Last week I joined colleagues from four Kenyan civil society organisations for a workshop held by Oxfam in Nairobi. We met to discuss how to track progress on a pioneer tax and domestic resource mobilisation project that these partners are carrying out in three counties (Turkana, Wajir and Nairobi) in Kenya.

Strengthening a developing country’s finances by increasing its tax revenues, rather than depending exclusively on aid, is widely seen as the way forward in the development community. Yet, few people actually know first-hand what it takes to generate support for increasing tax revenues in a developing country – particularly at community level.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to discuss this challenge with one of my colleagues at the workshop, Jairus Alinga, who works as Tax Justice Officer for Caritas Lodwar in the North-Western county of Turkana. Below is my interview. A bit long but I hope it will be great food for thought.

Jairus, can you tell me why Caritas is interested in working on tax and domestic resource mobilisation in Kenya?

Caritas is the development arm of the Catholic Church, including the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar in Turkana County. For the last fifty years Caritas has practically acted like the government in the county, initiating and managing the main part of development projects in Turkana. People didn’t even know the government existed until devolution [the national decentralisation process that started in 2013] came. Once the government was devolved, people in Turkana started asking where all the money they were paying in taxes was going. So Caritas got involved, not to compete with the government, but to get people to understand that all the public services they receive are in return for the taxes they pay. We also wanted them to understand that government operates thanks to people’s taxes. We wanted them to understand that it is their duty to hold government to account for the public services provided.  We always try to highlight both sides of the coin, that is why they should pay taxes and why they should demand better services. Our key message is: you cannot demand without contributing. When you contribute, you have the right to make demands and get something in return.

What are the main issues people raise when they discuss taxes and public services in Turkana County?

A prominent question at all meetings is: how do these taxes come back to us? People always focus on return in the form of service delivery. We talk about taxes as their money. The second question is: how can we demand our fair and full share of services from the government? The government says it is their right to demand services back.

People also want to know what benefit they get from the extractive industry. Secondly, what impacts does this industry bring? Community and industry leaders have always told them about the benefits, but what about the consequences? People hear of big hotels and roads being promised to them but they also want to know about the negative impacts, as some of them have started experiencing these consequences. I have attended many community meetings, where people ask me if the church has been bought because it keeps quiet [on the extractives issue]. I reply that the church does not have the evidence to speak up. We prefer to use facts. These are still relatively new issues for us and we are trying to get the accurate information from the government. You need to verify this information first.

Are women part of this conversation? Do they say anything different from the rest of the community?

In our tax project we focus more on women and youth. Women are at the heart of every project. We see women and youth as the majority of the population and the majority of taxpayers. When you focus on men, you will focus on the minority. The second reason we focus on women and youth is that men have participated in every community meeting but we haven’t seen a lot of influence from them.

In our culture, women are not to be heard, they are to be seen. One funny thing is that during meetings women will sit in the back and not say anything, but each man at the meeting will have already discussed the issues with his wife at home, so whatever they say reflects their wives’ views as well. Women are decision-makers at the periphery; men amplify their decisions. In our culture, if women have something to say, they have to tell their husband. The only way they can speak up is through songs. They will compose a song and men will act based on what the song says.

At our meetings women are always given the chance to speak. Our rule is that at least a quarter of participants should be women. Our focus is not only on the number of women attending but on their contribution to the meeting because you can have ninety women attending but then they won’t speak up. At some meetings, for example on water and health, we want the majority of participants to be women because these issues affect them most, as well as children and youth.

Women and youth often mention they are not involved in development plan meetings with the [County government] leadership. I ask if they take any initiative. They respond that even when they speak up, they are always limited in their views. Perhaps only two women and two youths will be allowed to speak. We tell them they need to create their space to talk, and talk facts.

What about youth? Are boys and girls under 25 interested in discussing taxes paid and services received in return, such as healthcare and education?

We have seen youths becoming more interested in tax issues because when we introduced the topic they realised they were getting something in return through the services they receive. Last month we had a Public Participation Forum on the 2017-18 budget proposal where youths specifically asked for an increase in the education fund allocation, which was then granted by the County Finance Committee.

As a result, youths are engaging leaders on social media, Twitter, Whatsapp to hold them accountable for our money, not just their money. This is because leaders always come and say “I have decided” but, really, they are using our money, our taxes given to a politician to develop a project on our behalf. And often a part of that money disappears.

Let’s take a closer look at taxes. Are people willing to talk about taxes with you and others? How do they respond when you ask them to hold their community leaders or local authorities to account for the taxes they have to pay?

