is not a surprise given that Thika and Ruiru are large industrial towns, but even in my rural home I can count least six fairly large factories within shouting distance (4 tea factories, a chicken processing plant, and a dairy processor) and thats not counting the Bata shoe and a couple of other factories in Limuru town.

Nakuru may not count as many factories, only 95, but it certainly has a lot of capital. The country’s entire geothermal electricity industry, the flower industry as well as a very significant hotel industry around Lake Naivasha—that is a fair amount of capital. This ratio seems to be capturing, as it should, the capital intensity of the counties’ economy. If this is indeed what these data are telling us, then it is worthwhile to pay more attention to them, because they are conveying important information about the structure and character of the economy.

In the Census of Industrial Production conducted in 2010, Kiambu had 206 factories, second to Nairobi with 1090, out of a national total of 2252 establishments. In effect, Kiambu accounts for close to a fifth of the factories outside Nairobi.

If capital was evenly distributed across the country, all the ratios would be clustered around around 1. The actual ones range from 0.4 to 2.3. Kiambu’s ratio is the highest at 2.3 followed by Kwale and Nyeri (2) and Nakuru (1.9). There are three more counties with a ratio of 1.5 or higher, that is GDP share is 50 percent more than labour force share, Kajiado, Laikipia and Murang’a. Interestingly, Nairobi is not one of them. In fact, Nairobi is in the middle of the pack with a share just 10 percent higher, alongside Tana River. At the other end of the scale we have Elgeyo Marakwet and Nyamira with a GDP share which is 40 percent of the labour force share, and 12 counties where it is 50 percent. Looking at this pattern, it is readily apparent that the counties at the top are generally wealthier, while those at the bottom are poorer. The wealthier counties have more capital.

We have what looks like credible estimates of county GDP shares, we have each county’s labour force, and we also have the conventional national GDP. With these we are able to compute GDP per worker for each county, which will give us an idea which counties have the strongest economies. Kiambu comes out on top with a 2016 GDP per worker of Sh. 673,000. This is telling us that people in Kiambu produced on average Ksh. 56.000 worth of goods and services per person per month. The ten strongest economies are Kiambu, Kwale, Nyeri, Nakuru, Kajiado, Laikipia, Muranga, Garissa, Kilifi and Machakos.

Chart 3

Chart 3

One of the striking findings is that the big city counties are not among the strongest economies.

Nairobi and Mombasa are about the same at 14th and 15th respectively with a GDP per capita of Sh. 300,000 and Kisumu is 16th with Sh. 263,000. Obviously Kisumu is both urban and rural – Kisumu City on its own would probably be comparable with Nairobi and Mombasa. Still, these data put some question marks on the widely held belief that big cities are the engines of economic growth. To be sure there could be other explanations. The cities, Nairobi in particular could have a larger share of young people in full time education and unemployed, but these are puzzles for curious students to write dissertations on.

One of the striking findings is that the big city counties are not among the strongest economies. Nairobi and Mombasa are about the same at 14th and 15th respectively with a GDP per capita of Sh. 300,000 and Kisumu is 16th with Sh. 263,000.

More significantly perhaps we also do not see an economically dominant region. Kwale’s economy compares favourably with Nyeri, both in absolute size and productivity. Kirinyaga sits next to Wajir in terms of productivity. Makueni is more productive than Nyandarua.

This is not to say that we’ve heard the last of central Kenya politicians’ ethnic chauvinism. As Bertrand Russell observed long ago, a man offered a fact that goes against his instincts will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, refuse to believe it; but offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.

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Dynasties, Hustlers and Us: Towards a politics of revolutionary change

MIRIAM ABRAHAM on the epidemic of rightwing populism abroad, the new power games of the ruling elite at home, and how to nurture genuinely popular movements for the future.

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Dynasties, Hustlers and Us: Towards a politics of revolutionary change

Last week, we gathered for a drink to commiserate with a Brazilian friend and colleague following the declaration of the populist candidate, Mr. Jair Bolsonaro as their new president. As we do much too often lately, we bemoaned the rise of nationalism, populism and the erosion of the rule-based world order. We fancied re-writing Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat or Hilary French’s Vanishing Borders to update them with the recent assault on globalization, anti-immigrant rhetoric, trade wars, Brexit and the even greater threats to our environment as governments abandon international agreements. And then as we often do, we gradually moved from the big picture global issues to the inevitable discussions of the politics in our countries.

