View from Africa: Progress without people

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View from Africa: Progress without people


Nanjala Nyabola writes about how Kenya is welcoming the Chinese development model.

Temperatures dropped to a freezing11 degrees centigrade in Nairobi on Monday 23 July 2018. In Kibera, on one of the coldest nights of the year, residents looked at the harm to their community. Bulldozers from the Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) spent the day tearing down houses, schools, and businesses. This is the beginning of a process that will make 30,000 people homeless.

The Kibera residents’ homes are on public land reserved for building more roads. They only gave the residents a few days to leave. People have criticised KURA’s actions for going against the Resettlement Action Plan that it agreed to, and for going against Kenyan law. The law allows residents to reclaim their property and to have enough time to leave. This is the latest in a number of government plans and Kenyans are asking: who is development for? The clearest example is the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). A new railway line goes from the second-largest city of Mombasa to Nairobi. Very big loans from the Chinese government paid for the SGR and the Chinese built it. There are a lot of Chinese workers, and the railway has made only a small improvement in Kenya’s transport.

African railway workers say that their Chinese managers are racist. And economists are unhappy about how much debt there is. The new railway resulted in the deaths of very many animals, including lions and buffalos. The Nairobi National Park may not survive. It is the only national park in a capital city in the world. At the moment, it is not clear how the SGR has improved Kenyan lives but the government says it is a success.

The SGR is one of Kenya’s many big projects which show very little thought to their effects. It’s strange to have this conversation in 2018, when there has been so much discussion about the need for human-centred development. We know that we should only build things which will improve people’s lives and do as little harm as possible.

The problem is the difference between the Western and the Chinese ideas of development.

People criticise the Western model for being paternalistic and for thinking only about its own interests, and for making the inequalities between businesses and governments, and between governments and people worse. But the Chinese model, which has taken the place of the Western model, invests in infrastructure and nothing else. And it has done great harm to the environment. The Chinese government understands this and has been investing less in coal plants or polluting industries in China. But it is using its own model in countries like Kenya.

People do not seem to want to look between these two models and encourage Kenyan approaches to problems. The government pays no attention to local economists, environmentalists, and others. In Kibera, advocacy groups have asked KURA to work with them on other models to stop the harm caused by the road. But KURA’s reply is that they must build the road in their own way.

Kenya is nothing without Kenyans. And following foreign development models only offers very few benefits. The Kenyan government needs to remember that progress without people means nothing.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)