Good leadership, especially in counties, is an important condition for development

Sunday December 17 2017

Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria

Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria admires a cow during the launch of the One-Youth-One-Cow programme, a unique plan to empower youths in the county. PJOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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There has been an endless debate about the relationship between leadership and development. Responsible for this debate is the question of why some countries have managed to lift millions of their citizens from poverty while in others millions remain poor.

Here in Kenya “the poor are always with us” in spite of many development programmes designed and implemented by the government and many other agencies.

The poor are always with us in spite of numerous policies introduced to reduce poverty.

The debate is somehow settled with the experience from Southeast Asia and African countries such as Mauritius and Botswana.

In all these countries, leaders in government have been playing an important role in transforming people’s lives.

But what type of leadership and what policies did they pursue to address poverty? Important here is to recognise that not all countries in Southeast Asia were democratic at the time of transformation.


Some were dictatorships and as corrupt as many governments in Africa. However, they had one thing in common – their leaders had a long term view of development.

And because they wanted their presence to be felt everywhere, they chose policies that focused on rural development where a majority of the people lived.

They chose to improve rural incomes by expanding agricultural production. Aware of the need to address the problem of hunger, these governments focused on agricultural research with a view to finding out how to increase production.

They invested in rural infrastructure to reach the peasants. The governments also provided subsidised inputs such as fertiliser, seeds, and even pesticides. The results were evident. Peasants became food secure. Household incomes increased. Food poor families could now have surplus for markets.


The governments complemented pro-poor agricultural policies with basic industrialisation. Value addition agricultural industries followed up in the countryside.

Cottage industries popped up in rural areas. These were labour intensive and created employment opportunities in the villages. This also impacted on household incomes and by that helped reduce poverty levels in a significant manner.

The governments achieved this by choosing policies that mattered for the poor. Indonesia, for instance, had a centralised corrupt system. It was a dictatorship.

The dictatorship tolerated corruption but pursued pro-poor rural development policies including food production subsidy programme.

The government looked for ways of raising farm production and incomes. To do so, it concentrated on increasing production of only export and food crops.


With regard to food crops, the government intensified use of subsidies and provision of credit services to small holder farmers. In the end, production of staple rice went up. This addressed the problem of food sufficiency and helped in procuring incomes for individual families.

The Indonesian government also was strict on planning and budgeting. It required the bureaucrats to present only balanced budgets for approval. In these budgets revenue always equalled or even exceeded expenditure. Bureaucrats had to pursue these policies with diligence and high sense of commitment.

These governments had a long term vision on the type of development they wanted to deliver. They wanted to transform people’s lives. They wanted to change people’s well being.

Whether they did so in order to remain in power, which they did, is a different matter. But through focused leadership, they  helped improve people’s conditions.


They moved millions out of poverty and reduced the high levels of inequality. In Indonesia, between the 1970s and the 1990s, the number of poor people reduced from half of the population to about 10 per cent. This number has considerably reduced in recent times.

This experience is evident that good development can be achieved. But it can be achieved without force.

Botswana, Mauritius and Cape Verde in Africa have also lifted their people from poverty but they are not dictatorships.

They are also good examples of democracies we have on the continent. Simply put, these examples show that good development can be achieved.

Leadership can help in lifting millions of people from poverty. County governments present a unique opportunity.

Kenya itself has a better opportunity for development today. The Constitution and policy framework “demand” that the national and county governments provide good development. But the real opportunity for development lies with county governments. It does not matter how much resource they have. It matters how effective and focused the county leadership is. The counties, even with limited resources, are better placed to transform rural economies.


But each county government requires effective and focused leadership. This is where the difference in development among counties will lie in the future.

But do Kenyan leaders recognise the significance of their role in development? Many do. Some do not. A close look at what has happened since introduction of the county governments in 2013 shows that some of the counties are transforming their counties than others.

Maternal mortality rates in some counties has reduced by close to half while rural infrastructure in some is fast developing. Again this is purely because of leadership.

Politicians do recognise this. They know too well that they can transform people’s lives. This is what one gets even in conversations among them.

In one recent conversation with a good friend, a former politician, I asked what he misses most now that he is not in politics.

He decided to leave politics in 2013 after a very successful parliamentary career.


Young and articulate, he realised that local politics at the constituency level was organised in the old order in spite of having a new Constitution.

He stepped down from competitive politics hoping that he would participate in the development of the constituency in different ways.

Nonetheless, I asked him: what do you miss most now that you are out of politics. His answer was simply: “the ability to see that you have changed the life of a person or groups of people through your leadership position”. He specifically mentioned that he would discuss and agree with his constituents on what they would do to move forward.

They would mobilise around a simple goal and move together. Through such efforts, the constituency has many students who have completed university education where a number have completed specialised courses such as medical degrees. They had none before. He misses playing this type of leadership to change lives.

How county governments can transform rural lives.


The experiences above show that effective and focused leadership matters in development. An effective government is important in this regard. County governments are themselves important players. They make policies. They invest. They implement development programmes.

But the type of policies they make matters most. It matters whether they have a good understanding of the small and simple things that they can embark on to change local conditions. Increasing production in agricultural areas and promoting livestock development among the pastoralists may sound a cliché but it is an important beginning point. Again this should not be done as an end but as a means to improving rural incomes and addressing poverty.

Introducing agricultural based cottage industries, abattoirs in pastoralist counties and a focus on value addition activities in these areas can make a difference.

These simple things may be difficult to achieve for county governments if they do not attract good talents.

They need to attract well trained, young, and agile local civil servants.


Many of the county governments are not able to move forward because what they have as staff is the old group inherited from local authorities. This group is old schooled and without ideas.

They are too expensive for the county governments. Staffing therefore is an issue the county governments have to begin with. There are no two ways about this.

The national government has to allow the county governments to keep the staff they wish to. The national government has to allow for retrenchment no matter the political costs. This will allow for development of an elite cadre of civil servants at the county level. But an elite cadre of civil servants does not come cheap. It is expensive because it is maintained through incentives. These incentives lead to better productivity.

We need quality public debates on development.

Effective leadership in development is usually accompanied by high level or quality public debates on development.


It is long since Kenya had a debate on “the Kenya we want”. Counties also missed an opportunity to discuss “the county we want” because they mixed this debate with investment meetings.

Effective leadership allows quality debates on policies so that the government can stop bad policies and implement good ones.

National debates help in identifying fallacies in policies that should be rejected. But the country has not created an environment where ideas on development are exposed.

We are yet to debate development programmes and achievements thus far. This is what the county governments should begin by doing.

They should create opportunities for public debates on the development that people want, and base projects on these debates.

 Prof Karuti Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi; [email protected]