Monday, 5 December 2011

Popular Participation in Political Economy

Believe it or not, the most persistent obstacle to attaining Vision 2030 is not the seemingly insurmountable physical barriers besetting our nation or the plethora of unfavourable global dynamics but rather it is fear. This actually is not a far-fetched opinion given that the failure to achieve sustained economic growth and development is as much a political and social phenomenon as it is economic. President Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed office in November 1932 at the depth of the Great Depression in which 13, 000, 000 Americans were unemployed and almost every bank folded. Borrowing from Charles Dickens literature -it was a season of darkness, it was the winter of despair, it was the worst of times in America but FDR as he is fondly referred, helped the American people regain faith in themselves asserting in his first Inaugural Address that, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." And sure enough, he helped lift the U.S. out of economic despair and revolutionized the American way of life.

The situation we’re in today is a replica of the situation in which FDR assumed office. It is therefore a time of visionary leadership which has an instinct for the nation's future, service to render and problems to struggle with and overcome. It is a fact that societies develop by organizing all the knowledge, human energies and material resources at its disposal to realize its aspirations which for Kenya are clearly spelt out in Vision 2030. However, I feel we are not effectively harnessing the vast wealth of knowledge resident among our citizenry, something which is robbing us of invaluable inputs in charting our path to prosperity.

The challenges we face require us to face them with candour or else we risk making poor policy choices. What is needed now more than ever is a leadership of frankness that doesn’t shy away from honestly facing conditions in our country today. The nation requires open political discourses on the economy in which we can freely debate and explore viable public policy alternatives.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the story is told of a little city with few men in it. One day a great king came against it and besieged it and built great snares all around it leaving no way of escape. But there was found in the little besieged city a poor wise man and he by his wisdom would have delivered the city but sadly no one remembered the wise poor man.

The world is changing at stupefying pace something which on the one hand presents us with new opportunities that are not so obvious and on the other hand it presents us with challenges that are exacerbating our situation. In this new world economic dispensation fraught with economic, political and security crises, no single individual or group of people have a monopoly of information and the bold and innovative policies our country must put in place in order to take advantage of the new opportunities and respond to mutating problems and challenges.

Our country therefore needs to have mechanisms for collating relevant information and debating the bold economic policy proposals we must adopt for us to attain Vision 2030. In the course of his presidency, President Obama has made effective use of town hall meetings as a forum for probing public policy issues. His town hall meetings have often taken place in universities which are recognized as centres bold and innovative thinking.

Sadly, such open national discourses on public policies remain foreign to us. The problem with most of our leaders is that they are fully consumed by the struggle for political survival to the extent that they have no time or inclination to direct their attention toward increasing thought and discussion about policy innovations and improvements. This is thus because they are clouds without water, carried about by the greed for power. And in the words of Plato, we can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light –which will expose their ignorance and their real motivation for seeking public office.

And perhaps the same shallowness is also partly to blame on the media which plays a critical role in politics of setting the agenda for public discourse. Such shallowness is clearly visible in the odd opinion poll questions on prime time news which are full of reports and zilch analysis of or debates on the news items being reported, and the amateurish interviews with leaders of business and politics.

Finally, as we head to the 2012 polls, it is concerning that by and large the intelligence of the youth electorate which constitute around 70 percent of eligible voters, is still being taken for granted yet the youth electorate is quite capable of tackling hard electoral issues. I honestly believe there is a healthy population of the electorate that is capable of using abstract thinking about complicated political issues to make political choices in the 2012 polls and it is sadly starved of real issues and the failure to cater for this need is only serving to condemn electoral process and our national discourses to same old empty rhetoric that gravitates into deadly tribal arguments. There is no valid reason why all those who have officially launched their bid for the presidency have not launched their economic manifestos yet given some declared their bids many months ago other than perhaps they are empty debes?

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