Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The tyranny of simple solutions

The Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) took place in Kenya at the end of August 2016. More than ten thousand delegates attended. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe of Japan led a strong delegation to Kenya and committed Japan, one of the most developed nations in the world, to realising the industrialisation goals of African countries, the least not being Kenya which had been chosen to host the conference.

Shinzō Abe is not the only visitor from the developed world to come calling. Barack Obama of the USA and Matteo Renzi of Italy have come to Kenya and have pledged money and projects to help Kenya realise its goals. So too have the Premier of State Council of the People's Republic of China and the Pope, and Kenya also hosted the Tenth World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference and the Fourteenth Session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Kenya has also taken a commanding lead in development-driven projects in the East African Community and in the Horn of Africa such as the Standard Gauge Railway project from Mombasa to Uganda, the Lamu-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport project and the Lokichar-Lamu oil pipeline and the implementation of the EAC One-Stop Border Post Act as seen from the projects at both the Kenya-Tanzania border at Namanga and the Kenya-Uganda border at Malaba.

When the well-connected, wealthy and powerful see these proofs of economic if not political legitimacy, they can't help and remind us that Kenya has arrived at the world stage, been accepted as an equal on many levels and it will only be the "sort[ing] out of little bits here and there" that will guarantee Kenya no longer has to suffer humiliating appendages such as "developing" or "middle income".

Kenya is not rich or wealthy in any realistic sense; if it were, basic things like primary healthcare, basic education, public transport, public safety, national security, private-sector job-creation, civic participation among the people, and both low-tech and high-tech manufacturing would compare favourably with Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, India and South Africa. Kenya would not be importing civil engineers from China to build its roads but, like Israel, the Startup Nation, Kenya would be exporting engineers to the EAC, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The only people who seem to think that Kenya is East Africa's South Korea and that Nairobi is akin to Seoul do not commute to work using public means and have made a killing ever since Kenya accepted its first billion-dollar loan from the Chinese EXIM bank in 2004.

The "little bits" that need sorting out have defeated all Kenya's governments since Independence and they seem to have become permanent and immutable to the changing fortunes as portrayed by Kenya's rising economic numbers. Infant mortality, child-birth mortality, free basic education, free primary healthcare, low unemployment, high degrees of high-tech and heavy manufacturing, high levels of basic STEM research, increased numbers of STEM patents awarded, food security, high levels of public safety, reasonably assured national security, commerce and trade-oriented foreign policy...these are not "little bits"; they are significant ones.

It is arrogant to presume that the reasons why Kenya continues to be held back on the economic front can be solved with a simple flick of the switch. It is this mindset that has raised expectations to unreasonable heights and eroded confidence in all our institutions, both public and private-sector. If you look at the acres of red ink on the Nairobi Securities Exchange, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Capital Markets Authority, the very body concerned with the regulation of the securities markets, has failed to live up to its mandate, in love as it is with technology. Instead of focusing on its core business of ensuring that listed companies don't fiddle with shareholders' monies, it wants us to believe that computerisation of the sector will eliminate regulatory risks. Not surprisingly, computerisation has only made fraud more efficient. And on and on it goes: simple solutions end up costing us hundreds of millions if not billions.

The things that hold us back or complex and are not prone to the tyranny of simple solutions. Those incapable of appreciating this should not be at the forefront of public policy or public discourse. They should instead take a step back, realise that their good fortune has often come from embedded conflicts of interest with the Government and its regulatory institutions, and not because they are responsible for the rising economic tide that is yet to lift other lesser canoes.

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