Challenges Facing President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Laptop Promise
Uhuru should tap into the services of the information and communications technology
Providing laptops for Class One pupils in Kenyan public schools was a key pledge by President Uhuru Kenyatta. However, one begs to question whether it should be a priority, given the huge debt burden his Jubilee Alliance Government has inherited. Further, there are more important educational needs for such children which he should focus on.
Insofar as the immediate former Grand Coalition Government led by retired President Mwai Kibaki and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga lauded a robust economic growth, Uhuru has inherited a broke Government. In a report by Nasong’o Isaac on April 8, 2013 at kuzabiashara.co.ke, Kenya’s domestic debt tripled to Ksh74.9 billion from Ksh25.2 billion in September 2012, because of short-term borrowing. Due to a shortfall in the tax revenue and donor funding, the Treasury embarked on domestic borrowing to the tune of Ksh32 million last December. The domestic debt currently stands at “nearly half of the total public debt which is about Ksh1.8 trillion”, said Nasong’o. A recent analysis by Kestrel Capital, an independent stockbroker, cautioned that the high debt burden was because of increased Government spending amidst a slow pace of income generation. On April 15, 2013 George Ngigi wrote in the Business Daily newspaper that: “Gross government domestic debt increased by Sh141.4 billion to Sh1.0 trillion on April 5, 2013, from Sh858.8 billion at the end of June 2012.”
During Kibaki’s first term, World Bank experts warned that a lot of Government revenue was being allocated to the three arms of Government; namely, the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, at the expense of other vital sectors. To make it worse, members of these wings did not pay taxes uniformly as other Kenyan workers. In the past, the country’s tax collector, Kenya Revenue Authority, has repeatedly attempted to enforce income tax payments on Members of Parliament without success. When key politicians like former President Kibaki, Prime Minister Odinga and Vice President Kalonzo paid their income tax arrears in 2011, it was highly publicized in the Kenyan media. Very few parliamentarians like former presidential candidate Peter Kenneth and newly elected Senator Johnstone Muthama paid taxes during the last government.
A court petition filed by a civil society organization prior to this year’s General Election, wanted the Independent and Electoral Boundaries Commission to bar some former 209 politicians in the last Parliament such as Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, from contesting because they had refused to pay tax arrears. Since the duo has such a poor record of tax payment, how will they enforce the process on the current politicians? Also, will Uhuru curb waste in public spending, yet he used two helicopters for himself and his wife to Ukunda in the Coast during his first weekend as president-elect?
In 2008-09, a total of Ksh1.229 billion was factored into the country’s national budget to cater for household and press expenses of Kibaki, Raila and Kalonzo. Here is the breakdown cited verbatim from a report by Mars Group on September 8, 2008:
“President: The total cost of the President’s household and the press service is Ksh888.5 million this year. The National Budget says that the cost of maintaining the official residences of President Kibaki (6 State Lodges and State House Nairobi) is Ksh823 million for this year. The President’s Press Unit (comprising 37 staff) is Ksh65 million this year. The President has 388 staff employed in all the State residences and the use of 149 cars.
Vice-President: The total cost of the Vice-President’s household and the press service is Ksh230.7 million this year. The Vice-President’s household and press unit will cost the Kenyan taxpayer Ksh185.3 million. The amount provided does not include the VP’s house allowance of Ksh2.4 million (Ksh200,000 per month). The Vice President’s household has an annual budget of Ksh4.3 million for hospitality – about Ksh358 000 per month. Just over Ksh30 million is budgeted for rent under the VP’s Household budget line. The household can consume Ksh14 million per year on fuel and stay within budget, while also spending Ksh11 million on routine maintenance of vehicles, and a further Ksh6.5 million on maintenance of other assets in the households. Over Ksh75 million has been allocated to the VP’s household for domestic and foreign travel. Last year the Vice President’s official household comprised of 57 staff and there were 12 cars.
Prime Minister: The total cost of the Prime Minister’s household and the press service is Ksh110.6 million this year. The Prime Minister’s household and catering budget Ksh36.9 million annually. This includes Ksh5 million for utilities-water and electricity, Ksh1.2 million for advertising, Ksh26.5 million for hospitality and Ksh2.2 million for purchase of household furniture this year. Next year the Finance Minister projects the purchase of household furniture to increase to Ksh5.5 million. Additionally, the Prime Minister has a house allowance of 4.8 million this financial year (about Ksh400,000 per month). The Prime Minister also has a dedicated press unit whose budget is Ksh68.9 million per annum.”
A balancing act
The Jubilee government is walking a tight rope of balancing between delivering its ambitious election pledges and prioritizing economic demands for national development, as stipulated in the Constitution. Uhuru’s spending plan includes: abolishing maternity charges at all public hospitals and access fees at dispensaries and health centers. According to Ngigi in the Business Daily, he has the following options: to adjust the debt growth if he gets donor support, increase taxes or simply break some of the political promises in his party manifesto. Pundits assert that higher taxes will amount to tax evasion. However, an immediate option would be to re-introduce the Value Added Tax (VAT) Bill, which if passed, could bring immediate short-term revenue of Ksh11 billion.
