From Jomo to Uhuru: How roadside declarations replaced research as the basis for national policies

By: Prof. Kanyinga

This past week, the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Nairobi celebrated 50 years of development research.

Founded in 1965, the institute is indeed one of the oldest development research institutes in the World.

IDS was initiated to study modernisation form of development during a period when Africa was rising from colonialism.

At the onset, the institute hosted several public discussions on development in Kenya and Africa in general.


Unknown to many people, IDS Nairobi has been home to many world renowned researchers.

Several Nobel Laureates started their careers here. They include James Tobin, winner of Nobel Prize in Economics in 1981; and Joseph Stiglitz, winner of Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001.

James Coleman, renowned for social capital theory; and Michael Todaro also distinguished for migration theory, were based at the IDS Nairobi in the early period of their research careers.

There are many others who did ground breaking research work in the development field while based at IDS here in Nairobi.

Today, the institute continues to host renowned scholars in the development field. They include Charles Okidi, the first African recipient of the Elizabeth Haub Prize in environmental law.


Many of these scholars came specifically to study how development was taking place in Kenya and Africa in general.

In the 1970s, some of them focused on finding out why Kenya was developing faster than many other countries in Africa.

Some of them argued that Kenya was a model to be replicated elsewhere.

Others had divergent perspective. They argued that the development taking place in Kenya was neither “original” nor indigenous. They argued that it was foreign.

They also maintained that Kenya was prospering because the law favoured “foreign” form of development.

The law and political leaders supported the foreign or multinational corporations but discriminated against Kenyans who were interested in investments.

These scholars pointed out that the law was not favourable to mwananchi.

In their view, the law disliked the poor. The law, as drafted, punished the poor and discriminated against the ordinary mwananchi.

It advantaged the rich, no matter how they acquired their riches.


In addition to hosting renowned scholars, IDS played an important part in national development.

IDS often provided research findings to guide development policy and planning.

The first series of the five-year development plans often benefited from research work at IDS and/or research by these renowned scholars, including Kenyan social scientists who opted to remain in research.

The relationship with government departments was clear.

The government planned for development using research data. Bureaucrats were not muddling through work.

Policy makers were also informed; they generated credible and critical data to help in development thinking, planning and implementation.

The then Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) was positioned as an extension of the university or the IDS.

There was seamless collaboration in designing and implementing surveys whose findings would inform policymaking and implementation.

The mutual relationship between the academia and the government resulted in elaborate planning and implementation of development programmes.

The government financed higher education without disruptions.

The university was not begging for funds; the government clearly understood that financing university education and research was important investment in human capital for national development.

This is now history. At the celebrations to mark the IDS’s 50 years, commentators noted that this relationship is no longer in place. So what went wrong?


First things first. In the 1960s and 1970s, the first generation of African Presidents had great admiration for scholarship. They loved education. Nyerere, Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkurumah were themselves sons of peasants.

They knew the importance of education. They sought from the outset to promote higher education.

The connection between the government and the universities was quite strong.

President Nyerere, for instance, often debated at the University of Dar es Salaam on the future of Africa’s development and the role of imperialism — this was his best subject.


Things changed in Kenya when President Moi came to power.

He shifted attention away from university education to basic education.

He developed an allergy for university professors owing to their criticism of his approach to governance.

Those around him were even more critical of the universities.

They had a distaste for professors and by extension abhorrence for scholarship.

Some of them even thought that professors were being influenced by someone called Karl Marx.

Because they had heard the story that Karl Marx was always in the library, they advised that Karl Marx be arrested and detained without trial.

Although satirical, this was the tragedy.

After detaining a number of lecturers and forcing many of them and their students to go to exile, the government disconnected from the university.

Government officials were literally dreadful of associating with university researchers and lecturers in general.

Some ministers and permanent secretaries would literally run away from their own meetings if they saw a prominent scholar in the meeting.

This marked the end of the relationship between policy makers and researchers.


In the end, government resorted to planning without data or simply muddling through.

Presidential decrees would be implemented without research data to inform their worth.

At other times, the government would use data sourced from the security intelligence, its credibility notwithstanding.

Furthermore, although the Central Bureau of Statistics continued to produce credible data, social-political statistics became rare.

In fact, the last census report to tabulate population figures disaggregated by ethnicity or tribe was the 1989 census.

The Directory of Civil Service that contained telephone numbers and names of civil servants and their tribes also disappeared.

The university as an academy was punished. It could not produce knowledge to aid development policy-making, planning and management.

Budgetary allocation to the university also declined.

The message was clear: President Moi’s government did not want any emphasis on university education and research.

Donors played a role too in stifling universities. Worried about the disconnect between the government and universities, they funded new research centres.

They funded them to produce data. The donors would use these to understand our economy and the society.

They also used their privileged position to market these research centres to the government.

Interestingly, these new bodies began to undertake research that benefitted the donors more than it benefited the Kenyan society.


President Mwai Kibaki’s Narc government brought the university and the academia in general back to public policy and development arena.

With the appointment of Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o as the Planning Minister, there was an immediate reconnection with the academia.

There were several other intellectuals in his government who entertained academic debate in a manner almost near what often took place in the 1970s.

There were a few ministers who were always keen on debates and workshops in town. They were not shy to debate issues.

President Kibaki’s government increased salaries and other benefits for universities.

Although the government’s education policy was emphatic on primary education, the government also privileged universities in certain important ways.

However, this was not near what happened in the 1970s.


President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has not improved the status of universities in any significant manner.

There is no progress from where President Kibaki left.

Furthermore, there is lack of clarity on what is the focus of the government.

It is neither basic nor tertiary education.

Universities have exponentially grown in terms of numbers but they lack finances and adequately trained academic staff to teach the students.

All public universities operate with huge financial deficits.

Research here is also funded not so much by the government but by other agencies.

The connection of universities’ research work to the public sector has faded or dissolved altogether.

Although there are many public universities and research centres, there is no clearly defined relationship with the government ministries.

Indeed donors appear to have a better working relationship with our public universities and researchers than the government itself.

That is, while a lot is taking place in terms of research in all universities, the public sector does not consume the research results.

The private sector, donors and NGOs, are the main beneficiaries of research by some of these universities.

This is in spite of the fact that the government should be using research findings to facilitate national development.

Nonetheless, the solutions to Kenya’s development challenges are visible from findings by many researchers here in Kenya.

But there is a Berlin Wall between research and policy makers.

This wall is coming down so slowly that there is no good uptake of research findings to lead development. This wall must come down rapidly for the country to prosper.

This is important because it is now widely recognised that evidence-based planning underpins development that is truly sustainable.