We need to talk about equity and why it isn’t really the same thing as equality

By Jason Lakin. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution carries the promise of more equitable development. This was meant to happen through a number of complementary mechanisms.

First, the imperial executive was replaced with separation of powers and a more robust system of checks and balances at the national level. Second, devolution ensured that resources would not get stuck in Nairobi, or be distributed only to favoured regions, as all counties would be guaranteed a share of the national product.

Third, greater transparency and participation in public affairs should ensure that even where these institutional reforms are inadequate, it is harder to hide and to defend inequitable distributional choices.

Arguably, the rights captured in Article 43 and the explicit endorsement of affirmative action for marginalised areas of the country constitute a fourth mechanism for ensuring greater equity.

However, all of these constitutional pillars supporting equitable resource distribution can be rendered null in the absence of a vigorous debate about the meaning of equity.

While the Constitution speaks repeatedly of equity among its core values, it does not define it. Ensuring that public policy is infused with equity demands both further definition of terms and the deepening of what may be called a culture of public justification. By the latter, I mean a culture of government officials justifying their decisions in ways that are publicly available and subject to deliberation by ordinary people.

As more policy decisions take equity into account in concrete ways, and as these decisions are publicly justified, debate over what we mean as a country by equity becomes more refined.

The goal of a society with a shared appreciation of the need for equity and in which equity is a topic of debate among ordinary people may seem ambitious, and indeed, the first few years of constitutional implementation suggest that we are far from where we need to be.

It is for this reason that my organisation, in partnership with a number of other civil society organisations, media personalities and academics helped to organise the first annual Equity Week in Kenya, beginning on September 19. The week features speeches, panels, analysis, pamphlets, poetry, film and community dialogues, and we hope that it will help propel a broader and deeper conversation about the meaning of equity than what we have seen since 2010.

What do we expect to emerge during this week of events? The first hope is that those who participate in Equity Week will bring the equity lens to their assessment of a broad range of public policies in Kenya. If they do, they will surely realise that many of our policies are not as equitable as they should be, even those that explicitly target inequality.

Building on analysis my colleagues and I have conducted in the past, we will show that there is a tendency in Kenya to overemphasise equality and underplay equity.

This overemphasis on equality has of late manifested itself most obviously in an insistence by county assembly members around the country on sharing resources equally among the wards in their counties.

Even in counties with some form of law governing sharing of revenues across wards, the proportion of the relevant revenue formula that is shared equally is almost always 60 per cent or more, and often as high as 85 per cent. This is unconscionable in counties with severe inequalities across their wards. There is nothing more unequal than treating people equally who are unequal.

But the equality bug has not just infected our county legislators. From the national revenue sharing formula to the Constituency Development Fund to the Equalisation Fund, the equal share in the formulas used for sharing is inordinately high. This stands out when Kenya’s approach is compared to that of other countries, such as South Africa or India.

Another observation that Equity Week participants are likely to make is that the culture of public justification is weak, both at national and county level. Where decisions are made about distribution, these are either not justified at all, or are justified in ways that are so general as to be meaningless.

There is little that can be said to be a specific justification for a specific set of choices, where it is possible to connect the principles of fairness to an outcome, and then debate whether it is indeed the most equitable approach.

Of course, in many cases, there is nothing to justify in the first place, as the policies are approved and budgeted for without any public disclosure about distribution at all.

This surely cannot be what the Constitution anticipated in its paeans to transparency, participation and equitable development.

The road to a more equitable society is a long one, but the journey has begun. Equity Week will hopefully take us a few more steps down the path. But the work will continue long after next week.

Jason Lakin is Kenya country director for the International Budget Partnership. E-mail:jason.lakin@gmail.com

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of GEESKA AFRIKA.



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