Volume 1, Number 15
18 June 2001

Kenya: A Turning Point

Dear Friends,

Kenya may have been the turning point, but it was only the culmination of a long-growing suspicion: Was my career as advisor to Third-World governments doing more harm than good?

First incident

Kenya, it seemed to the planning team, needed more credit to small farmers. Since it possessed a good national highway system, we proposed — for the third five-year plan — to move funds from the Ministry of Works (in charge of roads) to the Ministry of Agriculture. The team consisted of about ten Kenyan economists, representing different fields, with myself as expatriate advisor.

When the Minister of Works saw the proposed budget he stomped, furious, into the office of the Permanent Secretary (PermSec) of Finance. In the Kenyan system, copied from the British, the PermSec is the closest equivalent of our Secretary of the Treasury. The Minister of Finance, to whom he reports, is a Member of Parliament. The PermSec called me in to explain. "I have already let out contracts for more than is in my planned budget," the Minister of Works was complaining. The PermSec tried to soothe him, saying that "this is only the plan." He ordered me to take 1% off the budget of every other ministry and add that amount to the Ministry of Works.

"Only" the plan, I thought? Did my work mean nothing?

Second incident

President Jomo Kenyatta was making one of his many political speeches before a crowd, and he asked for questions. "When will the tax on matatus (taxis) be repealed?" a taxi driver asked. "It is repealed forthwith!" the President replied instantly. The next day the planning team was asked to delete the matatu tax from the budget and to jiggle the other amounts around to come out with a balanced budget. It was not that I objected to repealing the matatu tax — that was a bad tax anyway. Rather, I was annoyed at both the power of the President (no consulting Parliament) and the cavalier treatment of the economic plan.

Publisher's note: That tax has since been reinstated, according to a story in The East African. A government with the power to unilaterally repeal a tax has the power to unilaterally reinstate it, as Jack points out repeatedly in Centuries of Economic Endeavor. — Russ Nelson

Third incident

My Kenyan counterpart was assigned to write the chapter on monetary and fiscal policy in the coming five-year plan. But he wasn't interested, and I could see that if it were to be done, I would have to do it. I knew I would share the blame if it were not done. So I wrote it.

The corresponding chapter in the preceding plan had called for low interest rates, to facilitate borrowing for capital investment. But to forecast interest rates for the next five years was ridiculous, I thought, because they must be constantly adapted to the unemployment or inflation of the time. (Alan Greenspan would never predict interest rates for five years!) But I was told to do it, so I did. (I was hired by the Ford Foundation but seconded to the PermSec of Finance, who was my "boss." I had agreed to be his civil servant.)

But low interest rates would transfer assets from the poor to the rich in Kenya, because unemployment was high. So I wrote that interest rates would be raised, to discourage the use of capital and favor the employment of labor. My Kenyan counterpart agreed. But the PermSec ordered me to find a justification for low interest rates. More sinister was that I suspected he wanted low interest rates because a small elite in the government planned to borrow money to build a tourist hotel, from a development bank they would fund with foreign-aid money. Their costs would be lower, and profit higher, if the borrowing rate were low.

Here I faced a dilemma. Being true to my calling as economist, and to my life as Quaker, called for high interest rates, yet I had promised the Ford Foundation that I would obey my "boss."

Instead of fulfilling his command, I returned the chapter to the PermSec's desk, with a note saying I could not conscientiously recommend low interest rates. He would have to order one of his Kenyan employees to write that part of the plan.

The next I heard, the Minister of Finance had called the planning team to discuss the chapter. The PermSec had been out of town, but the Minister wanted the chapter to go to Parliament right away, so he had pulled it from the PermSec's desk. The team met in the Minister's office. The Minister went over the chapter, paragraph by paragraph, saying what he liked or disliked, and asking us to change parts. He did not ask any questions, and no one on the team offered an opinion. (This has been a style to which I had become accustomed in less developed countries. The high official does all the talking; the "advisor" listens and does what is commanded).

The Minister approved the paragraph on high interest rates. So I faced another dilemma. On the one hand, it would not be proper to interrupt the Minister. On the other hand, he should know that his PermSec did not agree with that paragraph.

I broke the first rule. "Mr. Minister," I said, "Your Permanent Secretary does not agree with that paragraph." When the Minister wanted to know how the chapter had come to his desk without the PermSec's approval, I reminded him that he had called for it in the Permsec's absence. He thought for a moment, then said: "The paragraph makes sense. It is approved."