Our Brazilian friend had earned the right to go first, given that the drinks were meant for him anyway. He expressed his frustration at Jair Bolsonaro taking office in the country beginning January next year, and in jest wondered if any of us could offer him citizenship. The options around our table were not palatable. An Italian, two Americans, a Brit, an Austrian, a South Sudanese and a Kenyan. He lamented about the incoming President’s views on women, minorities and immigrants, his threat to use the army to quash urban crime and pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, among other grievances.

We asked our Brazilian friend what alternatives they had on the ballot and he readily admitted that they really had none. As in Kenya, they seem to have been stuck choosing between the Dynasty, as exemplified by Mr. Fernando Haddad of the left-wing Workers Party, who was anointed by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (he is serving a 12-year jail sentence for corruption), or the Hustler Jair Bolsonaro, who while running on an agenda to clean up Brasilia, appears to be just as corrupt, if not worse. In what may be perceived as a quid pro quo, Judge Sergio Moro, who convicted ex-president Lula, has been nominated by the new Hustler President to serve as minister of justice in the incoming administration.

Nevertheless, the wave of anti-establishment candidates seems to be spreading across the world, as citizens protest what they perceive as entrenched systems that do not seem to address their economic and social woes. My friends were perturbed when I told them that I wished that the same wind of change would sweep through my African continent and the Middle East. I argued that if Brazil’s Bolsonaro was partly a product of social media, then my continent was more than ready to have their own version of this change. I admitted that I was disturbed by the dangerous rhetoric from their new anti-establishment leaders in their countries. But that in the absence of political leadership that attempts to root out corruption, deal with economic and social inequalities and protect our environment, then it is worth making a break with the past. This would potentially lead to setbacks, but it would re-set the political systems.

As in Kenya, Brazil was stuck choosing between the Dynasty, as exemplified by Mr. Fernando Haddad of the left-wing Workers Party, who was anointed by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, or the Hustler Jair Bolsonaro, who…appears to be just as corrupt, if not worse.

While anti-establishment debates seem to dominate discussions in other places, in Kenya, the Dynasties and Hustlers seem to be shaping and controlling the political narrative of the country’s future. The 2022 succession plans all seem to be focused on the same names that are responsible for our woes. It is as though the Kenyatta, Odinga and Moi families, which have dominated our politics and economic lives for the past six decades have earned the right to govern forever. Or that the so-called Hustlers who have looted this country broke, will suddenly be redeemed and focus on the problems of the common mwananchi. Even when we attempt to be innovative, our lists are composed of politicians who have been part and parcel of the establishment, as former ministers or current governors. The so-called collection of views from across the country by the “Bridges to Nowhere” team; the so-called national dialogue conferences under the auspices of religious leaders; the calls for a referendum ahead of the 2022 election to change the Constitution – all are disguised attempts by the Dynasties or Hustlers to maintain their control of our destiny.

It is as though the Kenyatta, Odinga and Moi families, which have dominated our politics and economic lives for the past six decades have earned the right to govern forever. Or that the so-called Hustlers who have looted this country broke, will suddenly be redeemed.

Some are even suggesting that the “young” president remains in office, in one form or another, beyond 2022. To be fair, Uhuru Kenyatta has denied attempts to remain in power and has promised to unveil his “surprise” anointed one at the appropriate time. Time will tell. We have numerous African leaders who make retirement commitments and then turn around and claim to have “given in” to the popular demand of their populace. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is the reigning king of this narrative in East Africa. The nerve to think that after the country has been dominated by the Kenyatta dynasty, Uhuru Kenyatta would offer to anoint a new leader, reflects a breathtaking sense of entitlement. If indeed our politics will continue to be controlled by a select set of families, then maybe we should consider formally switching from a democracy to a monarchy. It would save us a lot of lives and money, both of which are casualties of our electoral process.

