In 2014, economists set off a debate about what Kenya requires to take off in terms of development.
This debate compares to the discourse in the late 1970s on why Kenya had managed to develop while other countries in Africa failed. A few people concluded that what was happening in Kenya was not development because it was based on foreign, not indigenous, capital.
Others argued that the capital was indigenous, but ethnic. The development was supported by an ethnic elite with the backing of a government controlled by people from the same region as the economic elite.
Things started changing fast in the early 1980s when we started on a downward spiral until early 2003, when a new government came to power and initiated a radically new policy, with emphasis on both growth and good governance. This rekindled people’s hopes.
The economy grew, but the growth was not shared. The emphasis on good governance also lost steam. Issues around the rule of law, holding leaders to account, improving governance institutions, de-ethnicising the public service, and expanding space for freedoms and rights were abandoned.
The conflict that followed was an important lesson: that you cannot pursue development without improving governance. Our current approach to development using mega projects appears aimed at taking us back to this period of growth as an end in itself, placing little or no premium on governance.
THE NDII-NDEMO DEBATE
Dr David Ndii, who set off the debate, argued that mega projects without human capital will not turbo-charge the economy. He claimed that the projects that the Jubilee administration seems to be favouring are misguided modernisation ventures that confuse form with substance.
Dr Bitange Ndemo disagreed. He argued that the projects are important in terms of opportunities for employment creation and incubation of technology-oriented skills. Of course we require investment in both human capital and infrastructure. However, the debate has glossed over an important dimension of what brings about development.
The debate equates economic growth with development. We are providing infrastructure to promote growth, but we know that growth is not development.
There can be high levels of poverty amid high levels of economic growth. Our development should target reducing the number of people living in poverty as this is, indeed, the aim of development.
Infatuation with growth as an end in itself deepens inequalities without addressing poverty. It may even exacerbate regional inequalities and imbalances in development, because pursuing growth as an end leads to prioritising investment in the regions that are already developed.
This debate also glosses over the importance of pro-poor policies. Countries like ours that depend on agriculture prioritise agriculture and rural development. Their governments put emphasis on raising crop and livestock incomes.
Kenya is concentrating on the mega projects and devoting very little investment to agriculture. Our budgetary allocation to agriculture and rural development is under five per cent and agricultural production remains low.
Mega projects have no planned connection to the development of rural areas. It is assumed that, like a magnet, they will attract development in rural areas without the need for a deliberate effort to do so.
Another shortcoming of this debate, and the policies on development, is the failure to recognise the significance of governance. The big projects are being introduced in tandem with shrinking democratic space.
There is less attention to the rule of law, accountability, and freedoms and rights. Yet the gains made through the pursuit of growth and good governance programmes in the period between 2003 and 2005 resulted in numerous gains. Once the government abandoned the good governance track, the gains were washed away quite fast. The post-2007 election violence swept away these gains in a very short period.
Pursuing mega projects while shrinking the space for freedoms and rights and failing to strengthen governance institutions is the weakest link in our development agenda.
Prof Karuti Kanyinga teaches at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi.