In 2003 the government of Kenya in a more than brave statement announced that there would be free primary school education. In a move that sought to increase levels of literacy in Kenya and encourage the poor to have access to primary education, the president made the announcement and committed to disburse money to the various schools to allow them to meet their expenses.
In the fine print – the parents would be responsible for buying school uniforms, books, still responsible for some teacher’s fees for school improvement and boarding fees where applicable. But that would never discourage anyone from going to school would it? (Unless of course they couldn’t afford that)
What eventually left many disillusioned is that the number of children in classes nearly doubled in some cases tripled. Nursery or Kindergarten is not free in Kenya so Class 1 teachers got students who had never been in a classroom before join their classes- which meant that some student never really got the attention needed to make them up to par with the their counterparts.
With an army of 50 to 70 children a class, giving homework and correcting class work became a task that most teachers could not cope with. The quality of education sank lower and lower and even with the improved attendance of students, there was nothing spectacular to present to the world about them as they advanced from lower to higher classes. Meanwhile teachers to date continue to grace our streets demanding to be paid arrears which the government had promised them in earlier years. Overworked and underpaid is the story of Kenyan public school teachers.
In 2010, the UK suspended the funding of the free primary education program citing corruption. Since then free primary education in Kenya has been problematic with results being mixed depending on who is telling the story. I bring this story up for the purpose of helping us analyze the problem of “free” programs in Kenya. I will skip several years to 2013, whereby the Kenya government has recently announced free maternal health services and free laptop computers for class one children.
On June 1st 2013, the government of Kenya announced the advent of free maternal healthcare in Kenya. Almost immediately hospitals were flooded with pregnant women seeking assistance in delivery and other services. Pangani Hospital, which is the busiest maternity hospital in the country, was filled to double capacity by the next day. Women were being discharged from hospitals before they healed to make room for others. Some hospitals had patients lying on the floor in between beds. Nurses were grossly overworked which meant that the quality of services offered at delivery would also be in question.
Some hospitals do not have the equipment to perform the said free deliveries and still require women to buy essentials such as sanitary pads and medicines. Other hospitals are confused about whether the free maternal healthcare includes pre-natal and post-natal care, in addition, hospitals still lack basic equipment which would allow them to attend to complicated deliveries which require incubators and surgery. In all this the Kenya government feels that it has delivered a key requirement to the people of Kenya however I beg to differ.
Free maternal healthcare is a very welcome proposition but without the ability to deliver proper services, the government is setting themselves up for another failure. Doctors and Nurses have been on the streets protesting, not about pay, but about failed procedures and deaths in hospitals owing to lack of simple amenities. It is not uncommon for people to die on the surgery table because the lights went out and there was no more generator fuel. Kenyatta Hospital shut down some of its operations two weeks ago because of lack of water.
It is Kenya’s national hospital which means that during the shut down many patients suffered, possible irreversibly as a result. With such simple issues still maiming the health sector, addition of costs and services which do not benefit the doctor and sometimes the patient mean little.
I strongly feel that the government needs to rethink why free services are offered especially in the health sector. Why can’t the government liaise with the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) and offer services at a subsidized rate as before? Why can’t the government think of screening mothers and offer free services to a section of the poor who obviously cannot pay for their services? What does it matter if a woman never attended pre-natal hospital if she gives birth in the hospital? There are complications that can be prevented but never healed! What about the vaccinations and care for the infant afterwards? Statistics show that many children die before their 5 birthday due to various reasons the primary ones being malnutrition and lack of medical services.
The free education program failed mainly due to corruption and misuse of funds. In addition, there was no support structure to ensure that the program was a success in terms of giving quality education to as many Kenyans as possible. Unless the government learns from its lessons, the corruption will creep back in – there are gaps right now in the devolved government which officials are taking advantage of but the law is yet to even dream of their existence.
The government of Kenya has unveiled a budget which is way beyond the means of Kenyans. The budget proposes to raise VAT which will raise the cost of living. Meanwhile teachers who are being pushed to accept meagre salaries are also being pushed to support the rollout of free laptop computers for class one children next year. Did I mention free laptop computers? Yes I did – all this in the midst of children who still study outside under a tree…. It is amazing how many “free” things are being pushed on Kenyans.