Why a focus on wealth is killing Kenya’s development

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This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on May 24, 2015

Kenya has essentially been capitalistic since its inception as a nation-state in 1963. At no point did the country seriously dabble with socialism or communism like some of our east African neighbours. Many are of the view that this ultimately did Kenya good. After all the country is the economic forerunner in the region and a major player in the continent.

To be honest, this thinking is bolstered by the fact that almost every nation on earth has bought into the notion that capitalism is the best economic system humans have devised so far in our history.

capitalism-without-romance(source: https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/capitalism-without-romance.jpg)

Some regimes may be more autocratic than others but a core belief in capitalism persists.But has this mass buy-in into capitalism led to a focus on wealth rather than development?

Is economic power a necessary and sufficient precursor to or foundation for development? Further, as the World Bank asks: Is the goal of development merely to increase national wealth, or is it something more subtle?

In Kenya, accumulating wealth has become the life goal of many citizens. So ingrained is this notion that it no longer matters whether one has beaten, robbed or stolen one’s way into wealth. As long as one is wealthy, respect, power and access to opportunities often follow.

The obsession with wealth fuels corruption at both the macro- and micro-level because individuals want to save money or make money by dabbling in what is essentially immoral and/or illegal behaviour. The mantra seems to be “accumulate” rather than “develop”.

Interestingly, even if one is not willing to engage in corruption to accrue wealth, a focus on money alone can lead individuals to sacrifice development for the sake of financial gain.

Money-Obsession(source: http://www.dumblittleman.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Money-Obsession.jpg)

Behavioural ethicality

Studies that explore the subconscious link between money and corruption called behavioural ethicality, illustrate this point. One study by Harvard University found that even subtle exposure to the concept of money, in and of itself, may be a corrupting influence that leads to a focus on financial accumulation rather than ethical good.

This may be explained by the possibility that money triggers a business decision mind-frame and a focus on a cost-benefit analysis where benefit is defined in purely financial terms.

However, in an underdeveloped country such as Kenya, sometimes long-term good may be more expensive in the short term, fail a financially focused cost-benefit analysis but have greater developmental benefit. For example, in order to build capacity to craft basic infrastructure for itself, Kenya may need to make the short-term costly investment of integrating inexperienced engineers into infrastructure projects. This may be expensive and inefficient in the short term because it takes time and money to ensure technical skills transfer truly happens, but it would ultimately be for the greater good of the country as we will have the home-grown capacity to manage and implement projects.

Girl's hands holding globe --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

(source: http://studentsforliberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Africa-Post.jpg)

 A focus on financial efficiency alone often makes government cast aside the greater good achieved from strategies that are costly in the short term but push the country up the development path in the long term. The government tends to adhere to selecting the most financially “efficient” short term solution. The point is not to encourage poor investment decisions but rather highlight that a focus on money and accumulation alone is not serving the country well.

As it stands, the current fixation on money is doing two things: First, exacerbating the culture of corruption at both institutional and individual levels and, second, compromising the nation’s long-term development in order to ensure short-term financial gains.It is time the country grappled with how wealth can used to pursue the goal of development rather than being the end goal itself.

Ms Were is a development economist. Email: anzetsew@gmail.com, twitter@anzetse

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