Initially, they were not open, but now it’s changed thanks to our meetings. Last February we organised a tax justice roadshow with actors and entertainers to talk to people about why they should pay taxes, why it is a constitutional requirement to pay and demand accountability for it. People started becoming more aware. Also, when you have radio programs [on taxes] people have the courage to ask about their rights.

Initially, people said it was difficult to hold their leaders to account because they were not available. Now people know it’s their right to know if a community project reflects what was decided by the community, instead of by the politician. Our next move is to make sure people attend all development meetings to hear and give their views. Citizens attend meetings with ward administrators [government authorities at sub-county level]. We don’t encourage them to just write; asking in person is better so you can make your case.

Can you share a specific anecdote about citizen participation in these meetings?

The 2015 Turkana County government Public Participation Act allows citizens to participate in budget meetings, but have people actually participated? Mostly they have not, for two reasons. The first one is that at first the government did not give adequate space to citizens. We raised this issue with the county government and since the beginning of 2017 the way public participation has been conducted has been totally different, it’s more inclusive. Meetings last longer, they are not just a quick presentation with no time for debate. The second reason is that people did not see participation as worthwhile. They didn’t think their views would be included in the final [budget] plan. They would say: how can I leave my job to attend the meeting? Will they give me money or food so I won’t go to sleep hungry at night?

Have you noticed any changes in the way the people you have sensitised talk about taxes in their community since you started working with them?

The perception in Turkana is that people are willing to pay taxes but they always ask questions around corruption. They don’t respond with an answer but with a question! They would say: we are tired of paying taxes when people are mismanaging our money. When you hear this, you really see corruption is becoming a disease. The willingness is there but questions linger on how this money is managed. This issue should be addressed.

Also, there is the issue of the wealthy paying less taxes than those at the bottom. We need a clearer picture of the situation. You hear rumors of rich people not paying their water bills so, by extension, you start thinking they may not be paying their taxes also. You start correlating things.

There have been some changes nonetheless. Caritas trained a group of social auditors [community members who are trained to play an oversight role on how the public budget is spent] in Kakuma parish, an area in Western Turkana that includes several sub-counties. Since then, these social auditors have taken the initiative on three issues. First, they have pushed for the completion of unfinished projects, like a health centre. They asked their leaders to finish building the centre as a way to leave a political legacy and attract future votes. This initiative has become a model [for demanding accountability] for other initiatives. Second, social auditors have pressured government contractors who do a poor job to go back and finish what they started. This approach has worked with at least one road constructor. Third, social auditors have convinced a community leader to become a member of the ward development committee as a way to distribute education funds in the community more equally.

What are the priorities for these people, including women and youth, when they talk about public services? What matters to them most?

Top priority in Turkana now is water. Then education and health. These three are still at the top of the list. Once you have water, you can deal with other priorities, like agriculture and health. You can’t deal with the rest without water. Education comes second because, as a result of post-independence, literacy rates are still low in the county.

If you could go back in time, would you change your original approach to tax and domestic resource mobilisation work? If yes, how?

We have been involved with so many partners but for me it is better to concentrate on social auditors. It is better to build the capacity of the community on tax. Other partnerships with the government and revenue authorities are important but the focus should be on community members because they are the ones who pay taxes and don’t have services. Government should appreciate that they keep paying taxes without receiving services. Going back, I would need to concentrate on the auditors. The community should 1) keep paying taxes 2) demand, not just ask, services by taking the initiative to participate in public development planning meetings. These auditors have followed the budget process since its design phase. Unless you push [authorities] and make noise, no-one will care about your school. Government will build your school to silence you, but in the meantime you’ve got your school!

Would you like to add any other comment?

This project has been an eye-opener. Funding for domestic resource mobilisation should continue for five more years. Five more years are enough. They won’t be enough for the community to be fully responsive, but enough to create a culture of community ownership and change perceptions, enough to lead people to ask. If we took people through this for five more years, it would be enough. Giving ourselves a timeframe is important to let people own this process. To me, the most important thing is to initiate something and then hand it over to the community so it becomes their own. Branding this process [as a donor project] is not the way.

Also, could the government organise a budget forum? Could we analyse previous budgets to see the allocations and the activities undertaken, to see if the projects have actually been carried out? Why do we keep spending money on certain activities? Implementation is totally different from budget allocation.

Finally, social accountability is not work, but a way of life. Every individual should feel it is his or her responsibility to inquire about the taxes paid. That’s my personal belief. We won’t have solved all the problems but we will have created a culture of personal responsibility, a culture of wanting to pay taxes and demanding services of the government.

10 May 2017

Photo credit: Tyson Majani