Money doesn’t grow on trees? Someone tell govt

At the end of June, the small proportion of Kenyans employed in the formal sector were all frantically scrambling to file their returns with the Kenya Revenue Authority.

This scramble was hardly a national crisis given that, according to this year’s Economic Survey, only 17.3 per cent of employed Kenyans are in the formal sector. The KRA gouges what it can from the 82.7 per cent of Kenyans in the informal sector through VAT.

But the frantic scramble felt like a national crisis, with everybody trying to navigate the KRA’s much-vaunted e-Tax system. Naturally, everybody had waited until the very last minute. Meaning the system was overloaded and slow.

Complaining about the process to media editors, I heard the unconfirmed story that the company which installed the system had been shortchanged — and thus hadn’t handed over all its coding, adding to its clumsiness.

But that would be uncharacteristic of the KRA. Which is, to our mingled admiration and hatred, one of the few public institutions that works. Admiration because it takes its job of squeezing blood from stone seriously.

Hatred because it is our blood, from our stones — that then goes on to be squandered by the government with reckless abandon.

Consider the most recent Auditor-General’s report, for the 2013-4 financial year. The Auditor-General is another public institution that works — albeit with a time lag that makes his always shocking revelations come way too post-facto to be of any value.

This time round, he questioned unsupported spending by the government to the tune of a staggering Ksh450 billion ($4.5 billion).

The mind boggles. That is our money. Gone. Spent without a justifiable paper trail. Our parents’ frequent refrain was that money doesn’t grow on trees.

This government apparently thinks it does. That amount is nearly a quarter of this year’s astronomical projected expenditure of Ksh 2,001 billion. It is just under what this government is going to have to borrow to finance that projected expenditure — Ksh 570.2 billion, with the lion’s share from external borrowing at Ksh 340.5 billion.

The point being that if this government didn’t act as though money grows on trees, maybe our debt burden could contract back to more sustainable levels. Parliament has bought wholesale into the notion that big spending on infrastructure will catapult us into the current millennium.

It helps that big spending on infrastructure means equally big commissions and kickbacks.

But external credit ratings companies have taken those edicts seriously. Fitch’s recent credit rating report on Kenya downgraded us as a reliable borrower—from B+ to B-. Why? According to Fitch’s analysts, our current expenditure is too high when revenues are declining.

Should we care what Fitch says? Yes, because credit ratings send the signals to markets from which we want to borrow. Again, this year’s budget anticipates no less than Ks40.5 billion will need to be borrowed from external markets.

The shilling’s sudden and alarming slide against the dollar means that we’ll no doubt see an infusion of money from those with dollars who can wait out the tide. Speculative forex dealing. Currency traders will laugh all the way to the bank, literally. But that won’t change the bottom line for us as a whole.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lake