Development Depoliticizing Ethnicity in Kenyan Politics

What might be potential impetuses for changing Kenya’s historically ethnically-based political system? Today’s post is the fourth installment of these week’s series on the history of Kenyanpolitics, the upcoming election, and the potential impetuses for political change. Today I focus on development’s role in changing Kenya’s political landscape. 

Development projects are often thought of as focused on reducing poverty, improving livelihoods, and improving access to basic social services. However, what if development projects do more than serve as band-aids to a larger problem?

While I was thinking of things that might have the potential to depoliticize ethnicity in Kenyan politics, development wasn’t the first thing that came to my head; however, as I thought more about it, it seems to make sense (perhaps maybe just to me, but we’ll see).

After the 2008 election violence, Kenya’s GDP growth rate dropped from around 7% growth in 2007 to around 2% growth in 2008 according to this World Bank data:

Kenyan GDP Growth
Graph Created via World Bank Data

Development projects, not just focused on improving access to water and health services, but rather on building/improving infrastructure, road development, etc. have the potential to facilitate trade, increase business, attract FDI, and overall help boost the economy. Economic growth and infrastructure development, although seemingly unrelated to Kenya’s ethnic politics in fact show great potential for changing the political scene.

Infrastructure and Development
How might infrastructure construction, road construction and other similar development projects help to depoliticize ethnicity in Kenya? Think about it: Say a road is build that transverses several of Kenya’s provinces. Not only will it facilitate migration, trade, and thereby improve economic activity, but it will also allow people to interact more easily and on a more regularly basis with those from other ethnic groups and from different parts of the country - this is particularly true for those living in more rural areas of the country. Contact hypothesis states that with increased interaction comes the realization that others are not so different than yourself.

Kenya does have cross-country roads that link various parts of the country, yet they seem to more serve as borders for each province rather than penetrating the boundaries of each province. There are also very few developed roads that lead outside of the Western and Central provinces.

5-year average of uses of Official Development Assistance (ODA),
which shows 18.8% of which being used for economic infrastructure.
Graph created via AidFlows

Although this makes sense since the West and Central provinces are the most populous and the North is sparsely populated, it would still, in my opinion, greatly facilitate cross-ethnic interaction and trade.

With better infrastructure, economic growth will inevitably follow, which brings me to…

Developing the Economy
After the 2008 post-election violence, the GDP growth rate dropped significantly, hurting the national economy. If the necessary infrastructure for doing good business is in place across the country and means by which to do business is facilitated, then Kenya’s economy might well pick back up. A Harvard study found that instead of growing from 4-5% per year, Kenya’s economy should instead be growing at around 7%. In order to improve GDP growth, the government is now trying to “improve the country's shoddy infrastructure [and is working on] building a series of multi-lane roads around Nairobi.”

If the economy picks back up, more Kenyans might well move to urban centers where they will come in contact with a diverse group of Kenyans, and according to contact hypothesis, ethnic tension should lessen.

Furthermore, if economic growth is not lost to corruption and nepotism, then the inequality gap might well start to decrease, especially if those living on the margins of the state are brought (figuratively) closer through the center through improved road and communication networks.

Kenyan GDP growth is doing much worse than
neighbors Ethiopia and Rwanda

Click to Englarge
Image via Afrographique

Kenyans see democracy and economic growth as inextricably linked. Their main aspiration for democracy…is that it will create more equitable distribution of economic opportunity….Kenya could be a shining example. [For] regional imbalances to be addressed, the country needs to upgrade its infrastructure. [It might need] a large-scale government employment scheme, structured like the New Deal in the 1930s United States, [and it] could employ youth to do this.

Personally, I think a New Deal-type employment/development scheme for Kenya is an excellent idea. Not only could much of the unemployed and disenfranchised youth be employed, earning a living wage, and helping to improve their country, but it would also result in roads being build, urban beautification projects, and construction efforts, all of which would help the economy and create a new group of employed Kenyans who will increase their spending habits and therefore further boost the national economy.

However, the thing that I think needs to be kept in mind, is that development needs to be led by Kenyans. Although development and aid NGOs can and should help out in ways that they see fit, this plan would not succeed if it were not from the hearts of Kenyans.

Furthermore, the development projects would need to be vetted to make sure they benefit all groups, not some over others. For example, creating a Volta Dam-like project that would displace thousands of Kenyans (from a certain ethnic group) to an area dominated by another ethnic group would only worsen inter-ethnic tensions and increase land disputes. To avoid this, Kenyans need to be involved in the development projects because they know their country the best.

I would argue that the economic and physical development and interconnectedness of Kenya would greatly improve how politics are conducted and reduce the importance that ethnicity currently plays. How so? Because it would increase cross-ethnic interaction and decrease the income inequality, which is one of the reasons why ethnicity currently plays a role in politics.

However, this is not the only impetus for change. The upcoming generation of Kenyan youth - who are more urban and technologically connected - are fed up with the politics of the past and show great hope for changing the political scene. Check back tomorrow for the final segment of this series on Kenya’s political landscape of the past and future.


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