“People want to be active participants in their socio-economic development”: strengthening public participation and inclusion in Kenya

28 June 2023 “People want to be active participants in their socio-economic development”: strengthening public participation and inclusion in Kenya

In 2010, Kenya moved from a central to a devolved system of government. This created structures for public involvement in local government decision-making and the equitable allocation of resources for development and services – two areas that are crucial for harnessing sustainable peace and social cohesion.

Earlier this year, we published a report which compared progress made to strengthen public participation in decision-making in two counties in Kenya – Isiolo and Makueni. Here, the report’s author, Saferworld’s Elizabeth Atieno, explains why community-led development is critical for peace in Kenya.

  • What does devolution look like in Kenya?

Devolution is the dispersion of power and resources from the central government to sub-national units – Kenya’s counties. The essence of devolution is to bring the government and resources closer to the people, to enable people to be active participants in their socio-economic development. Historical factors that led to devolution in Kenya were the marginalisation and exclusion of certain parts of the country from developmental resources and opportunities. This was addressed by the transformative 2010 Constitution, which entrenched devolution and ensured that about 30 per cent of governmental resources are disbursed to the counties.

  • Why is public involvement in decision-making so important?

The involvement of people in governance and decision-making is critical in building the bonds that hold a society together, as it enables the peaceful settlement of disputes. Where people can participate effectively in decision-making, it becomes easier for challenges to be discussed and addressed in a manner that is acceptable to people collectively. If people don’t have access to decision-making avenues and feel that their needs, aspirations and concerns are not being taken into account, then they often resort to violence, which creates insecurity and leads to conflict. It’s also critical to equitably distribute resources – such as job opportunities or infrastructural developments – as a failure to do so generates grievances that have the potential to degenerate into conflict.

  • What are the main barriers in Kenya to inclusion and public participation?

The main barriers are limited resources – human and material – to enable effective, collective self-governance, where everyone has the ability, capacity and opportunity to influence governmental decision-making. In most instances, public participation is a formality, with contributions from members of the public rubber stamping but not substantively influencing governmental decision-making. The attitude of government officials undertaking public participation is also negative: public participation is done haphazardly, with little or no intention to change decisions that have already been made by bureaucrats. Elite capture – where decisions or resources benefit powerful individuals rather than the general population – of the public participation space is also a reality. Documents relating to public participation are, in most instances, not made available in good time, and are also not translated to languages and accessible media. This is particularly challenging considering the low levels of education of much of the population.

  • The report follows up on Saferworld’s 2017 research on Isiolo and compares progress made in Isiolo to Makueni. Why were these counties chosen?

Isiolo – a diverse county where many different ethnic communities live – has faced many challenges related to insecurity and intercommunal conflicts. Saferworld’s 2017 report made recommendations to the county government in Isiolo to address the perennial challenges of insecurity there, while the follow-up study assessed the progress made since 2017, to determine if there are still areas that need to be addressed to enhance positive peace. We chose Makueni as a comparator because of the progress it has made in establishing effective public participation and equitable resource allocation structures and legal instruments. The comparative analysis used Makueni as a best practice that Isiolo could learn from in addressing issues of inequality, lack of inclusion and skewed distribution of resources – which the 2017 report determined as key issues that have led to insecurity in Isiolo.

  • Who did you speak to when conducting the research?

We spoke to elected and appointed county officials at executive and legislative levels, members of civil society, religious leaders, community leaders and members of the community. These discussions took place through key informant interviews and focus group discussions. We also spoke to other researchers, development practitioners and organisations involved in public participation and equitable resource allocation in the two counties. Lastly we spoke to national government officials who have a broad view of how these key issues affect not only the two counties but the rest of the country.

  • What were the main findings?

That people want to be active participants in their socio-economic development and well-being, by contributing to societal decision-making. If people can actively participate in their governance and there are avenues and opportunities for the peaceful settlement of disputes, then substantive positive peace becomes possible, as is the case in Makueni county. However, where these mechanisms are missing and exclusion and marginalisation persist, these avenues are constrained and violence and conflict erupt, as in Isiolo.

The study showed us that effective public participation entrenched in legislation and policy has the potential to address causes and drivers of conflict. Equitable distribution of resources is also critical: when resources are distributed based on needs and priorities, people feel that their contributions – such as their opinions of what community priorities should be included in county policy frameworks and budgets – have been noticed and addressed by the government, and they feel that they are active participants in peacebuilding, social transformation and development.

  • What needs to be done to improve public participation and equitable resource allocation not just in the two counties, but in Kenya as a whole?

People at the highest level of county government – the county governors – need to show more political will in order for public participation to be effective. They need to increase their expertise in this area and to generate more resources for effective public participation. A good example of this is the former Makueni County Governor, Kivutha Kibwana, who showed incredible political will to drive forward inclusive governance, making public involvement an important component of his campaign manifesto. County government staff also need to receive training on how to more effectively plan and facilitate public participation forums. They need to create avenues for feedback so that public views can be taken into account in decisions on policy, laws and budgets. It is also important to build the capacity of communities through sensitisation, lobbying and advocacy initiatives, so that they can better understand what the purpose of and opportunities for public participation are.

More resources for public participation are needed, and a public participation directorate or department should be created to effectively manage public participation in each county. There is a need for clear laws and policies for public participation and equitable resource distribution, including criteria to ensure that budgetary resources are allocated depending on need, population, geographic expansiveness and history of marginalisation, among other considerations.

To find out more, download the report: 'Inclusive public participation and equitable resource allocation in Kenya: Lessons from Isiolo and Makueni'

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