In such a political climate, it is easy to give in to despondency and let the Dynasties and Hustlers battle it out themselves. But only if we would not end up as victims of their selfish adventures. Change does not come on its own. It needs people to organize and rally around a common cause. With the state of the economy, corruption, extra-judicial killings, inequalities and other ills, it should not be difficult to find consensus on a common cause. But the task of building a social and political movement is not easy. And the Dynasties and Hustlers will take every step to undermine such a movement. They will once more, re-invent themselves and present themselves as the messiahs we have been awaiting.

This is only possible if we collectively cave in to pessimism, apathy and our usual blind sycophancy to our versions of messiahs. Going back to Brazil. The military dictatorship that governed from 1964 to 1985 was opposed by academics, technocrats, reformists and many middle-class families. Although it took them time, these groups organized and formed the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy that rejected corrupt politicians, espoused free markets and respect for human rights and went on to govern between 1995 and 2003. During this period, Brazil’s economy thrived, violent crimes reduced, primary healthcare and literacy programmes among other social reforms were put in place. It was only replaced from power by the Workers Party, with even more positive social reforms, of course until political and economic power got into their heads and they became part of a corrupt and oppressive establishment.

In Kenya, there are signs of a growing number of activists, artists, writers, thinkers and technocrats who seem tired of the zero-sum game of Dynasties and Hustlers. Like myself, they spend hours behind keyboards on columns such as this one, lamenting the political-economic situation. They grapple on a daily basis with the situation in the country, dazed by each revelation of corruption, its public relations game of smokes and mirrors, arrests and release of the culprits.

In Kenya, there are signs of a growing number of activists, artists, writers, thinkers and technocrats who seem tired of the zero-sum game of Dynasties and Hustlers.

Every society needs it share of the Naom Chomskys to serve as public intellectuals. But even more urgently, it needs men and women to organize themselves to rid the country of this breed of the political class. That is the reason that initiatives such as the Kenya Tuitakayo Movement (KTM) are commendable. There is clarity on the issues to be tackled. Clarity on the need to mobilize across the country. Clarity on the importance of developing leaders. But the movement must define itself as a political one and not fall prey of the typical civil society projects that rely of external funding for survival. The movement should be wary of becoming one of those that ticks the boxes on the number of ‘capacity building’ workshops it has held or protests it has organized. It should not shy away from defining itself as a movement seeking to bring political, social and economic changes rather than a lobby group that intends to merely reform the current system. Out of sheer personal interest, no politician will want to change a system which privileges them.

Initiatives such as the Kenya Tuitakayo Movement (KTM) are commendable… [T]he movement must define itself as a political one and not fall prey of the typical civil society projects that rely of external funding for survival.

It is unlikely that such a movement will make any significant inroads to have a direct impact on the 2022 elections. It must, as a matter of necessity, move away from the model of the current political coalitions and parties that only exist as vehicles for electoral processes. But it cannot shy away from defining itself as a movement whose objective is to wrest political and economic power from the establishment and shape a new social contract with Kenyans. As a long-time friend of mine recently asked, “are we building leaders to be priests or to take political power?”.

Each day, the Dynasties and Hustlers will distract us with one issue or another, but such a movement has to focus beyond these distractions. It also has to be wary of those who sit in the boardrooms with them to destroy the movement from inside in order to maintain their privileged positions with the Dynasties and Hustlers, in the hope of having crumbs thrown their way.

It is unlikely that such a movement will make any significant inroads to have a direct impact on the 2022 elections…But it cannot shy away from defining itself as a movement whose objective is to wrest political and economic power from the establishment and shape a new social contract with Kenyans.

As expected, the drinks with my friends, ended without us finding a solution to our disenchantment with the political leadership in our countries. But with the optimism that change is inevitable, regardless of how long it may take, or how difficult it will be.

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KENYA: ANTI-CORRUPTION – WHO CAN STOP THE REGGAE?

Borrowing a leaf from other dubious anti-corruption campaigns engineered by beleaguered African regimes, the current Noordin Haji-led clean-up has targeted allies and lieutenants of Deputy President, William Ruto. Will it work? By JOHN GITHONGO.

