By George Jaramba and Salim Changani

February 7, 2013

Despite being some of the most taxed citizens of the world, Kenyans have had little say in the manner their economy is managed. For as long as the country has been independent, the national budget , normally announced in June every year, has dictated the costs of basic commodities and essential services. Weeks before the minister for finance makes the important budget speech in parliament, many unscrupulous traders deliberately create a scarcity of particular commodities whose prices they expect to go up on Budget Day. This unpopular trend has affected the cost of essential commodities such as sugar, cooking oil, maize meal, petrol and kerosene just to mention but a few.

But of crucial concern is the manner the minister prioritizes the issues he wishes the government to spend the most on. In the past, budget allocations have favoured some government departments as opposed to others which are equally in need. The end result in such circumstances has, however, not been very helpful in the general growth of the national economy.

The Constitution of Kenya (2010) has, however, given much impetus to the ordinary citizen to participate in the management and decision-making process in governance socially, economically and politically. Article 174 illustrates this point. It is this constitutional relief that the residents of Kwale County have taken advantage of to come up with their own budget proposals as a means of kick-starting their development agenda.

Dubbed Participatory Budget for local governments (PB), residents of Kwale County in collaboration with representatives of local community based organizations are working in partnership with Fahamu, a nongovernmental organization, to sensitize the communities to develop their budgets at the ward level as a way of ensuring that agenda setting begins at the community level.

Participatory budgeting is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, and a type of participatory democracy, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget.

The practice allows citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending on projects, and gives them the power to make actual decisions on which projects to undertake as a matter of priority.

Although the concept is yet to be actualized in Kenya, participatory budgeting has worked in other parts of the world including the US, UK, Brazil, South Africa and Senegal. Fahamu is currently piloting the concept in two Kenyan counties, namely Kwale in the Coast and Kajiado in the Rift Valley region.

In September 2012, the Kwale community engaged in a needs assessment process after which the priority areas were identified before electing budget delegates at the ward level. Kwale County currently has 20 wards following the recent boundary demarcations by the Andrew Ligale-led Interim Independent Boundaries Commission. The 20 wards are in Matuga, Msambweni, Kinango and the newly created Lunga-Lunga constituencies.

The ward delegates are charged with developing specific spending proposals which will later be presented to the community for validation. If the community approves of the proposals, the same are to be forwarded to the county government for consideration of implementation.

If implemented, participatory budgeting is expected to raise the social and economic well-being of the two counties. Areas that are expected to benefit significantly include education, health, agriculture, roads and energy sectors.

Kwale and Kajiado participatory budget committees are scheduled to engage individuals seeking elective positions at the county level to sign a charter declaring that they will support and advocate for the implementation of the concept.

The fate of this noble idea now depends on the outcome of the forthcoming elections and whether the elected leadership implements the proposals submitted by the communities.

Various studies have suggested that participatory budgeting results in more equitable public spending, higher quality of life, increased satisfaction of basic needs, greater government transparency and accountability, increased levels of public participation (especially by marginalized or poorer residents), and democratic and citizenship learning.

* George Jaramba is the Ward Delegate elected through the Participatory Budgeting project for Gombato-Bongwe while Salim Changani works with Msabweni Human Rights Watch.