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HomeFood Law and PoliticsWhy the public must participate in local development

Why the public must participate in local development

Public participation is defined as “citizens positively taking action to be involved in the affairs of their own government or community”. It is a hallmark of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, which envisions that active public participation would lead Kenyans to achieve their aspiration of a government based on values of human rights, equality, freedom, democracy, social justice and the rule of law. Public participation is a national principle. The constitution instructs public servants to include citizens in the process of policymaking. It provides citizens with the right to participate in the decision-making process and other functions of national and county legislative bodies. Specifically, Articles 118 (1) (b) and 196 (1) (b) direct the national and county legislatures, respectively, “to facilitate public participation” in its work. Article 119 (1) states that citizens have the “right to petition Parliament to consider any matter within its authority”. Kenya has not performed well in this constitutional requirement as many policy dialogues and processes happen without citizen participation. The agricultural sector – that lies at the heart of Kenya’s socio-economic development and food security – is no exception to this trend.

Lack of proper and well informed public participation in county budgeting procedures are partly to blame for food insecurities bedevilling counties and the country at large. Firstly, members of the public are ill-informed about the subjects to be discussed in forums. In as much as forums seek varying public opinions, knowledge about the subject matter facilitates better engagement. Secondly, the public is not adequately informed of upcoming participation forums. In the context of agriculture, vibrant discussions and opportunities for policy debate between government and citizens would be useful for determining and prioritising subsectors where the budget is allocated.

For example, provision of fertilisers by counties is a well-intended initiative for enhancing food production, but it’s likely you’d find small-holder farmers prioritising soil sampling analysis to determine soil deficiencies, over a fertiliser subsidy programme. Alternatively, in some counties, citizens might prioritise investment in irrigation infrastructure instead of soil analysis or fertiliser subsidies. Climate change has made it hard to rely on rain-fed agriculture to produce food. Farmers are innovative in reviving soil nutrients, by balancing crop rotation with intercropping and using farm-yard compost. However, the provision of constant moisture is a significant challenge.

The first stage of the county budgeting process in which the public is able to participate is in developing County Integrated Development Plans (CIDPs). New administrations are required by law to develop five-year CIDPs. This is an opportunity for the public to advocate strong positions on food security because financial commitments to agriculture and livestock sectors are discussed and planned for. Moreover, CIDPs identify key stakeholders in each subsector and outline their roles and responsibilities for contributing to the social, political and economic development of the county. During the CIDP process, actors within the agricultural value chain are identified and their inputs are sought for in county development agendas including but not limited to agricultural budget allocation and implementation. After identifying areas for development, CIDPs articulate suitable projects and source of funds as well as implementing agencies. Even though citizen participation is mandatory, county administrations have not been able to chart the best ways of attracting communities to attend and participate. County Governments Act 2012 – CGA, 106 (4) states “county planning shall provide for citizen participation” and shall be done in a process that “involves meaningful engagement of citizens”.

Below are some of the factors contributing to low public participation:

A barrier to meaningful engagement: The language used in the documents to be discussed and the manner of discussion is often too technical for the general public. A crucial point is that being informed — even being asked what you think — is not participation. What matters is the genuine possibility of influencing the outcome of a decision-making process based on comprehension, knowledge and interactive consultation.

Inadequate resources: County governments are not well funded to implement public forums. As a result, advertising and distributing information to the public is neither timely nor commensurate with the importance of citizen participation as a democratic principle.

Problematic perceptions: A significant portion of Kenya’s rural population does not appreciate the importance and potential impact of engaging in forums. Perhaps this is because local government offices have failed to deliver on policy promises in the past. Additionally, the culture of receiving money in exchange for attendance undermines the purpose and principle of participation, as well as influencing attendance.

To enhance and inculcate public participation in county programmes different stakeholders including central and county governments, independent but relevant commissions, civil society, faith-based organisations and grassroots communities need to work together to achieve the following:

Information dissemination: An informed person makes a better contribution than one with less or no prior information. Governments should upscale access to information that is transparent and packaged in a user-friendly way. Simple English, Kiswahili and local dialects should be used and distributed on various platforms including community radios, public notice boards, social media and websites and through public chiefs and sub-chiefs barazas (meetings).

A mutually beneficial understanding: Both parties (government and citizens) need to understand the importance of participation. Kenyans would be impressed if their inputs were used in project implementation. The government would be regarded as responsive in listening and implementing projects with ideas and opinions from local communities.

Accountability: Article 35 of the Kenyan Constitution safeguards public access to information and provides a legal framework for the dynamic provision of information to the public. Without proper access to information, the public cannot hold leaders accountable in a democratic spirit. County governments should ensure that they establish, protect and implement this law. Conversely, citizens should participate in forums so that they can be in a better position of holding their leaders to account for the projects and processes implemented.

The Constitution gives us an opportunity to engage with policy challenges that hinder realising the Right to Food in the country. Kenyans – specifically many small-holder farmers – have the chance to participate in county agricultural forums to ensure support for farmers is commensurate with their role as producers and providers of food. It is high time we place greater emphasis on public participation because it is integral for socio-economic and political development and directly links policy processes to the needs of Kenyans.

By Booker Owuor. Booker supports the Route to Food initiative.

Photograph by Armstrong Too.

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