But I knew that interest rates would be kept low anyway. The plan is for show and to appease foreign-aid agencies.

Fourth incident

Through Lewis Hoskins, a Quaker professor of history at Earlham, Robin and I had come to know Sam Motsuenyane, the President of the African (Black) Federation of Chambers of Commerce in South Africa. He and Cyril Pearce, the President of the National (White) Federation, stopped for a visit in Kenya. Although these were days of High Apartheid, Sam and Cyril were close friends and often traveled together. They invited me to do a series of lectures in the Black homelands of South Africa. Knowing that neither the Kenya Government (for which I was a civil servant) nor the Ford Foundation (that paid my salary) would approve, I simply took leave time and went, along with Robin, my wife.

In the visits to the Homelands, I discovered that Black South Africans were very entrepreneurial and easily capable of governing their nation (as happened twelve years later). At the end of our week's visit, I was invited to speak at the annual banquet of the Johannesburg (White) Chamber of Commerce. I was reluctant, but Sam urged me to go, and to tell the Chamber what I thought of Apartheid.

Wearing a rented black-tie suit, I sat next to the Mayor of Johannesburg at the head table in one of the finest hotels of the city. Next to Robin sat the Mayor's wife. I spoke about economic problems of Africa, without mentioning South Africa once. At the end, however, I said:

"I want you to know that it was not easy for me to come here, and I did so only at the urging of one who is not here, Sam Motsuenyane, President of the African Federation. "In my home country I would never attend a gathering at which any of my fellow citizens had been excluded because of their ethnic origin." An uneasy silence followed, broken only when an entire table, at the far end of the hall, stood up and cheered. I found out later they were visiting Australians.

Immediately after the talk, a reporter from the Rand Daily Mail asked me if my presence, as a civil servant of Kenya, foresaw a rapprochement between Kenya and South Africa. I replied that the Kenyan government did not know I was there. He was surprised, and asked, "Will they sack you when they find out?" I replied that I did not know.

The next morning, a banner headline appeared on page one of the Rand Daily Mail: "Kenya Civil Servant May be Sacked for Visiting South Africa."

Knowing that Kenyan watchers would read South African newspapers, I decided to tell my PermSec before he heard about it elsewhere. He was furious. "Do you realize," he said, "that we are already criticized for refueling South African planes?" I had not known that, but South African Airways would fly passengers to Europe in planes marked Sabena, the Belgian National Airline. They would refuel in Nairobi. (That was the shortest route for them, and Kenya needed the money). The Kenyans tried to hush it up. Now, he said, if anyone heard that a Kenyan civil servant had visited South Africa, all hell might break loose.

The Resident Representative of the Ford Foundation was also furious. He offered to send me home immediately, but the PermSec, noting that my term was about to expire, said these things should be kept quiet.

A few weeks later the President of the Ford Foundation, visiting Kenya, asked to see me. He too was furious. "If we sent you to Egypt," he asked, "Would you feel free to accept an invitation to Israel?" "Of course," I replied. "The Ford Foundation has bought my expertise, not my soul." (I have had no more assignments with the Ford Foundation, but there may be other reasons for that as well.)

From colleagues with assignments in other countries I have heard many stories similar to my Kenya adventures. These, plus my own experiences, led me to decry the great hypocrisy and corruption of governments, especially in the Third World. It also led me back to teaching, research, and writing, to find out why, historically, a small part of the world is rich and a much larger part poor.

These incidents occurred in 1972. In June 2001, while I am traveling away from my files, I will pull up some "old stuff," to help explain why I decided, in 1973, to quit consulting governments. (Today's Letter was written at Inter-Mountain Yearly Meeting in Durango, Colorado. In early July, I will co-lead a workshop at the Friends General Conference Gathering in Blacksburg, Virginia).

Next week I will tell about my ten years conducting seminars for Latin American Marxist students who strongly criticized the United States. That will include my meeting with Paraguayans plotting the overthrow of the dictator, General Stroessner. Keep tuned!

After that, we will get back to current happenings.

Please send me any thoughts you may have. Especially if you have had experiences parallel to mine, or that contradict mine, or if you know of such experiences. Send an email to TQE. Thank you.

