Why Devolution Must Work for Children, Youth, Women and Marginalized Groups in Kenya

By UNICEF Representative Shaheen Nilofer, UNDP Resident Representative Anthony Ngororano and UN Women Country Director Anna Mutavati

21 August 2023

This Op-ed was first published in the Nation Newspaper.

Ten years ago, Kenya embarked on a transformative process by adopting devolution. This reform brought governance closer to the people and enhanced their access to essential services at the local level.  Together with efforts by the national Government, devolution has led to significant improvements in the quality of life for Kenyans. Yet its true impact can be measured by its ability to uplift the most vulnerable segments of society – the poor, children, youth, women, and people with disabilities.

The 2022 Kenya Demographic Health Survey suggests the positive changes brought about by devolution. Over the span of a decade, immunization coverage rose from 77 to 80 percent, indicating improved healthcare access. The increase in skilled birth attendance, from 48 to 89 percent, reflects enhanced maternal care services. Notably, the decline in stunting, from 35 to 18 percent, underscores stride in nutrition and child development.

For Kenya's vulnerable groups, with children accounting for 46 percent and women and girls constituting 50 percent of the population, investing in their well-being yields dividends for society's future. The longer a girl stays in school and the less gender-based violence she experiences, unlocks her potential as a future contributor to the economy.

Devolution has, as per the Constitution, mandated county governments to address key drivers of poverty, such as inadequate housing, nutrition, protection, water, sanitation and economic empowerment, which disproportionately affect these groups. County governments hold the key to effective service delivery, making it imperative for policies, budgets, and plans to be tailored to the needs of vulnerable populations.

Transparent governance processes enable citizens to participate in decisions that shape their lives, enhancing accountability and citizen engagement.  The shift towards inclusive planning has led to increased funds allocated to crucial sectors, such as education, health, gender, and social protection, from 38 to 43 percent between 2019 and 2022. This promises a brighter future for Kenya's marginalized communities.

The coming together of all stakeholders has played a pivotal role in ensuring the success of Kenya's devolution process. The UN's Joint Devolution Programme has provided invaluable assistance. This is backed by UNICEF, UN Women, and UNDP, supported by the governments of Finland, Italy, and Sweden, and in partnership with county governments, national institutions and civil society. Youth empowerment initiatives, creating avenues for entrepreneurship, ICT and skill development, have transformed lives in counties, and are poised for scale and greater impact. Collaborative efforts in data collection and analysis enable counties to target policies and interventions, driving progress where it's needed most.

Learning from UN programmes in Kenya tells us that deepening devolution will require building on the gains made, while addressing political, economic, social and structural challenges. Governance and service delivery decisions particularly must be evidence based, which requires ensuring that county policies, plans, budgets and services are founded on credible data. Investment in statistics and data will be particularly important to monitoring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring that devolution outcomes are well targeted.

It is also important that citizens’ voices are heard in decisions that affect their lives. The Constitution of Kenya provides mechanisms and protections for civic space and deliberate efforts must be taken to promote these. There is still work to be done to attain greater transparency in devolved governance processes. Finally, the Constitution of Kenya envisages a cooperative devolved system, which will require more attention to align relations between county governments and with national government. Development or policy dialogues can provide a mechanism for a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach.

While strides have been made, Kenya's battle against poverty is far from won. Since the establishment of devolved structures, counties have been allocated a minimum of 15 percent of the national budget to deliver devolved functions in health, early childhood education, water, sanitation and local climate action. The challenge is timely disbursements of the funds to counties to enable delivery of devolved services. We applaud the recent commitment to disburse funds to counties on time.

Half of all children in Kenya still live in poverty, presenting a barrier to the nation's aspirations. With some counties reporting child poverty rates as high as 80 percent, this signals the need for urgent action. Getting devolution to deliver even better requires continued hard work marked by inclusivity and prioritization of social services for marginalized groups. County governments must amplify the voices of those underrepresented, especially in arid lands and urban informal settlements, to achieve a more equitable and sustainable development.

By focusing on the most vulnerable, devolution can be harnessed as a force for social change. The vision is clear: a Kenya where every citizen thrives, and no one is left behind. As the nation's remarkable devolution process continues, it is imperative that all stakeholders remain committed to this vision, transforming it into a reality that will shape Kenya's future for generations to come.

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