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A youth is escorted by Kenyan police officers as dozens of houses are being demolished to make way for a new road in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Baz Ratner/Reuters

View from Africa: Progress without people


Temperatures dipped to a frigid 11 degrees centigrade in Nairobi on Monday 23 July. In the large informal settlement of Kibera, on one of the coldest nights of the year, residents surveyed the wreckage of their community. Bulldozers from the Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) had spent the day tearing down houses, schools, businesses – the beginning of a process that will make 30,000 people homeless.

Kibera residents, whose homes were built on public land set aside for an expansion of the road network, were only given a few days to vacate the area. KURA’s actions have been condemned for betraying the Resettlement Action Plan that it signed up for, as well as Kenyan law, which allows for residents to reclaim their property and be given adequate notice before eviction.

The drama is the latest in a series of government initiatives that have Kenyans asking: who is development for? The most visible example is the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), a brand new railway line connecting the second-largest city of Mombasa with Nairobi. The SGR was paid for by enormous loans from the Chinese government and built by Chinese contractors; it employs a huge Chinese workforce, and has had marginal impact on the efficiency of Kenya’s transport sector.

Kenya is nothing without Kenyans, and chasing foreign development models only offers illusory dividends

Meanwhile, African railway employees have accused their Chinese supervisors of racism, and economic experts balk at the size of the debt incurred. The new railway has led to the deaths of countless animals, including lion and buffalo, threatening the survival of Nairobi National Park – the only national park within a capital city in the world. At this point, there is no evidence that the SGR has improved Kenyan lives significantly, yet the administration touts it as a success.

The SGR is one of Kenya’s many big-ticket infrastructure projects rolled out with little thought to their consequences. It’s strange to still be having this conversation in 2018, when so much ink has been spilled debating and defining the need for human-centred development. The World Bank and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programmes have been debunked. We know that we should only be building things insofar as they improve people’s lives and minimize harm. This should be established wisdom everywhere, right?

The problem arises in the gap between the Western canon of development and the embrace of the Chinese approach.

The Western model has been rightly criticized for being paternalistic and self-serving, deepening inequalities between corporations and governments, governments and people. However, the Chinese approach, which has taken its place, privileges investing heavily in infrastructure over all else and has done tremendous damage to the environment. The Chinese government, recognizing this, has been systematically cutting down investments in coal plants or polluting industries at home, while pushing the same approach in countries like Kenya.

There is an unwillingness to look between these two and encourage Kenyan approaches to problems. The government pays no attention to local economists, environmentalists and others; in Kibera, advocacy groups, many of them grassroots organizations, urged KURA to collaborate on alternatives that would mitigate the harm caused by the road. KURA’s response? The road must be built on our terms.

Kenya is nothing without Kenyans, and chasing foreign development models only offers illusory dividends. The Kenyan government needs to remember that progress without people is meaningless.

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