Persuading citizens to pay higher taxes to finance public programs is normally a weighty matter for authorities, especially in a time of high unemployment around the world.
While the authorities will pull out every stop to justify why they need more money from the people, taxpayers will do all they can to discredit such proposals, especially when there’s a public vote.
Recently in Kenya, newly elected members of the national government slapped a value-added tax on about 400 goods and services that were initially exempted from taxes to finance public programs.
The immediate impact was an increase in the price of basic foods as manufacturers passed the burden to consumers, resulting in an outcry that the government was insensitive to the plight of poor people. This happened despite promises by the new leaders to bring down the cost of living in a country where the majority live on less than a dollar a day.
You would expect the public to come out in large numbers at forums where they can have a say in such plans and hear officials explain why higher taxes are justified.
The reason for such forums is simple: Since the matter is ours and presumably would benefit us, we have a responsibility to learn all we can and make an informed decision. Questions are supposed to be answered and differences ironed out, there and then.
On Tuesday evening, I attended the Sunnyside Unified School District budget override forum where the issue was increasing the amount property owners pay to finance school programs. The leadership in the district wants residents to approve the override in a Nov. 5 vote.
The district has 18 elementary, middle and high schools and close to 18,000 students. About 100 residents turned up, which surprised me considering the controversial nature of the issue and the fact that residents rejected a similar plan in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Questions have been raised about the performance of the Governing Board and whether to extend the contract for the superintendent, Manuel Isquierdo. To me, that seems like powerful bait to bring out residents in large numbers.
During the forum, a speaker opposed to the override said the small turnout was the best indication residents were tired and not interested in voting in favor. A speaker in support of the override attributed criticism to the bad press coverage the district has been attracting.
The lack of average citizens at the forum made me wonder, why the apathy? Do people really have no interest in what directly affects them? When they do not participate in correcting what they do not like, should they be able to complain later?
As one of the speakers at the forum said, residents should be part of the solution on matters affecting them.
But I stopped being bothered by the apparent lack of interest in the override when I realized that Kenyans are no different from residents of the Sunnyside school district. Kenyans skip such important forums with impunity, only to complain later that they were not given a chance.
Ask Kenyans to come to a forum and give their views on a matter, and very few will turn up — if any. Put a notice in the newspapers asking for their views on a change of use on a property, you will be lucky if you get any.
If you ask people why they did not take the opportunity to give their opinion, they will give you all sorts of excuses.
The uniqueness with Kenya is that you can be sure people will ask for a time extension to enable them to share their thoughts. If you are in control, you do not do that since those opposed may outsmart you if given extra time.
This unique nature in Kenya was ably captured by British expatriate Michael Joseph’s post to the country as a chief executive officer to launch a new mobile- phone company by Vodafone. In the initial stages, the company would offer free airtime to those who activated it by calling a special number used during such offers.
Every time this would happen, the system would be overwhelmed and collapse, making it to difficult for subscribers to make any calls. Woe unto you if you had an urgent matter to communicate.
In addition, the company that has pioneered a money transfer innovation used in most parts of the world, including the U.S. — you load money into your mobile account and transfer it to a subscriber in Kenya — took on more subscribers than its systems could support. Again, the system would be jammed for hours or days, making it difficult to make calls.
Asked to explain why all this was happening, Joseph quipped curtly that Kenyans had peculiar calling habits. This has now become an acceptable way of explaining things when they do not work as expected.
Well, from the foregoing, some habits are not peculiar.