Friday, June 21, 2013

Devolving Media And Civil Society

Nakuru is impressive. Visiting for the first time in many years, I was struck by the changes in city's skyline. It has the feel of a boom town and, I was told, real estate prices have shot through the roof. Two years ago, the UN rated it as Africa's fastest growing town and the fourth fastest in the world. No mean achievement.

While there, I was privileged to met an elderly lady who was introduced to me, in that quaint rural tradition which names parents after their children, only as Mama George. She's a seasoned political activist who despite her advanced years, is still full of passion ("Government makes my blood boil," she told me). Her wrinkled eyes danced as she related tales of the fight for multiparty democracy, walking from Nakuru to Nairobi to participate in the Saba Saba protests and how every January, a group of these veterans still gather in Nairobi to water a tree they planted in honor of the struggle. It is a travesty, I remember thinking, that we do not ourselves exalt these heroes; ordinary Kenyans who did extraordinary things; who refused to be cowed by the violence of a dictator; whose courage and determination laid the ground for the freedoms we take for granted today.

I didn't ask what she made of today's society but I suspect I know what she would think of the fear we displayed during the election; of the refusal to face up to our history; of a nation that forsakes justice for a temporary peace and values economic growth over its citizens' rights and freedoms.

But Nakuru has other lessons to teach. Driving just outside the town centre, one encounters huge heaps of garbage. The towns landfill is overflowing and everyday truckloads of rubbish are being deposited by the roadside. It's not just a stinking eyesore, but a potential public health hazard. KTN covered this a few days ago but it is clearly not an issue the national media is in any danger of running away with. It is reminiscent of the garbage crisis in Mombasa which may get a sporadic mention in between the mouthfuls of soap operas. It led to conversations with locals about the need to restructure our press and civil society to keep up with devolution.

As Kenya moves to devolve governance, one wonders how county residents will keep county governments honest. The experience with devolved funds, such as the Constituency Development Fund, over the last decade should be a wake up call. The opacity and lack of accountability that  characterized the operation of these instruments must not be repeated with county governments. Similarly, the traditional neglect of local government (except for the fights that accompanied mayoral elections) must not be transferred to county governments. We must not allow county issues to continue to be crowded out by the national conversation.

However, our media and civil society organizations are currently not suited to deliver this. They remain  resolutely centralized, Nairobi-based and focused on national issues. We need to start thinking about how to encourage the growth of county based CSOs which can articulate local issues and put pressure on the devolved governments. Ditto for the media. Local reporters covering local issues for local publications or broadcasters would be critical to keeping the county governments on their toes. Following up on their handling of issues such as the garbage crisis in burgeoning Nakuru is not the sort of thing national media do well but would be the bread and butter of county media. Strong local media would not only improve governance, but also a shot in the arm for county economies, creating jobs and providing a means for county level businesses to reach local consumers.

Devolving media and civil society along with government is essential if citizens are to hold county authorities to account for the services they are owed. It will ensure that county governments will be focused, not on posturing for a national audience, but on local issues, which will ultimately have the most impact on the lives of the people. If we as a society did this, we may just stand a chance of winning back the favour of Mama George.


Unknown said...

This is key especially in a growing economy like ours.Check books on media and civil society at that are informative.

Anonymous said...

Gathara, with regard to devolution a good article you may find interesting, there is a reason as to why we shall never be 'allowed' to truly decentralize: