A few years ago some scientists decided to do an experiment. Inside a cage, they hung a banana on a string, placed a set of stairs under it and placed five monkeys inside. One of the monkeys started to climb the stairs toward the banana. As soon as it touched the stairs the experimenters sprayed all the other monkeys with cold water. When another monkey made an attempt to get the banana they again sprayed the other monkeys with cold water. Consequently, the monkeys prevented any of their group from going after the banana.
The scientists took one of the original monkeys out of the cage and introduced a new one who, upon spotting the banana, went after it. To its surprise all of the other monkeys attacked it. After another attempt and attack the new monkey learned that if it tried to climb the stairs and get the banana it would be assaulted and so it stopped going after the banana. Next the experimenters removed another of the original five monkeys and replaced it with another new one. The second new monkey went to the stairs and predictably it was attacked. The first new monkey took part in this punishment with enthusiasm! Every time the newest monkey took to the stairs it was attacked by the other monkeys. Most of the monkeys that were beating it had no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they were participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After all the original monkeys were replaced none of the remaining monkeys had ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever approached the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they knew: “That’s the way it’s always been done around here.”
Some might remember the slew of ridiculous, sycophantic advertisements that were placed by state corporations and agencies in April and May this year congratulating the newly elected president and deputy president of the Republic of Kenya. Quite frankly speaking, I highly doubt that the targets of those pledges of loyalty cut out the adverts and filed them for posterity in a blue folder next to their bedside lamp. The prime beneficiary of those pathetic attempts at maintaining relevance in a changing administration were the newspaper advertising departments that quite likely surpassed their budgets for those two months. Enough said. I thought that we would not likely see misuse of funds for relevance advertising until the next general elections. I was wrong. On Wednesday, October 16, 2013 the Kenya Industrial Estates Ltd (KIE) placed a full-page advertisement in the Daily Nation that left more questions than answers as to what message was being communicated. First off, let’s take a roll call. How many under the age of 40 have ever heard of KIE? That’s right, I didn’t think it would be more than twenty of you. But our extremely hardworking Parliamentary Investment Committee, who require a packed agenda in order to maintain a busy calendar (and not to collect sitting allowances) trawled through the government parastatal roster and dug KIE out of a fox hole in order to question management’s performance.
Whatever the PIC’s findings were, it warranted a full-page advertisement of a response to what the media published about said findings. Chinua Achebe, in his epic chronicle Things Fall Apart quoted an Ibo proverb: “A toad does not jump in the daylight for nothing.” Shortly before this advertisement was placed, the media had reported widely about the recommendations of the Task Force on Parastatal Reform that was appointed by the President in August 2013 with a six week mandate to, amongst other terms of reference, review the draft policy on state and county corporations, review the inventory of state corporations and classify them by function and scope of operation in terms of regional coverage as well as consider and recommend general institutional arrangement for all state corporations.
The terms of reference in their entirety must have sent a shiver down the spine of most parastatals, especially those that have operated below the radar for the last 20 years and have typically been used to reward cronyism, exert ministerial fiefdoms and perpetuate parochial tribal and political interests. Suddenly the parastatal reform process would shed light on the existential rationale of moribund, money guzzling, non-revenue generating institutions. The gravy train runs the danger of shuddering to an unimaginable halt. Which is why, perhaps, the role of the PIC becomes quite critical at unearthing the hidden items in the fox holes every now and then, and shaking off years of dust and grime to determine what’s hiding under there.
The opening story in this column is actually called “monkey see, monkey do.” The congratulatory messages sent to the President and Deputy President earlier this year were a classic example of the way things are done around here. Access to State House is deemed- quite bizarrely- to be via print media. What the KIE advert has done is to likely begin a trend of existential rationale amongst parastatals fearing “annihilation” if the recommendations of the task force are implemented. The role of KIE is to finance micro, small and medium enterprises in Kenya, a very noble role which is also replicated by the Women’s Fund, Youth Fund, Uwezo Fund. To its credit though, the KIE does differentiate itself in that it provides serviced workspaces through construction of industrial estates in fast growing business centres. Perhaps I am not in the target market of this veritable institution and I therefore have limited access to its sphere of influence. I would however recommend to all such parastatals to spend their advertising revenue on letting Kenyans know how and where to access their services rather than spending money on messages that are aimed at being plastered as wallpaper on the offices of the powers-that-be. We all recognize that once that report is presented to the President it will become survival of the fittest. Good luck to all of you!