During President Kenyatta’s maiden speech at the 11th Parliament on April 16, 2013 he emphasized that Kenya’s public sector wage of Ksh458 billion for this year alone, is not sustainable, since it swallows 12 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), against the global recommendation of seven per cent. His speech centered on reducing Government waste so as to invest more in his economic goals. Other pledges during the joint session in Parliament included ending grand corruption and harmonizing the youth and women funds to allow easy access within constituencies.
Laptops or lollipops?
Social media is abuzz with Uhuru’s laptop promise claiming he was misquoted in the election campaigns, since what he meant was lollipops and not laptops for Class One children. Nonetheless, the President is emphatic that solar-driven laptops will be provided from January 2014 and some people estimate they will cost Ksh10 billion. Granted, in any society that affords children all the basic educational needs, they are an added value in cognitive skills development. But Kenya’s educational landscape lacks skilled teachers amounting to 80,000. Overall, there is an urgent need to increase the number of teachers from the current 275,000 to 350,000, according to the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT).
When former President Kibaki began to implement his 2002 election pledge for free primary education (FPE) in public schools in January 2003, teacher recruitment was not prioritized. Moreover, the high pupil enrolment rates have not only led to overcrowded classrooms, but also the burden of having around two teachers only to manage over 300 children at schools in marginalized areas. To make it worse, the teacher-pupil ratio in some schools is 1:100. For Ksh10 billion, Kenyatta’s Government can train more teachers within the next two years to bridge the gap. But the Treasury recently put a freeze in public sector staff recruitment despite KNUT’s request for Ksh15 billion to recruit 40,000 teachers, and an additional Ksh6 billion to employ teachers into the early childhood development program. Countrywide, more than 3.5 million children do not have teachers yet there is a surplus of 40,000 trained, but unemployed teachers. The problem began during Kibaki’s era when KNUT disagreed over his government’s push for an intern/contractual basis of recruitment, yet the union wanted permanent employment for teachers.
A Class One child in Kenya can benefit a lot from computers, just as any child in a developed country. Nevertheless, without adequate learning materials and other needs like school uniforms which still remain the burden of parents, why would laptops be a priority? Will the children be allowed to carry them home and back to school or they would remain for safekeeping at school? What about installing computer labs so that children can use them at scheduled periods? Many children in semi-arid and pastoral communities are attracted to school because of feeding programs. They don’t have enough food at home and survive on the single school meal. Can this be prioritized instead? A hungry child will not benefit from a laptop.
Uhuru had an upper class childhood and attended Kindergarten and Class One and Two at the prestigious Loreto Convent, Valley Road in Nairobi. He was also privileged to study at St. Mary’s School in Nairobi from Class Three to Form Six. Could it be that he subconsciously wishes to see Kenyan children enjoy a portion of his early lifestyle? The reality on the ground for many of the almost one million children absorbed in public primary schools annually is shocking; they live in abject poverty. In addition, various reports indicate damning evidence of poor learning outcomes with very marginal skills improvement nationally, especially for such children. For instance, a study by Uwezo East Africa 2012, found that: “Two out of three pupils in Standard 3 across East Africa are not able to pass basic tests in English, Kiswahili or numeracy at the Standard 2 level.”
Uhuru should tap into the services of the information and communications technology (ICT) sector and top educators to understand expected challenges in his laptop promise. The way to go would be to install Internet-driven systems for collaborative learning, since these children could gain a lot by linking virtually with others in the country and globally. Images are very important during a child’s formative stages of life and seeing other parts of the country and people albeit virtually, would broaden their perspectives. Videoconferencing through Skype and other virtual platforms could help them grasp the English language and Kiswahili, especially in rural and poor urban areas. Talking to children from other ethnic groups would humble them and instill a sense of tolerance for their varied cultures. The laptop program should have a broader goal beyond enhancing basic literacy.
There is no shortage of suppliers for low-cost technological tools from China, Asia and Europe. However, can the Jubilee Government learn from the mistakes by Kibaki’s Narc Government in the implementation of FPE? Can the Government watch out for Anglo-Leasing ghosts who could hijack the procurement process of the laptops to get their cut/commission? The One Laptop per Child initiative is already benefiting some students in Kenya; can Uhuru’s Administration learn from it? Why is the initiative facing challenges in Nigeria? How is the one laptop per child project faring in Rwanda? Why Class One only in Kenya, instead of wiring all primary schools so that there is continuity of usage as pupils transit to other classes? A mixed mode of technology and traditional learning remains the most appropriate for Kenya. Replacing textbooks or teachers with laptops is clearly not a solution.
The Kilgoris Project is an example which Uhuru can get his experts to examine. Pedagogically, what is the value of assigning Class One children laptops? Sweden for instance, is a world leader in ICT and constitutionally accords access to computers throughout the compulsory level of education. Furthermore, the educational system does not have a laptop per child program, but the sharing of computers per number of children in classrooms. These are connected to the Internet which enables them to twin with schools outside the country and run virtual projects among themselves. If high capacity solar-systems are installed in Kenyan schools, perhaps projectors with Internet connection would be more beneficial. Primary school beginners gain a lot cognitively through interaction, which builds their confidence and promotes socialization. There are a few months to go before the program kicks off in January 2014. Thorough investigations should therefore be carried out; otherwise the laptop pledge will amount to another white elephant.