Devolution, Life Sciences and Mobile Apps: Shifting Sands or Quick Sand?
In the latest Greater Horn of East Africa (GHEA) Outlook we examine three trends that will shape the future of the region. The first is the push to devolve government throughout the GHEA, with a specific look at Tanzania, Kenya and South Sudan. Each of these countries have chosen to devolve and decentralize for different reasons but all with the same hope of improving the livelihoods of the people and delivering services to them. The second trend is the emphasis on local partnerships in science and technology to improve healthcare in places like Tanzania. The final trend and analysis this Outlook explores is that of mobile technology and the exponential growth of applications that support health and education service delivery.
If the 'Africa Rising' narrative sometimes overshadows the real challenges facing the continent, it also conceals some positive stories that need to be highlighted especially in the arena of global scientific research. Africans have been leaving their mark in this field, though under the public radar, but making some noise in scientific circles. By cultivating and pushing for collaboration and shared knowledge in trying to eradicate some of the most fatal diseases in Africa, Centers of Excellence are being promoted in Tanzania.
Despite these positive trends, it should be noted that devolution is perhaps an easy exit to what are complex governance challenges of the region. There needs to be a loosening up of the center, but this needs to be accompanied by a more thorough reflection on how to address these problems rather than knee-jerk 'lets devolve.' To assume that devolution and the process it entails will solve historical grievances in Kenya and between Tanganyika and Zanzibar is to have unhinged expectations that need to be calibrated. In fact, devolution might work only by accident or if certain things align themselves, a sort of comedy of errors. The absence of honest intellectuals in helping to shape and lead the debate, inform the public and political class is indicative-contrast this with the Tanzania Genome Project discussed in the Outlook-it is perhaps a challenge to the social scientists to take a more proactive role in shaping systems and structures to lead our countries in the future.
Finally, and not necessarily delinked, is the question of revenue. It is increasingly evident from the gyrations of government to squeeze ever more money out of taxpayers and consumers that the end of the revenue tether is in sight. The sim card tax that was proposed in Tanzania by the government is perhaps an indication of this. As a result, the GHEA needs to rethink and overhaul the entire revenue/expenditure models. Clearly, the costs of keeping everything together are beginning to exceed potential and plausible revenue sources considering where the bulk of tax revenue go (recurrent expenditure, notably wage bills). To what extent does this undermine our grandiose plans and ideas about the future? The overarching question is not whether the region can generate visions for the future, but how it can be sustained over the long haul without being dependent on donor incomes. This is where the entire model begins to look rather precarious: devolved governments, hi-tech visions, massive investments in services and never-ending wage bill demands. East Africa's leaders are caught between a rock and a very hard place.
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