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KENYA: ANTI-CORRUPTION WHO CAN STOP THE REGGAE?

Earlier this week one of Africa’s most tenacious Big Men of the old school was sworn in for a seventh term as President, a victory of his politics of remote control considering his habit of long European sojourns. Paul Biya’s was once said to have asked an official: “Who are you?”

“I’m your minister of agriculture,” the official replied

“Who appointed you and since when?

“You did, sir.”

“Aha, okay. Congratulations.”

Biya, now the elder statesman of France-Afrique, the neo-colonial crony system that has managed France’s former colonial possessions in Africa, oiling the French economy while securing the fortunes of a brutal kleptocracy in Francophone Africa, has run an increasingly fractious and violent Cameroon since 1982. Irked by what he considered an impertinent question by the head of Cameroon Radio & Television, Eric Chinje in 1987, as to what he planned to do about rampant corruption Biya was defensive, dismissive of corruption as a problem in Cameroon. But by 2006, the spotlight was on countries like Cameroon. Irritated in part that Cameroon regularly featured at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), in 2006 he established operation Sparrow Hawk to root out corruption in the public service.

An initiative of the National Commission for the Fight Against Corruption (CONAC) – Sparrow Hawk has over the years proved one of the most effective tools against Mr. Biya’s political foes. Senior officials are regularly arrested, assets confiscated and generally manhandled by the judiciary – all to little effect as far as the overall problem is concerned. Earlier this year for example there was another scramble by senior officials, and a rash of breathless headlines, after former top officials were arrested and held at the notorious Kodengui prison in Yaounde for mismanagement, corruption and embezzlement. Another 20 officials were restricted from leaving the country. One was arrested in Nigeria by a joint force of Nigerian, Cameroonian and Equatorial Guinean agents. Former Prime Ministers, senior officials at the presidency, the president’s own personal physician and a host of other former ministers have fallen afoul of Operation Sparrow Hawk.

An initiative of the National Commission for the Fight Against Corruption – Sparrow Hawk has over the years proved one of the most effective tool against Mr. Biya’s political foes.

Despite all the drama, Sparrow Hawk doesn’t seem to have dented corruption as an issue in Cameroon. However, it has proved an extremely effective political tool for Paul Biya as he tightens his grip on power in Cameroon from his political engine room at Geneva’s Hotel Intercontinental.

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Kenya is ostensibly in the middle of a major anti-corruption drive. Together with the elite politics of the handshake between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta in March, little else has sold more newspapers in the country besides the murderous proclivities of politicians and socialites. On social media as bulldozers knocked down buildings illegally constructed on road reserves or riparian land, the popular phrase to describe the anti-corruption drive became: ‘No one can stop the reggae’.

The lead vocalist of the reggae was the energetic new Director of Public Prosecutions who has a direct line to the President – Noordin Haji. Unsurprisingly the media have become a key pillar in the latest permutation of the war against corruption – regularly reporting on upcoming arrests, providing prosecutorial details and sometimes seeming to test the waters as to what the public considers credible or perhaps too blatantly politicised. This is not unusual. Any serious anti-corruption drive requires impartial political support. The best mobilisers of this are the media and civil society. For their part this time around, given recent history, civil society has chosen to tread more cautiously. Some foreign embassies and their investigative agencies have become important pillars of some of the key investigations being carried out.

The first phase of the Kenyatta regime’s fight against corruption started in 2015 when the President dropped a bombshell ‘list of shame’ report in parliament during President Kenyatta’s state of the nation address. Included in the list were a number of senior public figures some of whom were forced to resign their positions as the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) investigated an assortment of allegations in their regard:

The lead vocalist of the reggae was the energetic new Director of Public Prosecutions who has a direct line to the President – Noordin Haji. Unsurprisingly the media have become a key pillar in the latest permutation of the war against corruption – regularly reporting on upcoming arrests, providing prosecutorial details and sometimes seeming to test the waters as to what the public considers credible or perhaps too blatantly politicised.

The ‘list of shame’ didn’t quite cut the mustard with the public partly because of its scale and breadth. This made it difficult to be consumed whole; animating corruption required a ‘political hook’ that the citizenry could use to associate scandals with particular individuals. Throwing in the respected Auditor General’s office that is held in higher esteem than the EACC itself into the list also didn’t help.

