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?Only when ordinary folks grow can a nation develop

By Barrack Muluka | May 1st 2021
Barrack Muluka.

The success of ordinary people is the starting point of a nation’s economic success. This is what President Joe Biden has told the joint House of Congress this week, in his first State of the Union Address. As he marked his first 100 days in power, the US president was clear about one thing. Future economies will grow, and societies prosper, when they develop from the bottom and the middle, upwards. 

Traditionally, metrics of economic flourish have paid little practical attention to the people. Focus is on technology, industry and broad economic indicators. They show how the country is performing, rather than how the people are doing. This is misleading. Slave economies, for example, have thrived at the expense of the slaves. This was what JM Kariuki meant when he said, “We don’t want to be a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.” 

Wealthy countries are not synonymous with wealthy nations. Notions like gross domestic product and per capita incomes often mask poverty among the people. A country is, accordingly capable of reeling off one great success story after the other while the people perish. It is not that the economic figures are lies. It is rather that the fat of the nation fails to trickle down to everyday people. This is what President Biden means when he tells Americans: “Trickledown economics have never worked.”

Trickledown development models were promoted among the poor after World War II, in Africa’s independence decades. Development communications scholars, like Daniel Lerner and Wilbur Schram, believed that development ideas and technical support could flow down from the rich to the poor. Hence, a poor country was expected to benefit from the trickledown factor, simply by copying what was happening in a rich country. And within any country, the poor could develop simply by copying what the rich did.

This is what is called the top-to-bottom development model. It was so dominant in its time that it came to be called the dominant paradigm of development. The model made some shocking assumptions about poor people. First was that they were lazy. Second was that they were hostile to development. To invest in them was to waste resources.

Kenya’s Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965 on African Socialism and its application to planning was based on these beliefs. Accordingly, development would go to those parts of the country that had taken off and filter down to the rest. It did not work.  Stereotyped beliefs of this kind were, indeed, found everywhere in Africa. Hence, if you were from a certain region, the entire community may be labelled as lazy.

They may say you wait under trees for fruits to fall into your lap, like manna from heaven, and that was why you were poor. The poor were given such scornful names as loafers and laggards. In East Africa, Kiswahili developed the word ‘mlofa,’ from ‘loafer,’ to signify an idler and vagrant.

President Biden is telling Americans and the rest of the world that this is not the way to go. To continue in that direction is to blame the victim. America could be on the cusp of a major paradigm shift in development. In taking this approach, Biden is choosing the path advocated by progressive development scholars, like Everette Rodgers, to counter the dominant paradigm of the 1960s. He calls it ‘a blue-collar blueprint.’ 

The situational irony for us in Kenya is that we once experimented with the bottom-up model quite successfully, in the 1970s and ‘80s. The cooperative movement in agriculture and the growth of cottage industries under the wings of the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC) pushed Kenya’s economy ahead of the rest in the region. The Kenya Industrial Estates incubated many infant businesses and put the country on the road to growth. Excessive focus on toxic politics combined with corruption to send all this to waste. Is it about time we revisited this model?

-The writer is a strategic public communications advisor


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