July 11, 2014

From a Central to Devolved Governing System in Kenya: Which Way for Natural Resources?

David Kuria, KENVO

When Kenya enacted a new constitution in August 2010, the country ushered in a new and progressive order aimed at expressing the commitment of the Kenyan people to nurture and protect the well-being of all and recognizing the aspirations of better governance through enhanced equality, social justice, democracy, good governance and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. This new order is the hallmark of the transition from a centralized political system—which was largely blamed for marginalization, vast inequalities, mismanagement of natural resources and exclusion from the development process—to a devolved system of governance. The Constitution, which obliges the state to ensure a clean and healthy environment that benefits both current and future generations, provides a positive path forward on natural resources and is touted as one of the most environmentally friendly legal documents in Kenya.

However, there are signs that the path towards full realization of the Constitution’s aspirations will be rocky, unless the process becomes more inclusive and participatory. KENVO’s involvement in the Landscapes for People, Food and Initiative has given us insights into potential hurdles to achieving landscape-scale objectives, particularly those relating to participation in managing natural resources and agricultural production.

As a country, Kenya has no experience operating county-level governments, and at the local level, engagement of communities (farmers, field practitioners, etc.) remains unmet. A majority of Kenyans do not understand the devolution process in general—particularly which sectors have been devolved. The failure of county governments to embrace public participation in planning processes and policy formulation has led to poor development, even in areas where natural resources clearly contribute to the well-being of the community. Furthermore, due to a lack of civic education to help stakeholders understand devolved functions at this level, there is a great deal of confusion regarding roles and responsibilities.

This lack of information and experience, combined with public apathy towards environmental and natural resource matters, is a major concern. Without effective environmental regulation of public and private developments at both the landscape and local levels, many natural ecosystem services—such as fresh water, clean air and food production—become degraded. The institutional capacity of most county departments is still weak, and they are unable to extend their presence and authority into rural areas to enforce laws and resolve disputes, which is often a key cause of poor governance of natural resources. Most nascent county governments are still struggling to find qualified professionals. Unfortunately some of the professionals from the national government that have been transferred to the counties are still in their ‘comfort zones’ and promote business as usual. Hence, there is a low commitment to the proper implementation and enforcement of the law.

Despite their unquestionable contribution to Kenya’s economy, there is a lack of clear and quantifiable information on natural resources at the county level and a lack of awareness and understanding of their link to the country’s development objectives. However, this devolution of government has the potential to better meet the needs of individual landscapes and their communities than the past centralized system. A clear economic assessment and demonstration of these contributions to the total value of goods and services and Kenya’s overall economy would provide a convincing reason for the sector to gain the much needed attention of political leaders, decision makers, planners and other important policy makers. Unfortunately, this has yet to happen in most aspects of the devolved governance system.

Photo: Krista Heiner, EcoAgriculture Partners 
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1 Comment

  • Melvin M. Preston
    July 30, 2014 at 11:26pm

    Kenya is great in natural resources, but still country is underdeveloped. Their Economy mainly focuses on these natural resources to support the national income. Right now, as you said they are facing a big trouble in their economic growth and the foremost reason is environmental degradation. Their natural resources such as forest, wetlands, marine its now under stress. Natural resource management trying their best to save this country from this natural depletion. We hope the government of Kenya can do their best to make a change to their country.