The new Kenyan constitution introduced in 2010 required the 47 newly created county governments – each with its own directly elected governors, senators, and members of the county assembly – to practice participatory budgeting. This was intended to strengthen the voice of citizens, especially those historically marginalised, in the policy process. In this piece, Kibui Edwin Rwigi asks whether this new constitutional stipulation is working as intended.
The government of Makueni County formally initiated a participatory budgeting (PB) initiative in 2015, two years after taking office. PB is a process of citizen involvement in the formulation and implementation of public budgets through a deliberative exercise of decision-making. With the mantra ‘O kila nyumba kalila’, which loosely means equity and fair distribution of resources to all citizens, the County Government has been engaging up to 350,000 citizens in the prioritisation, design, implementation and monitoring of development projects through PB. However, an examination of Makueni’s PB as part of a research study that resulted in a journal article – New wine in an old wineskin? Socio-political context and participatory budgeting in Kenya – reveals that pre-existing political culture influences how citizens are excluded or included and participate in PB engagements. It found that the format of PB led to underrepresentation of young people and men. Additionally, certain individuals were deemed more competent and thus more likely to be nominated to represent their community in PB forums. As a result, participants are drawn from very specific social networks, which also particularly excludes youth.
PB is often seen as a panacea for development management, and as an approach promoting popular democracy and good governance. Therefore, it is important to re-centre the often-ignored socio-political and cultural considerations in PB experiments in Kenya’s devolved governance structures and beyond.
‘Chama-like’ and ‘Baraza-like’ public forums
My research findings suggest that Makueni’s PB has adopted the pre-devolution social infrastructure of community assemblies in the County. It has taken the basic style of community barazas and women chamas. Barazas are community forums often associated with the council of village elders. Such forums deliberate and make decisions on matters affecting the community. Chamas, on the other hand are often associated with women’s community ‘table-banking’ or ‘self-help’ groups. Members of a chama tend to meet regularly where they contribute into a group kitty, which provides credit facilities to the members. As such, Makueni’s PB has certainly also appropriated the assumptions of barazas and chamas on who should participate and how they should do so. Consequently, curious cases of ‘participation gaps’ or underrepresentation of youths and men in the community have emerged. During fieldwork it was reported that youths and men do not feel particularly accommodated in PB forums. One respondent in particular went on record as saying that, “Most of the (PB) meetings are announced and mobilised as barazas. The perception out there is that these are for older people.” Another added that, “Some men think that public participation is about the ‘women agenda’ and are thereby not too eager to participate.” Consequently, PB forums tend to inadvertently attract the participation of women and senior men in the community.
The “youth challenge”, as a respondent referred to youth participation gaps, and underrepresentation of men could further be attributed to assumptions about the economic behaviour of target participants. Youths of Makueni for example tend to pursue economic opportunities and livelihoods in town centres or even away from Makueni, whilst PB public forums are held in their rural neighbourhoods. Conducting participatory engagements during ‘working hours’ is effectively locking out youths as well as the voices of the many citizens who are in formal employment.
‘The right kind of people’ please!
At another level, my findings suggest that PB participants in Makueni tend to fit a certain kind of profile. Ideal participants were described as exhibiting the following qualities: honourability and maturity; public respectability (this could also include one’s perceived religiosity); and, having a track record in community service. PB participants are often individuals that play visible roles in the community, such as a community veterinary doctor, a retired teacher, a community paralegal, women’s table-banking group secretary, community health worker, member of the council of village elders, local school board member, church elder, and so on.
Citizen competence in any participatory engagement is socially constructed to determine which criteria qualify citizens for participation. All the qualities described above are, intentionally or unintentionally, understood to be markers of competence and hence grant their possessors a ‘participation privilege’. Individuals deemed competent stand better chances of getting nominated to represent their communities in various PB forums. A key informant reported that these kinds of people get “involved in PB over and over again [and are] active in all community processes.” It is in this sense that one understands how perceived ‘incompetence’ has especially discouraged the participation of youths in PB. Notions such as respectability, maturity, and honour, which qualify some citizens for participation, are seen to also disqualify youths from the same process. For example, a youth reported that PB forums were hostile, drawing on his own experience:
I once attended a budget forum. The budget estimates were distributed to participants. I then arose with an objection. I suggested that they (government officials) leave us with those documents to give us room for critical review, and to reconvene the forum at a later date. Surprisingly, the common folks participating in the forum physically attacked me. My contribution offended them. They thought my opinions were disrespectful and out of order, a deviation from ‘normal practice’. This idea of ‘normal practice’ makes youths believe that participatory forums are not for them.
Citizen mobilisation and social networks
My study also found that Makueni’s PB heavily mobilises from the social circles of citizens with the aforementioned participatory competence and privilege. This suggests that target participants tend to be drawn from very specific social networks. Studies (see here and here) show that social ties and networks are important in mobilising for processes such as PB. These networks tend to be organised around similarities of their members. This has many implications such as what information people receive, the attitudes and worldviews they adopt, and their social exchanges. Mobilising within strong social networks tends to bring like-minded people together for PB. It can, therefore, be argued that mobilising within Makueni’s social networks effectively excludes both individuals and ideas existing outside of these networks. It is at this level that Makueni’s mobilisation practices can also be linked to ‘participation gaps’ in PB.
Kibui Edwin Rwigi is a programme officer at PASGR, a Nairobi-based not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to advance research excellence in governance and public policy in Africa. Rwigi has research interests in participatory democracy, higher education, urban marginality, police reforms and policy processes.