Love and Peace from your Friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

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I have drawn the conclusion that it is a very difficult thing to "do good" to persons "less fortunate" who are geographically or culturally "far away" from "us," the donors.

This does't mean I'm against all such philanthropic efforts; after all, brain surgery and rocket science are very difficult too, but they also get done. All such efforts call for great skill, and our "charity" needs to be seasoned as well with generous amounts of humility. Like the person said, "be wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

If we do not study to be wise as serpents even in giving away our surplus, we may well not meet the other command to be harmless as doves; quite the opposite.

— Chuck Fager, State College (PA) Friends Meeting.

It was really interesting to read your account of the work you did and the frustrations you encountered in Kenya in the '70s. It brought back my own efforts at economic development among Quakers there in the '80s. I raised funds from a variety of yearly and monthly meetings around the US to go to Kenya and pick up on work that had been started there by a member of my meeting, Marjorie Fox from Philadelphia, who worked for several years with Friends of Elgon Yearly Meeting, a split off from the old East Africa Yearly Meeting. (There have been many, many more splits since the '80s). Marjorie died of cancer and I felt her work should not go unfinished.

I had some years of community development experience in this country and thought that some of it might apply there. The first trip in 1986 was actually a fact-finding effort to Elgon Friends to see what was most needed and what was possible. The second trip in 1988 was one where I was accompanied by a Quaker aquaculture researcher and specialist to find out if her extraordinary achievements in aquaculture in the US could be reproduced in Kenya and become the focus of the economic development project I had hoped for there. From the very start, however, as I contacted people in Nairobi, both expatriates and Kenyans, I received communications on two levels. The top level was straightforward and very Friendly. Indeed, never have I encountered a more hospitable or giving group of Friends. On the other hand, often in whispers at the end of a hard day, I was warned about issues which would make my work difficult if not impossible.

First was the enormous animosity among tribal groups. The habits I observed involved broad accusations against those of other tribes and assurances that the tribe whose members I was speaking to weren't like that at all. Second, was the extreme oppression of women in Kenya. While it wasn't obvious at first, one soon came to notice that while all the women worked very hard in the fields, the men "supervised" sitting under a tree, or visited with other men from nearby farms.

Women, I found out, were cast off for younger wives with impunity and they and their children were then left without support. Women were legally blamed and exiled from their community if they were raped. And it was traditional that a woman could not own property and therefore her husband or father had the right to take from her anything she earned or inherited and use it as he wished. Specifically, there were no property rights or contracts which could be counted upon across tribal or sexual lines. Formally in discussions with outsiders this was all attributed to traditional Kenyans who lived in the countryside and it was asserted repeatedly that the more educated and sophisticated Kenyans weren't like that, but in reality those attributes were apparent all the way to the top of the political and organizational structures I encountered. Admittedly, many Friends did make an effort to break these traditional habits on the basis of their adopted Quaker faith but the outside pressures to conform were enormous and so they failed.

Specifically, during my first trip to Kenya, I had a lot of enthusiasm for trying to fund small women's projects but soon found that where that had been tried, the women's husbands had taken any profits that were realized and left the project penniless. Indeed the men were enthusiastic for us to give their wives some more money not admitting that they could then take it from the women and use it as they wished. In trying to develop some cooperation among groups of Friends for the aquaculture project in '88, we tried to talk with different factions of Friends about joint efforts to achieve a needed economy of scale, but found that each group wished to work only with its own people giving ample reasons why the others could not be trusted.

Jack, your conclusions in your textbook, "Centuries of Economic Endeavor", helped me put all this in perspective. Kenya, and I expect much of Africa, was a prime example of a place where the basic trust needed to ensure property rights and enforce contracts was not present. For this reason, I can see why my efforts there were doomed from the start.

I hope this narrative provides a town and village illustration of your comments about working with the top tiers of Kenyan government and helps the CLQ readership understand some of the problems of economic development in Africa.

— Janet Minshall, Annawakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasville GA.

The comment [from Janet Minshal, immediately above] was fascinating.

— Stephen Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

I too was struck by Janet Minshall's comments about Kenya and their lack of ability to trust each other. Years ago I took a course on development of East Africa and was struck by the deliberate strategy of the British to play one group off against another — divide and conquer.

The British and other colonial governments can't be held totally responsible for current cultural hatreds - but unfortunately they were a contributing factor.

— Vici Oshiro, Minneapolis (MN) Friends Meeting.


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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