Hospital budgets have been traumatised, yet Kenya’s media remains comatose

Source: The EastAfrican.

Did you happen to see the great investigative piece about the slashing of budgets for provincial hospitals in Kenya last year?

The story showed that in the wheeling and dealing that resulted in the final Division of Revenue Act 2013, the allocation for provincial hospitals fell from Ksh10 billion to Ksh3.4 billion.

In 2012/13, these hospitals were allocated over Ksh7.7 billion. So even if one didn’t think that the hospitals needed a full Ksh10 billion this year, it would be hard to remain unconcerned about a drop to less than half the budget from the previous year.

Now, in agreeing to this decline, parliament argued that counties would fill the gap, although no money was specifically set aside for them to do so.

The reporter looked at a few budgets for counties where provincial hospitals are located, such as Nyeri County, and found that, in fact, the county allocated only the reduced amount to its general hospital. It did not top this up with its own funds.

Our enterprising journalist went on to ask whether this had impacted service delivery at Nyeri. After all, it was recently reported that a mother lost her baby boy at the hospital when she was left unattended, and the staff interviewed in that story claimed that they were massively under-resourced.

The reporter reasoned that perhaps this was an effect of the decline in funds. He also investigated the possibility that there were many inefficiencies and ghost workers at Nyeri Hospital, so that cutting the budget in half had no impact on services.

So: what was the conclusion? You really want to know? Me too. But this investigative story was never written, though all the facts are true.

People in my field are often told that we need to do more to make “technical” stories about finance easier for journalists to understand. It is our failure to do so that leads to our stories being either shelved, or mangled by the media.

But the story of Kenya’s hospitals suggests to me that we have a different problem on our hands. There is nothing all that technical about a budget for a hospital being slashed in half. If I told any journalist that his salary was to be cut in half and he was expected to live the same lifestyle on that reduced budget, he would instantly “get it.”

The new dispensation demands an informed public to participate in decision-making at both national and county level. And who is to inform this public?

There can be no one else besides the media. That media need not be exclusively “traditional media”; there can be “social media” players as well. But social media derives a substantial amount of its content from traditional media, and there is no escaping the critical role newspapers, radio and television still play.

Yet day after day, we read terribly misleading headlines about public finance in the papers. Critical stories, like the one about the health budget, don’t get told at all. Journalists ascribe quotes to the wrong people, and fail to properly cite those who actually had the ideas.

Is this because the issues are “too technical”? I think not. I suspect it has more to do with a combination of being overwhelmed with information, of lacking adequate training, and of a certain arrogance-cum-laziness in recognising when someone does not know something, and needs the help of experts.

There may be no bigger or more important story in the new order than the annual division of revenue between national and county governments.

My impression is that journalists (including editors) have not understood how significant this decision is, and have not therefore invested the requisite time in understanding the issues involved. That is why they missed the gem of a story about health budgets being cut and its impact on ordinary people.

The Daily Nation cover story on February 10 further confirmed how little understanding there is of the process among journalists. This story reported that the counties had just received Ksh88.9 billion for development projects, when in fact that was the cumulative total received during the financial year, and it was not exclusively for development projects.

What was disturbing was not so much that the paper got it wrong, but that the very same paper on the very same day ran a 2-page advert from Treasury making it clear that the funds were cumulative and for both recurrent and development expenditure.

Was this laziness, or lack of understanding, or being too overwhelmed to read your own paper before you run a misleading story? I don’t know. All I can say is that it is division of revenue season again, and Kenya’s media needs to style up.

Jason Lakin is senior programme officer and research fellow at the International Budget Partnership. E-mail: jason.lakin@gmail.com