It also became apparent that the list itself seemed a work-in-progress, an operational report prepared by the EACC and rushed, incomplete, to parliament for the required political optics essential for Mr Kenyatta’s state of the nation address. This tactical blunder of splurging out the incomplete document ultimately worked to the advantage of some of the political players named. They continue in high office to this day.

Within opposition circles and in the Deputy President’s camp of the Jubilee regime the episode was a sort of waterloo for the most powerful official in the EACC – its deputy secretary Michael Mubea, who is seen as the President’s man in the agency. Sources close to the Deputy President William Ruto observed that the Uhuru I ‘list of shame’ anti-corruption move was a stealth attack against many figures associated with the DP, who appeared to have outlived his usefulness to State House once the ICC cases had been dispensed with. Their reading was: why a stealth attack and not a full frontal honest ‘war against corruption’? It seemed to betray anxiety with regard to what the DP’s response would be. This remains the case to this day.

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At the start of this year following the March 9th handshake the reinvigorated Kenyatta II anti-corruption drive was perceived as many things at the same time: an effort to roll back the most corrupt regime in Kenyan history and redeem some sort of legacy from it for the Kenyatta family; and simultaneously, to finally wipe out William Ruto, constitutionally the best positioned successor to Kenyatta as the 2022 elections approach:

If the anti-corruption drive was meant to ‘knock out’ Ruto, the effort is stuck in the mud; the reggae has stopped and bureaucrats are frozen on the dance floor – the courts and front pages of the media. Sources close to the DP explained: “One sees the same stealth attack against the DP as 2015 but executed differently. Last time Michael Mubea and EACC made the grand move but it went the way it went. This time there are three new aspects – first is the centrality of Haji the DPP; second, is the way technology has been deployed – tracking people using their phones and computers and using this telephone traffic for locational data to reverse-engineer evidence for prosecution processes that have already been embarked upon. This has removed the need for warrants. Thirdly, there is a growing sense that the high premium causalities of this phase of the war against corruption hail from a certain [read: Kalenjin] community. This in turn feeds a certain potentially troublesome narrative at the national level.”

There is a growing sense that the high premium causalities of this phase of the war against corruption hail from a certain [read: Kalenjin] community.

Other sources observed: “Clearly [the anti-corruption gig] isn’t going according to plan. When prosecutorial decisions are made from a purely political perspective they don’t tend to work and are more susceptible to an effective political response. It causes things to look and feel, as they did around the ICC matter. There isn’t a strategy being rolled out here. A prosecutorial strategy, for example, needs to be rational but here State House is deciding on guilt and the DPP is working backwards to put together the evidence when prosecutions have already started, all the while using the media as a tool to test what’s politically saleable and lay the ground for future actions.”

This Uhuru II fight against corruption revolves on an axis whose centre is Noordin Haji, the energetic DPP, with the EACC rushing up from behind to remain relevant. The media-cum-prosecution-led strategy – what has come to be called ‘the reggae’ – splutters to life roughly once a week.

This Uhuru II fight against corruption revolves on an axis whose centre is Noordin Haji, the energetic DPP, with the EACC rushing up from behind to remain relevant. The media-cum-prosecution-led strategy – what has come to be called ‘the reggae’ – splutters to life roughly once a week. Beginning to exhibit symptoms of the discredited Cameroonian decade-old Operation Sparrow Hawk, the process has meant attempting to fry big fish in a ‘shock and awe’ tactic that has played extremely well in the media. The biggest fish thus far has been Evans Kidero, former Governor of Nairobi who has found himself in the dock on a range of charges several times. Indeed, he has almost become the big fish that’s being refried every few weeks when public attention wanes. This week fried in oil; two weeks later in court to be fried with onions; two weeks later with garlic and dhania, as the charges are constructed on an ongoing basis. Meanwhile the fight against corruption seems to have gained more traction within elements of the international community than among Kenyans at large. Others contend that anti-corruption has been weaponised politically as part of the process of managing the political transition that’s underway.

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