East Africa Strikes Out: A Public Sector Under Siege

By Ahmed Salim

2012 was a tumultuous year with numerous standoffs between public sector employees and the governments of many East African countries. The tensions between the public sector and government authorities were on full display with chronic strikes in Kenya and Tanzania’s health and education sectors. The governments argued that they simply could not afford the demands of higher pay and remunerations.

For many East Africans, it was hard to understand the rationale of inadequate funds to invest in healthcare when all they see and hear is an endless stream of praise about the East African economies growing at an unprecedented rate by regional and international media outlets and foreign investors. To cap off a tumultous 2012, President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya signed his own retirement package into law, a $200,000 bonus. Ironically, Mr. Kibaki refused to reciprocate this bonus for Members of Parliament (MPs). 

You juxtapose this with the recent nurses' strike in Kenya and you get the picture. There is a severe disconnect between what governments are saying and what people are seeing. Usually in these standoffs, neither side (government or unions) backs down in a timely manner, and as a result the poor and vulnerable segments of the population bear the brunt of the consequences from these industrial actions. 

It is clear that the public sector is under siege as a result of a continental change in the prioritization from soft issues revolving around human development such as education, health and social welfare to hard issues like infrastructure, construction and energy. One of the reasons is that investing in hard issues can garner quick wins for those that invest. It is easy to point to buildings, roads and new airports than it is to point to slow successes such as eradicating malaria or investing in community health workers.

All of this was inevitable, but it is an approach that relies heavily on trickle down economics. The assumption is that having highways and good infrastructure will eventually help and support the people in need the most, traders and farmers. The trouble is when this shift along the continuum occurs at the expense of soft issues. The public sector goes under a state of duress because governments have to invest their hard earned revenues and donor funding on projects that demonstrate development, even in the abstract. As a result, you have a doctors' strike that gripped Tanzania for months and Kenyan doctors going on Twitter to express their frustrations


An interesting component to the striking doctors in both Tanzania and Kenya is questioning whether the strikes were a healthcare or a labour union issue. Were the grievances really about benefiting the public or was it just a matter of self-interest? In Tanzania, one could make an argument that it was purely a union issue due to the demands made by the doctors. As soon as the doctors gave an ultimatum that the Minister of Health and other senior officials be sacked, the rationale for collective action morphed from concerns about healthcare issues to labour union grievances. Public support was lukewarm as Tanzania's doctors never highlighted the healthcare deficits in the same way that Kenya's #peremendemovement did.  


"Today it's the doctors, tomorrow it's the teachers then the garbage collectors then the police!" claimed a former Tanzanian Member of Parliament. During the standoff between the doctors and Tanzanian government, a sense of resistance against the risk of succumbing to the endless demands by public sector workers began to emerge. Such sentiments revealed the fear of governments being held hostage by public sector workers. It was not an unjustified fear. 

Soon after the industrial actions by the teachers and doctors concluded, Kenya's nurses downed their tools. There were also reports of nurses in Burundi going on strike in early December 2012. Burundi's Public Service Minister indicated that the government needed $250 million to harmonize civil servants' salaries. The most affected would be teachers since they represent a third of the public service workforce. Expect teachers in Burundi to go on strike in 2013. This public sector squeeze is a trend we will be seeing in the next couple of years, especially if the main lesson that governments like the United States and donor partners are seeing is trade over aid, and roads over bed nets. 


There should be real concern in the types of lessons that most donor partners and governments are heeding from the shift of focus on soft issues towards hard issues. The trouble with this trend is the perceived certainty that a focus on infrastructure, roads, buildings etc. has a more direct and positive impact on the poor and vulnerable. Can we be so sure? At what cost? From the outset it looks like many governments are getting too bogged down in trickle-down economics at the expense of the public sector. Is this risky? 

Hadeel Ibrahim, Director of Strategy and External Relations of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, an organization that deals with promoting good governance and leadership in Africa, spoke to this with SID (See African Strategies for Transformation). She indicated that "maybe there has been too much faith placed in trickle-down economics but I would also question whether we have had enough investment in infrastructure." However, she spoke to this issue of trickle down and how an unregulated private sector is not the only solution, "we have to be very clear about what markets can deliver and what governments need to deliver and the relationship between the two."

Download SID Trend Monitoring Report Public Sector Under Siege?

Photo: Amos KimKim