Kenya’s Economist’s Confusions: Development Versus Growth

The Lessons of Nature

In the living world, the terms “development” and “growth” are clearly defined. The first is increase in numbers; the second, increase in size.

The mature seed of a plant is a sample of completed development. Every single part of the future tree: stem, branches, leaves, fruits and seeds, are microscopically contained within that seed. They will be viable for the duration established by the nature of that tree, after which, unless planted and irrigated, will die.

Planting and irrigating the tree triggers off its growth: all those cells, tissues and organs increase in size for years, but not for ever. After years of equilibrium, the tree will also die.

A human being is no different. The embryonic stage marks the extremely rapid development, after which there begins the foetal stage of growth. This ends towards the 18th year, after which there follows equilibrium, and eventually death.

Economic Reflections

When economists speak of development, they don’t consult nature, but equate development with

The growth of industrialization… a level of NATIONAL INCOME sufficient to yield the domestic SAVINGS required to finance the investment necessary for further growth…[1]

Etc. The double use of the term “growth” in a definition of “developing country” shows only too well the confusion in the mind of the eminent economist author of the definition.[2] Going back to nature, therefore, and bypassing academia, it is not difficult to see that a country develops by increasing numbers of its citizens engaged in producing goods and services for each other, approaching, even if not reaching, a point where everybody produces enough to satisfy personal and family needs. In other words, full employment marks the end of development.

Then some of the small enterprises begin to grow in size. They employ increasing numbers of people, expand their plants, find more outlets home and abroad, etc.

Were the natural pattern to continue, the economy, expression of an immortal society, would reach equilibrium and stay there, even for centuries.[3]

Kenya and Development

Kenya has been officially listed as a “developing” country for 50 years without coming anywhere near South Korea, at the same level way back in 1962. What went wrong?

Briefly, Kenya has never developed. It upset the natural sequence by giving an unnatural priority to growth.  Loans were negotiated, agriculture was penalized in favour of newly set up industries, exports promoted, in short big was prioritized over small.

The results are there for all to see: large numbers of “white elephants” dotting the countryside, a lopsided economy with trade and finance ahead of production, unemployment, widespread poverty (although not destitution), and most telling of all a continuing disproportionate gap between the rich and the poor. Before blaming corruption think again: the lamented results would be the same without it.

Faulty legislation is to be blamed: bad laws have contributed more than any other factor in sinking the country into unending “development”, while preventing true development from ever to occur.

The White Collar Delusion

Shortly after independence the Ministry of Education undertook a purge, not so much of personnel as of the technical schools that had produced a sizable body of skilled and semi-skilled workers in colonial times. Manual work came to be considered demeaning, as also was time spent in learning skills rather than “subjects”. “Academic certificates” proliferated beyond all bounds for people to accede to “higher studies”, passports to “white collar” jobs.

The target has been achieved. Tens of thousands of “certified” graduates, diploma holders, masters, Ph.D.s and the rest of academic achievers form indeed an impressive galaxy. But between the super-qualified professionals and the unqualified unskilled and untrained youth there yawns a gap not really empty but full of all sorts of social misfits.

Therefore, if you need a plumber in Kitui, send for one in Nairobi; if you need a fitter, buy the tools and do it yourself. And do not advertise for a maintenance engineer: all you will get is strings of highly qualified graduates with the right pieces of paper, but unable to wield a screwdriver, a Stilson wrench, a Vernier calliper, etc. to put back on the road modest but important pieces of equipment.

The Ghost of Maintenance

The cost of industrialization without maintenance can be seen for example in Nigeria. Along the 150km from Lagos to Ibadan, there were, along the E side of the highway, more than 1000 pieces of earth moving equipment, abandoned for lack of maintenance. The philosophy of consumerism: use-and-throw-away had been applied to huge excavators, loaders etc., worth millions of dollars.

It is evident that no industrialization worth the name can ever take place with such philosophy. A maintenance engineer is a man who apprenticed himself as a boy to a maintenance engineer, learning the necessary skills from him, and now able to tackle a variety of maintenance jobs as the occasion requires.

But the benefits of apprenticeship have been denied to such boys by a myopic educational policy, full of a UNESCO-inspired hotchpotch of essentially useless academic notions, forgotten within half an hour of the “leaving exam”.

What is Needed

Were Kenya serious about development, it is not too late to restore the institution of apprenticeship. Only one thing is needed: freedom to leave primary school and find a good man with the right skills, able and willing to pass them on to his charges. I am not proposing to train thousands of maintenance engineers. The basic apprenticeship ought to go to the production of the essentials of life: food, clothing and shelter. Had this step been taken 50 years ago, today we would have:

  • A large pool of informed, not to say formed, farmers. It is disconcerting that masses of excellent agricultural research still fail to reach the farmers. Despite that, it was the initiative of a lone but enterprising potato farmer that reversed the potato shortage of 2007. The weekly insert Seeds of Gold in one of the papers, plus mobile telephony, are powerfully working in the right direction.
  • Every village, even in the remotest location, would have numbers of tailors cutting and sewing first class apparel for men and women. The irony is that we do have such tailors already. But they are enclosed in quasi-prisons known as Export Processing Zones, where they earn miserable salaries to produce first-class clothing for the developed world, while forcing Kenyans to buy either mitumba or super-expensive imported clothes that give status to buyers at the expense of producers.
  • Ditto for shoemakers. Mass-produced, machine-made shoes may be cheap, but do not last. The double cobbler hand stitch is far stronger than machine stitch, so that there is no reason why thousands of individual shoemakers could not in time become originators of their own models after starting by copying foreign ones. A solitary cobbler that establishes himself in some location today makes news. A proper policy should have made it possible for thousands of them to prosper everywhere.
  • Thousands of small construction outfits, able and willing to use rammed earth methods for all sorts of structures. Architecture graduates, instead of “tarmacking” in search of employment, could set up their own construction firms at very low cost, thus offering clients one-package deals from design to the finished product.

But such small-time operators cannot work on credit. Development has been severely hindered by lack of fast-circulating cash. The makers of essentials need cash as abundant as work done, without delays and other unnecessary hindrances.

Once attained, development would serve as the basis for growth. Enterprises would reach optimum size, stay there and not move from the countryside to the towns where they have been forced over the years by wrong policies and bad laws.

The Stigma

It is a well-known fact that competent plumbers, electricians and sundry maintenance people earn more, at times considerably more, than even high rank academics.

But there is no worse blind than the one who does not want to see. Parents are still pushing their children “to work hard” for a coveted (why?) piece of paper that in the end guarantees nothing.

But nature is not mocked. Prospective employers have begun to see through the scam, increasingly asking for skills and ability, and ignoring fancy pieces of paper saying that So-and-So sat and passed “examinations” set by some panjandrum at Such-and Such university.

In the faculties of mechanical engineering in some Indian universities, prospective students are not asked to fill “forms” and answer written papers: they are given an out-of-order contraption and asked to fix it within a time limit. If they can, they are accepted. If not they are invited to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Just imagine the Kenya economy enjoying such bases of order, peace and tranquillity.


[1] Penguin Dictionary of Economics. Voice DEVELOPING COUNTRY

[2] W. W. Rostow (1916-2003) for the record.

[3] The world record for the natural growth of a firm is more than 1000 years for a bell foundry in Southern Italy.

AUTHOR: Den Anoisíes (Email: [email protected] ; Follow on Twitter: @Den_Anoisies)

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