Friday, April 07, 2017

What do you want to do with street families?

There are two key questions to consider when attempting to implement a new policy: will it cost money and if so, how much? In Nairobi City County, both the national and county governments are faced with a serious problem: tens of thousands of Kenyans living on the streets. One of the more striking reactions by a popular member of the media industry has been to suggest that street families are a threat to the safety of citizens. Another one by a leading newspaper is that the members of street families must be rounded up, confined to rehabilitation centres and that the rounding up and confinement should be carried out by county askaris instead of their more traditional role, that of energetically chasing hawkers. Neither of them has even attempted to examine the problem from a fiscal perspective: will it cost any money and if so, how much?

Take the media personality's assertion that street families are responsible for the un-safety of citizens. Any reaction must involve measures to neutralise the dangers posed by members of street families. These measures might include the recruitment and training of more askaris and policemen, the deployment of more askaris and policemen in places overrun by street families, the enhanced arrest, prosecution and confinement or incarceration of members of street families in conflict with the law. None of these actions can be accomplished without the expenditure of public funds; Kenya isn't, after all, the United States of America where for-profit private prisons have proliferated in the last decade or so.

Public finance is often a zero-sum game because there is a finite amount of national revenue that can be collected and spent in a fiscal year. Nairobi's fiscal situation is not special; there are multiple priorities and limited public funds to address these priorities. If this media personality is interested in the eradication of street families in order for him to feel safer, is he willing to pay more in taxes and rates if the increased taxes or rates go towards addressing the street families' "menace"?

Take also the newspaper's demand that members of street families must be rounded up and confined to rehabilitation centres, and given access to education "where they can learn some trade that could be income generating for their sustenance". First, these centres must be built and staffed with qualified personnel who have undergone training to care for and educate members of street families. Second, facilities must be provided for the proper training and care of members of street families. Third, unless the newspaper intends for confinement in these centres to be involuntary, incentives must be offered to members of street families to enter and stay at these rehabilitation centres until they are fully trained and capable of generating an income for their sustenance. None of these things comes free: public funds must be appropriated for them. Where will these funds be found? Taxes and rates.

The media personality and his colleague, a business news reporter, had the opportunity to interrogate the seniormost bureaucrat in the county government about his government's plans for street families. Instead what we witnessed is members of the elite engaged in a political dance that failed to even tease out the semblance of a policy from multiple statements on the same. We were inundated by statistics but none of the statistical rhetorical flourishes served to answer the simplest question: how much it would cost to address the plight of street families sustainably, humanely and effectively.

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