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16 July 2021 - News

Save the Children report shows how pro-poor social budgets still impoverish poor children in Kenya

Photo: Itir, a six-year-old boy from Turkana County.

Itir is now a seven-year-old boy from Turkana County, in north-west Kenya. In 2019 when he fell ill, he was treated for malnutrition at Lodwar County hospital, which provides essential, often lifesaving health care in a region where almost a quarter of children under the age of five are stunted.

When Itir got medical help at the hospital, he benefited directly from Kenya’s investments in its health system. However, public finance decisions are not impacting children equally: how much a child benefits from public services varies, depending, for instance, on the availability of health services and on whether they can access government-provided facilities for free or their families have to pay for services out of their own pocket.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), compels countries to invest in children – mobilising, allocating and spending resources to fulfil their economic and social rights. This obligation includes assessing how government budgets affect different groups of children, and allocating spending to promote equality. This commitment is also reflected in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework, while Kenya’s own long-term development blueprint – christened ‘Vision 2030’ in 2008 – has a similar aim to build a just and cohesive society with social equity.

However, it is often very difficult to track who is really benefiting from public spending in many countries, particularly when it comes to assessing the specific impact on children. Moreover, expenditure data by itself does not give a full enough picture of the impacts of financing policies on children’s lives, as it does not take into consideration the impacts that taxation and other revenue-raising activities are having on disposable income at the household level.

To help fill this information gap, Save the Children is working with partners to conduct fiscal incidence analyses for children. We’re combining data from different sources to assess the joint impact of government spending and taxation on the lives of poor and marginalised children.

On Wednesday, Save the Children launched a first of a kind report dubbed Fair Shares? Fiscal Equity for Children in Kenya, flanked by an engaging panel discussion that included Ms Julia Smoylar, Senior Social Protection Specialist for World Bank, Mr Bob Muchabaiwa, Public Finance Specialist, UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa, Regional Office and Ibrahim Alubala, Child Rights Governance Advisor for Save the Children Kenya. Yvonne Arunga, Country Director for Save the Children Kenya & Madagascar moderated the session. 

Photo: Yvonne Arunga, Country Director for Save the Children Kenya and Madagascar moderates a panel discussion session. 

While presenting the findings of the report, Oliver Fiala, Senior Research Adviser, Save the Children UK, who also led in writing of the report, observed that children with the highest levels of poverty or worst outcomes are often those who have the least access to services.  

He added: "Public funded services are not impacting children. How much one benefits from public services depends on whether services are available or if they can access government provided facilities or if the family can pay for the service out of their pockets.”

Setting out some of the intentional and unintentional consequences of public finance decisions, this briefing shows how fiscal policies in Kenya – decisions about how much to spend on health care or education, or about what tax regime to follow – affect children living in different forms of poverty.

To begin with, our report reveals that overall, social spending on children in Kenya is pro-poor, meaning that poor and marginalised children benefit significantly from public spending. For example, while over 52% of children in Kenya are living in poverty, over 57% of public spending is focused on sectors that benefit these children, such as education and cash transfers.

But not all public spending is pro-poor. For example, while spending on education is pro-poor in primary education, secondary education mostly benefits more advantaged children. Health spending also benefits rich children more than poor children yet social assistance cash-transfer programmes, while pro-poor, are very small in size hence impacting a minimal percentage of those who ought to benefit.

But even with significant progress on poverty reduction in recent years, inequalities in children’s rights and development outcomes persist across Kenya, including in health, education and social assistance programmes. And no one understands this better than Bob Muchabaiwa. During the webinar, he noted that children face different forms of deprivation from adults, necessitating governments to look more into the allocation mix, saying, “If we do not address inequality, we are setting ourselves up for trouble.”

From the report and the panel discussion, it is clear that a lot needs to be done to improve access to services for the most marginalized children.

Revenue raising is also currently not pro-poor, and the current combined impact of taxation and limited cash transfers in Kenya impoverishes children. This is because cash transfers are too small to offset the impacts of substantial indirect taxes for the poorest families.

Any scale up initiative by the government should start with the neediest in the society,” says Ms Julia Smoylar.

When it comes to advocating for spending, Civil Society organsations (CSOs) play a critical role. “They need to ensure government commitments are realized, bring expert and unique knowledge on the table and build the capacity of citizens," says Mr Alubala.

The report observes that there is an opportunity for the Kenyan government to increase the progressivity of both revenue-raising and spending, and in doing so increase the coverage and quality of health systems, education and cash transfers for children living in poverty.

We need to do more by our children. When we say equity we basically mean what is fair and we have seen that investments in those early ages play a critical role in what the social capital of Kenya could turn out to be,” says Yvonne Arunga, Country Director for Save the Children Kenya & Madagascar.


The Fair Shares? Fiscal Equity for Children in Kenya report was written by Oliver Fiala, Senior Research Adviser, Save the Children UK, with valuable support from Ibrahim Alubala and Lisa Wise. This will be the first time such an analysis has focused directly on children in Kenya, providing new evidence on how financial decisions impact the poorest children. Learn more here