Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ode to Nairobi Part II: Development vs. Standard of Living?

In Nairobi about a week ago, I had wine with a group of professional women, primarily expats. They were wonderful, interesting, dynamic women. There was a rule at the event, no complaining about Kenya. Of course, everyone complained about Kenya anyway.

These ladies all lived in Nairobi, some of them had been here for decades, others were new or had been here in the 70s and recently returned. The complaints about Nairobi echoed my own in an earlier blog—traffic problems, mostly. Crime featured prominently as well. Those who had been living here for long noted that things were relatively safer, while those who were here in the 70s reminisced about days when Nairobi was more like Kampala or Dar in terms of safety. The declining quality of the train service since 1977 was also a recurrent theme.

The real issue, though, was traffic. And these ladies, who had much longer histories with the city than I have, told me something interesting. Namely, that traffic in Nairobi had increased drastically in the past 5 years. This was the crux of the complaint—that the standard of living in Nairobi had decreased alongside the increase in traffic. Everybody in Kenya—expat or citizen, blames everything on corruption. So the poor infrastructure in Nairobi, its inability to handle its traffic, is blamed on corruption, just like everything else is blamed on corruption.

However, I think that’s not quite right. The increase in traffic in Nairobi is not a sign of underdevelopment, actually, it’s a sign of development. And apparently of rapid development. If traffic was not this bad 5 years ago, it’s because fewer people had cars. So I’ll amend my earlier rant a bit with two caveats.

First, in subsequent conversations about the possibility of a subway in Nairobi, I realized that the New York City subway system is older than the city of Nairobi. Ok, so the point there is that Nairobi is a rapidly urbanizing place and keeping up with rapid urbanization is a problem anywhere in the world.

Second, these infrastructure problems should not be blamed on corruption. Sure, corruption doesn’t help, but if we expected countries to develop without corruption, no country anywhere would ever develop. Rather, these infrastructure problems are a problem of transition. The same problem exists in all rapidly developing or urbanizing places—Mexico City, Bangalore, Jakarta, and on and on. Countries with weak institutions always have trouble keeping up with quickly changing scenarios—that Nairobi is no exception should not be surprising.

Now on to crime. Well, crime is so complicated. My leap of faith in doing development has always been that I believe that gross inequality is wrong, so I’m going to point the finger at that—slums in Nairobi are not very far from some of the city’s riches areas (see Raila Odinga’s Langata constituency for one)—however, rising inequality does not necessarily mean that a country is stagnating; in fact it could mean that it is growing—although it may mean that growth is being mismanaged (maybe by government corruption, maybe by a rampant private sector, maybe both).

Ok, so if we posit that these problems are a sign of development rather than of underdevelopment, this leads me to a question that all those in the development world must tackle at some point: Can development be inimical to the quality of people’s lives? Of course, the obvious follow-up question is, whose life are you talking about? Is the headache of increased traffic for those who used to enjoy clear roads offset by the convenience for the new car owners?

At my last job at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, we framed our research around the question that encapsulates many of these paradoxes well: How can we promote the positive aspects of development while minimizing the negative impacts? That, of course, is the right question, but unpacking it may be impossible. Whose negative impacts and whose positive impacts? I certainly don’t know the answer.

In any case, I’m still going to be based in Kisumu and avoid Nairobi. But now I’ll have to give a proper thought for why I like it—personally, do I want it to develop and grow, to take full advantage of the opening up of the East African Community and get some industry and trade going across Lake Victoria with Uganda and Tanzania? Or do I want it to remain as is, so that I can ride my bike across town in 20 minutes, or walk to the shores of the lake to watch the sunset surrounded by greenery and flanked by exotic birds. What if they replace hippo point with a new ferry terminal? Or build a fish processing plant at Dunga Beach? Will that increase people’s standards of living? And whose standard of living will it increase?