Finally, some sanity! It came as music to my ears to hear recently that MPs are likely to face a pay cut following the next election. MPs salaries have long been a favourite topic of debate, in the national media and by wananchi across the country. While few would contest the fact that salaries and allowances for Kenyan legislators are grossly excessive, the more pertinent issue revolves around the salaries of public servants at large, particularly those at senior levels.
Firstly, let’s consider some facts: as of 2010, Kenyan MPs earned a monthly base salary of roughly Kshs. 851,000 ($126,000) making them among the highest paid MPs in the world! Secondly, if the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill 2011 is passed as is, it will not be possible to know the exact number of MPs following an election due to the one-third rule on gender representation. Coupled with the fact that the size of Parliament is increasing significantly anyway, the burden of salaries & emoluments for an unknown number of legislators at the current level would be an unacceptable burden on the taxpayer.
Turning to the public service, the average annual pay in 2010 was Kshs. 394,131 compared to private sector employees at Kshs. 393,760 (Economic Survey 2011). The public sector wage bill has increased at an annual average of 36% over the last 5 years. The bulk of this “growth” is attributed to the hefty salaries of senior public servants which have risen disproportionately in comparison to those in the lower and middle echelons of the service. As a result, Kenya now has the dubious distinction of being one of the few countries in the world where senior civil servants earn more than their private sector counterparts! I, for one, have never come across any economic or management paradigms that justify these kinds of disparities.
Let’s look at it another way: according to the IMF, the top to minimum ratio in Kenya is 118:1. This means that top officials earn an incredible 118 times more than the lowest earners! The disparity is further highlighted by a regional comparison, which reveals the top to minimum ratio in Uganda as 25:1; Tanzania as 20:1; and Botswana as 30:1.
Sadly, we have created a situation that is simply not sustainable and encourages the pursuit of public office for purely financial and selfish gain. Why reward the self-seeking and avaricious gravitation towards public office? The very notion of ‘public service’ is rendered superfluous as professionals and the politically connected jostle for what are in many cases, the most lucrative jobs in the Kenyan market. This raises some questions: Is the Treasury capable of sustaining these levels of salaries for senior public servants? Or more existentially, should public office be the place to amass unimaginable wealth? This, in an environment where a vast majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, and our economy is suffering possibly the worst slump in its history!
We need to ask ourselves whether as a country we can sustain this kind of legalized looting of public coffers. This wanton abuse of public trust when bestowed with the privilege of serving in public office is symptomatic of a much greater problem. While it is encouraging that the public sector is growing, if that “growth” is predominantly and disproportionately manifested in the highest ranks, it is in fact false growth and counter-productive to development. It serves no useful purpose other than to further entrench the very corruption that we claim to be trying to address.
The time has come to reinject the notion of service in public service: service to the people and Republic of Kenya. There is a need to rationalize the salaries of upper and lower cadres of public servants. The eagerly awaited Salaries and Remuneration Commission may be well advised to embark upon this process expeditiously, not only so as to save taxpayers their hard earned money, but also so as to preserve a sense of integrity in public service. There may even be an argument for tying the wages of the lowest paid civil servants to the highest paid civil servants, such that any increase at the higher levels in the service would necessarily require a corresponding increase at the lower level.
While the new constitutional dispensation ushers in tremendous promise, it also brings with it a hefty burden in the form of salaries for new public officers. To continue on the current trajectory, given the prevailing economic situation would be sheer lunacy. One can only hope that the Salaries and Remuneration Commission will be able to restore sanity to the salaries of public servants.
(Also appeared in Nation newspaper: http://www.nation.co.ke/oped/Opinion/-/440808/1281562/-/item/0/-/knq50m/-/index.html)