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By Stephanie Muchai, Country Engagement Developer East Africa, Open Up Contracting Program

‘Transparency and openness of governments helps people to trust that institutions will deliver for them.’ These are the words of the late Bob Collymore when he reflected on the sources of distrust between citizens and their governments in 2017. He went on to say that indeed, majority of the world has lost trust in their institutions, quoting that only 29 per cent of government officials are seen as credible by their citizens. In the global COVID-19 response, this percentage has likely gone down even further in most public institutions.

Kenyan successive governments have unfortunately inherited and exacerbated mistrust with its citizens. This is not unique to any government, but has been the case in the now four regimes that have taken up stewardship of the country in the post-colonial period. The ongoing pandemic management is no exception. Kenya has indeed shown some measure of successful pandemic management, however has done poorly in worthwhile openness in its processes, especially around procurement of medical and other supplies in this period.

Citizen participation in COVID-19 procurement

The delivery of public goods and services process from the citizens’ perspective has been closed, and definitely non-competitive; flouting public finance and procurement principles. Some of the communicated pandemic measures have left many wondering how connected our representatives are to the needs of the Kenyan public; and to what extent a small elite are benefiting at the expense of the mwananchi. Kenyans are also wondering what kind of needs-based engagement is happening at this time, how is the government ensuring that resources are reaching the intended urban and rural based communities, what monitoring is in place to ensure public resources and donations are being used for the intended purposes? And to what extent, are government officials complicit in private interests influencing the decision-making processes.

This mistrust is fueled by the lack of transparency of government. It is easy to opine and say that transparency in decision-making, use of public funds and so on is not a priority in the response stage of the pandemic due to the nature of ‘urgency’ of procurement. That is a dangerous, counterproductive and destructive stance that will only provide more loopholes for corruption. It also assumes that the government can do this on its own. That is clearly not the case. If we don’t trust what is said, and what is done – how will we win this fight?

Without open government practices through all stages of the pandemic we have weakened response, weakened recovery and eventually inadequate reform coming out of the season. If Kenya would take a hold of this key opportunity to build a measure of trust through its pandemic response, we may see a meaningfully ‘different day’ post the pandemic. Kenya must embrace her constitutional, regional and international obligations for open government at this time and work more transparently, planning in a more participatory and inclusive manner.

Kenya’s commitment to ensure transparency

Kenya must ensure unparalleled levels of collaboration between the public, civil society and government agencies to ensure that its pandemic management strategy is following a meaningfully open approach. The country’s key commitments to open government are on the global platform known as the Open Government Partnership which Kenya joined in 2011. On this front, it has steadily been implementing documented open government reforms since 2011 that have seen good gains in opening up both national and county governments.

Since the start of the pandemic, the country has received two key international appointments one at the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee and the other at the United Nations Security Council. Both are active country membership platforms that enable global consensus between countries on issues affecting nations, and provide peer accountability to countries on their commitments towards sustainable development and open government respectively. All these international bodies have in their underlying or express mandate, goals to improve people’s livelihoods, ensure better delivery of public goods and services as well as support a competitive environment for all sorts of businesses.

By virtue of these appointments, government members such as Kenya are expected to be role models for transparency, responsiveness and resiliency in their national operations. All the open government gains by Kenya prior to and since joining the Open Government Partnership must be safeguarded and not compromised by a majorly opaque pandemic response and recovery. Neither should these gains and multi-stakeholder efforts of national government agencies, county governments, business associations and civil society be lost in insubstantial political uncertainties. Open government depends not on short-term realities, but on a country’s long-term mindset and practice of perpetuity and resilience. These means strong institutionalization and great efforts for ensuring openness is literally in the fabric of our society.