Kenya’s development mirage: The problem of imitating success

A photo of Nairobi skyline at Night (PHOTO BY EDWARD KIPLIMO.)

NAIROBI, KENYA: Like many developing countries, Kenya has implemented many visions, programmes and even clarion calls intended to put it squarely on the path to development.

As a young man, I heard about water for all by the year 2000. Then, 2000 seemed like a lifetime. Yet, today in 2017, Kenya is facing a water crisis: access to safe water supplies throughout Kenya is only at 59 per cent.

More than 1.3 million Kenyans are facing starvation and are in dire need of relief food. This is as a result of changing weather patterns occasioned by La Nina.

 Due to lack of access to water and sanitation, diarrhoea is second to pneumonia in deaths in children under five years of age (excluding neonatal). Water, sanitation and hygiene related illnesses and conditions are the number one cause of hospitalization in children under age five. On the flip side, access to water and sanitation would contribute to time savings for women, more hours in school for girls, and fewer health costs. What contributes to this hapless trajectory?

One important aspect of the development process is the building of the human capacity. Institutions and infrastructure are important but a skilled, educated workforce is required to carry out basic functions such as teaching, medical care, policing, security, regulation, and core service delivery. Despite this, billions of dollars are spent each year on shambolic short-term programmes designed to achieve the impossible.

While modern development discourses and narratives espouse the idea that different countries require different solutions, there is still an overemphasis on imported—one size fits all—solutions. This approach not only fails to develop state capacity, but also slows the process by encouraging developing countries to adopt predefined solutions which focus on form over function, and thus neglect the importance of experimentation through bottoms-up development.

Development practice in Kenya continues to operate on the assumptions of an outdated theory of modernization. This is at least part of the reason for lack of progress in terms of developing human capacity in Kenya. This theory of modernisation sees development as a process through which a country undergoes four interconnected transformations related to a more productive economy, a more democratic polity, a more just society, and a more professional administration.

In the 1950s and 1960s many believed in the idea that history was unfolding towards an inevitable end state and that the occurrence of these transformations was simply a matter of time. Communism for those on the left, and capitalism for those on the right would inevitably lead to the uniformity of institutional forms. Thus modernisation theory stated that the best way to speed up development was for countries to skip some of the process of modernisation by copying those countries further along the path which was then referred to as westernisation.

Today, very few development professionals still subscribe to this view. The development discourse is now focused around the idea that one size fits all and silver bullet solutions simply do not exist nor do they work. Instead there is a general consensus that context matters, and that the people themselves should be in control of their own development process.

However the rejection of modernization theory in principle has not led to the abandonment of the practices it recommends. Many projects still operate on the premises that development can be accelerated by importing ‘best practice’ models from developed to developing countries. This approach does not effectively promote the development of human capacity as while donors and recipients may believe they are importing both form and function, successful outcomes are often judged by form alone and thus appearance is emphasized over substance.

In order to understand why this kind of approach to development continues to be prevalent we need to understand how countries mask their non-accomplishment. A technique called ‘isomorphic mimicry’ is often used to sustain the legitimacy of institutions in developing countries, even when these institutions cannot demonstrate expected accomplishments. There are two main ways members of organizations can demonstrate their legitimacy.

 They can either appeal to demonstrable accomplishments such as their ability to fulfil their intended role in an effective manner, or just point at the fact that their organisation looks like other similar institutions around the world, which are seen as legitimate, and claim this similarity makes their institution legitimate by proxy. This second approach can be termed ‘isomorphic mimicry’; developingcountries often use this technique to sustain legitimacy by imitating other successful modern institutions without actually developing the functionality of the institutions they are copying.

A concern with isomorphic mimicry does not translate to all areas of development. If a vaccine for malaria were discovered they would not advise against developing countries adopting this predefined solution. The problems associated with isomorphic mimicry occur precisely when the search for a predefined solution actually detracts from attempts to find new ways of solving the specific problemsat hand. Importing a solution that has proved successful elsewhere diminishes the potential for novel approaches to unique problems to be developed and tested.

The key question for development practitioners and leaders looking to implement policies that will help build human capacity as we hurtle towards the 2017 general elections is how they can facilitate the creation of context-specific institutions and incremental reform processes.

Wanjawa teaches sociology of developing countries at Pwani University. [email protected]