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Standard Media

Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration can be summed up in two oscillating swings – promising incredibly big, and falling resoundingly short. He is a showman in every respect, and his First Lady is a part of his duplicitous act. Last week, public ridicule forced Uhuru’s wife to suspend her annual marathon that is meant to raise funds for maternal healthcare.

The year is 2014, and in quite a cinema-isque fashion, 50-year-old Margaret finishes her 21km half-marathon in determined eager stomps, running right into the arms of her husband, the President of the Republic of Kenya. Uhuru Kenyatta and his wife Margaret, affectionately embrace and look genuinely happy – this scene, of a seemingly normal, human even, president was strange but pleasant in the eyes of Kenyans.

Everybody loved it, social media was abuzz with it, media houses featured it – in other words, the whole country was fooled into the grand masquerade. Alas! Welcome to the state’s laissez-faire strategies in national maternal health policy.

A little into the start of his term in 2013, it became quite evident that Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency was bound to be of a different sort – oh how much so it has proved to be. Projecting his presidency as youthful (by African standards), relatable and human, Kenyatta has proven to be the most public-relations adept head of state that Kenya has ever witnessed.  Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration can be summed up in two oscillating swings – promising incredibly big, and falling resoundingly short! He is a showman in every respect, and his First Lady is a part of his duplicitous act.

Congratulations my love and @FirstLadyKenya. I just watched you cross the finish line on my online live stream. I am proud of you #BeyondZero,” read a tweet from President Kenyatta after Margaret Kenyatta crossed the finish line in the 2016 edition of the First Lady Half Marathon.

This annual 21 km event is aimed at raising awareness and mobilizing resources to finance easy access to maternal healthcare in Kenya. By January of 2016, the First Lady through her Beyond Zero foundation had mobilized an estimated $5 million[1] from private citizens, corporates and international funding organizations to go into financing maternal healthcare in Kenya. The foundation has since supposedly achieved its primary objective of providing each of Kenya’s 47 counties [2] with one mobile clinic – this is according to local media outlets.

It, however, remains unclear how much the foundation has mobilized to date – as of 6 February 2017, the foundation’s websites ( and seemed defunct, rerouting to a Facebook page offering scant information on the foundations particulars.

Kenya’s healthcare stats provide some food for thought: less than 6% of the GDP[3] is invested in healthcare - barely 7% average annual budgetary allocation into the same[4] (lowest in the region); maternal mortality rates are almost 500 deaths in 100,000 live births [5]; an estimated 21 mothers die and 96 stillbirths are registered daily from pregnancy related complications;[6] and about 1 in 20[7] children die before turning five. In this context Margaret Kenyatta’s efforts are certainly a worthy cause.

So, what is the big fuss about her Beyond Zero campaign? Last week the organizers announced the suspension of this year’s marathon, amidst loud criticism of the initiative especially by bloggers. The big fuss is not necessarily in the actions of the First Lady, but rather the implicit inactions of the government in financing universal public health, and in this case maternal healthcare programmes. The Constitution of Kenya 2010 lists access to quality and affordable healthcare among a raft of human rights of Kenyans.

The Beyond Zero marathon charity model of financing accessible maternal health in Kenya is unsustainable in the long run (pun unintended). Fashioned after the neo-liberal agenda which re-defined public participation (which includes both private citizens and private enterprises) in development to mean ‘self-help’ and ‘cost-sharing,’ Kenyan mothers and young children are damned as the Beyond Zero is slowly shaping up to be the de facto maternal health policy under the current regime.  In other words, investment in maternal healthcare in Kenya is subject to the whims and well wishes of capital.

Appreciating that Kenya’s developmental path borrows a lot from global developmental discourse, the Beyond Zero model is rather antiquated in spite of its celebrity endorsement in the person of the First Lady. The foundation tries to respond to the Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5. As any development practitioner would easily proffer, development-financing works like the fashion industry - money follows the dominant voices in the international discourse, and if the cool kids in the yard think that MDGs are out and the new non-committal SDGs are in, so it is!

Margaret Kenyatta’s foundation overwhelmingly eclipses the hitherto silent maternal and new born health National Road Map. The last strategic plan was articulated back in 2010 and was also hinged on the MDGs. Like most of the developing world, Kenya is midwifing bastardized policy frameworks that hold firm to both the under-achieved MDGs and transcendent SDGs. No clear commitments on financing development are articulated. Kenya’s Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) framework is a case in point.

The biggest travesty in the First Lady’s faux healthcare model is that it outrightly transfers the functions and roles of the national government (led by her husband) and county governments to private enterprise, leveraging largely on public perception and showmanship at the expense of forward thinking policy strategies and deliberate sectorial financing. 

This last weekend, amid a health crisis occasioned by a health workers industrial action now in its third month, Margaret Kenyatta was forced to cancel the 2017 edition of her charity run, citing what she termed as the politicization of her campaign. Surely, is there a need for a charity run for mothers and babies where a government is only as zealous in pursuing the well being of its people as its top guns are unrelenting in embezzling public resources? #LipaKamaTender #BeyondZero

*Edwin Rwigi is a Programme Officer at Fahamu Africa working in the Emerging Powers in Africa project. He has keen interests in development and public policy and participatory governance.

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