In the eyes of my kinsmen, our hometown of Butere has joined the league of developed parts of the country.
For the first time since God created the Earth, there is a tarmac road linking up our hamlet to the rest of the world. Add this to the fact that the little hamlet is connected to the national electricity grid and most schools have cemented walls and floors. We are ‘developing’!
In the wisdom of my people, development is not having to endure slippery muddy roads during the rainy season. It is having lit up shopping centers where we can take our phones for charging and grind our maize into flour. It is granting our school-going children the luxury of not having to carry cow dung to school every morning for smearing the classroom floors and walls.
Roads, and infrastructural development in general, remain a big deal – and not just for my village. A promise of any of these is a seductive ruse by many an aspirant for political office. The parliamentary hopefuls are wont to promise to tarmac our main roads while the aspiring councilors (now MCAs) would regale us with their grand plans to murram the footpaths in the village.
For many people, smooth tarmacked roads and electricity, on their own, should be a potent charm against poverty. This is the basis that those who dismiss mega projects as not pro-poor base their arguments on, like Dr Patrick Mbataru did in the Sunday Nation (August 9, 2015) asserting that ‘Mega projects have little impact on the poor’.
Infrastructure is actually a foundation, a catalyst and a critical enabler of development. It is a facilitator of enterprise that eventually translates into wealth for the entrepreneurs and lift communities out of poverty.
Smooth roads should enable the poultry farmer in the hinterland to ferry their eggs much more efficiently to the market. It will make the investor, who every county is busy wooing through conferences and forums and trips abroad, to select a well-served area to set up a factory that will create jobs and a market.
Nonetheless, infrastructure is not a panacea for all or developmental shortcomings. Rather, it should be viewed as a basis, which if harnessed well and backed by favourable incentives and pro-enterprise measures, is bound to transform lives.
Fixing our infrastructure is in itself a step forward on our path towards the promised land of development. Perhaps, the only challenge we face in our rush to upgrade infrastructure is efficiency in the allocation of resource. We sometimes allocate too much to infrastructure that ends up eating into what we would have invested in the social infrastructure which deal with immediate needs of the poor.
Nonetheless, with more and more parts of the country ‘developing’, it is incumbent upon county governments to rise up to the challenge and fashion policies that will encourage enterprise in their respective areas of jurisdiction. Contrary to popular opinion, we do not have to court foreigners to come and invest in our villages and create jobs. We can also create jobs by encouraging local homegrown businesses to thrive while leveraging off the superior infrastructure that we are fortunate to have. Creating the right circumstances for enterprise to thrive is critical. It empowers citizens to build wealth, and of their own power, to reach out for their full aspirations, and development.
If anything, it is in the interest of the devolved governments that each county has a strong enterprise base. These governments have to generate revenue to supplement funds received from the central government.
Alongside putting up the brick and mortar of infrastructure and supporting enterprise to thrive, we need to increase our investments in social infrastructure and services– through targeted development programmes in education and health. At the end of the day, this is the true measure of development. It makes people’s lives easier and more meaningful. These are the tangible benefits to the ordinary citizen that will complete the picture of development in the minds of Kenyans.
Devolution creates an excellent opportunity to deliver this. Unfortunately, the charm of roads, infrastructure and cement has clouded politicians’ minds, as they are keen to ‘show’ development. This ends up playing into the mindsets of kawaida people, who are fixated with a constricted view of development.
Granted, huge strides have been made in operationalizing devolution, as it is imagined through the historic constitutional development. It is now upon the devolved units to re-imagine development from the stand-point and circumstances of the poor villager. It is not only what the villager perceives as development, but also importantly, how development, however conceived, actually changes the lot of their lives. This is through ease of access and affordability of their daily bread.
If the villager is happier, healthier, more educated, well-fed, is empowered and can easily access and meet their needs, then the addition of smooth roads, flowing water cemented classrooms, really brings development home.
This was first published in Daily Nation on August 26, 2015; and online at http://www.nation.co.ke/oped/Opinion/How-infrastructure-can-change-our-lives/-/440808/2846298/-/14hl6co/-/index.html