Kenya’s future problems require leaders who can provide solutions

Friday February 22 2013


In the next elections, Kenyans will have their first opportunity to elect leaders under the new Constitution. Entrusting their future to these new leaders, Kenyans will be exercising a potentially transformative power.

What should Kenyans be thinking about as they make their choices? Kenya’s next leaders need to have intelligence, integrity, and practical administrative ability. But a successful candidate should also have a strong orientation of Kenya’s future.

What future Kenya do the candidates hope to realise? What do they see as Kenya’s critical long-term problems, and how do they intend to solve them?

Like all countries, Kenya faces several critical challenges. Rapid population growth, deforestation, soil depletion, water mismanagement and climate change are all serious problems that only yield bad consequences many years after the problem first presents itself.

For a healthy and prosperous future, Kenyans need to deal with these problems effectively. But progress to date has been limited. Of course, Kenya is not the only country which struggles to address deeply structural problems, whose tragic consequences will only come to light in a distant future.

In fact, it is depressingly common. The world seems to be unable to come to grips with the challenges of climate change. Our development paradigms seek to replicate a way of life that, if all people were to share it, would require the resources of two earths to sustain it. We can’t continue down this path, and yet we do.

Even more immediate problems rarely get the anticipatory attention that they deserve. In 2011, the world did not react to the drought in the Horn of Africa, until midyear, when famine conditions were emerging in Somalia. At the time, I was often asked why the world had not acted earlier, when the problem would have been easier to address.

Why did the world not act? The answer is not far to seek. Future problems, however severe, do not seem to motivate us to act, until we see the first catastrophes that result from inaction.

This is, of course, a terrible way to run our collective life. Successful people do not live their lives this way. When they see potential future problems, they anticipate the impact of inaction, and take corrective measures. Successful countries do the same thing.

To solve problems like overgrazing, water and soil depletion, Kenya needs to act early and continuously. Moreover, it can’t rely on a few people to do the right thing; it needs collective action.

Increasingly, collective action also requires us to use science, both to understand the problems, and to identify the solutions. Unfortunately, few of the powerful voices in public life have a passion for science.

They are instead the voices of politicians and corporations who may not be interested in science, or may actively oppose it with misinformation, because it interferes with their electoral ambitions or their short-term profitability.

The result is a lot of public noise, which mostly creates confusion about the long-term problems that Kenya is facing and, consequently, a failure to address these problems; until the catastrophe comes.

We can’t afford to wait for catastrophes to motivate us, particularly if we are interested in poverty reduction. It is usually the poor who pay the highest price when catastrophes strike. Climate change, limited access to safe water, and high food prices will not bother rich people too much: they can adapt. But there are millions of Kenyans who do not.

When Kenyans pick their next leaders, they should be asking which candidates are most able to realise a sustainable future for Kenya — a future that recognises the key long-term challenges that Kenya faces and articulates a realistic plan to address them.

Johannes Zutt is the World Bank Country Director for Kenya