As rescue efforts following the Turkey-Syria earthquake were thought of as coming to an end, the death toll had reached 44,000 people and 46,000 by other totals. That’s more than a tenth of the total death count in Turkey in recent years, going by that country’s official statistics (whose independence has been questioned) and from a single-day event.
Mixed in with the grief and occasional relief from miraculous rescues has been rising public anger at the government about the sheer number of buildings that collapsed, particularly new ones. In Turkey, people have observed that some buildings stayed upright while others next to them collapsed in a heap (it is worth noting that experts say the presence of two earthquakes in quick succession, instead of just one, contributed significantly to the massive destruction. As we write this Turkey experienced yet another earthquake).
An important fact that should have had the Turkish government in a somewhat preemptive, eternal-vigilance-mode is that Turkey is located in one of the most earthquake-prone parts of the world. The February 2023 earthquake is the tenth that the country has suffered since 1930 according to the Middle East Eye, a London-based news organisation that covers the region. An investigation by BBC Reality Check found that even buildings constructed after new regulations were enacted in 1918 did not comply with them.
So the Turkish government’s move to arrest contractors now, while obviously necessary, is horrendously time-barred. The Turkish state could have saved thousands of lives by arresting the very same culprits pre-earthquake (because if they are guilty now – for negligence and such – they were guilty pre-earthquake) so that any real opportunity to show the government was genuinely concerned about unscrupulous builders is gone.
Thus a country such as Kenya, which is no better than Turkey when it comes to enforcing building regulations, should take this as a teachable moment, and an exhortation to govern on the front foot. Action taken earlier saves time, money and lives. Unfortunately, like in Turkey’s case, we only ever act when losses and harms are public, painful and permanent, and only after harrowing headlines have run on newspapers and airwaves.
The lesson from buildings applies to public finances as well. Just because international institutions say you can take on more debt does not mean you borrow right up to the limit. Arguing that debt-carrying capacity remains strong as you load even more debt is dangerous, because that can clearly change.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020, Kenya was already in a tenuous place fiscally because of its debt burden. The government had insisted it was in a strong position to pay its debts, only for the economy to practically crash a few months later as people went into lockdown and masked up to save their lives. We waited for a vaccine, but we were not the ones producing it.
Now, the failure of consecutive rainy seasons has sent food prices soaring and exacerbated water scarcity in parts of Kenya where water is a problem at the best of times. A more parched country brought starvation to Kenyans and haunting images of dead livestock and wildlife. A breakdown in sanitation brought on a surge in cholera and our emptying dams means electricity will soon cost more.
Then, when we really could not take any more, the war in Ukraine broke out, raising prices for crude oil, fertiliser and wheat in Kenya. All these problems mean that Kenya, up to its eyeballs in debt, needs more money, quickly.
We know governments go on spending binges to show the results they need in time for their re-election campaigns. The Uhuru Kenyatta administration unveiled the Standard Gauge railway at the end of May 2017, just in time for the general election that year. Fiscal sustainability may be relegated to a “regulatory hurdle” whose avoidance can be justified by winning elections, but the reckoning is never far away. Debts come due. The earthquakes scientists predict eventually happen and sometimes, things we never predicted come to pass.
Clearly, some caution needs to be baked into the government. The contingencies fund, which is now at KSh 4 billion should be maintained at its KSh10 billion legal limit. In a July 2021 report, the International Budget Partnership noted that allocations had not been made to the Fund for a number of years.
Breaching our country’s debt guidelines should trigger a vote of confidence in Parliament, and one supplementary budget each year is all we should ever allow.
In our water-stressed, financially-stretched post-Covid Kenya, the government should operate on the front foot, I repeat. Don’t wait for a disease outbreak to bluntly enforce health regulations. Better reduce the chances of an outbreak by proactive, frequent health inspections. Don’t hit the debt ceiling and extend it, before the IMF imposes tough conditions and forces you to pause the projects there wasn’t ever money for. Don’t wait until ambulances are stuck for hours and patients die in traffic before we decide that mass public transport with large, efficient buses is a good idea (I don’t know if this has happened, but that’s the point). Don’t wait until people drown in Watamu to implement regulations around seaworthiness and lifeguarding on our beaches. Don’t wait for the worst to happen before doing what you should have done, and will have to do anyway.