Last Thursday, May 3, President Uhuru Kenyatta delivered his State of the Nation address to a joint session of the Senate and the National Assembly. This speech will be remembered for these words, “if I damaged the unity of this country in any way, I ask you to forgive me, and to join me in repairing that harm.” These are extraordinary words, coming from the mouth of a Kenyan politician. The words “Forgive me” are not part of our political lexicon. The last significant political leader to use these words was retired President Daniel arap Moi as he prepared to leave office in December 2002. Leaders in this part of world often think of themselves as omniscient, infallible, accountable only to their egos and narrow self-interest.
Uhuru also spoke about his Big Four agenda: Affordable healthcare, manufacturing, food security and affordable housing. Attaining these goals is not trivial but it starts with a dream. And Uhuru revealed his dream. “My dream is one day, in the not-too-distant future, owning a decent home will be within reach of every Kenyan of median and modest incomes.”
Decent and affordable housing is critical to creating a vibrant and cohesive society. But we must think not just about houses. We must think about communities, diverse and integrated and sustainable communities. We must not go down the path of the public housing in the United States, commonly known as the projects.
In the US the projects have become ghettos, where families are trapped in low achievement, poverty and crime. In his book, America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy, Howard Husock writes about how low-income housing programmes have harmed those they were meant to help, while causing grave collateral damage to cities and their citizens. It is a cautionary tale.
Through the Big Four we have a chance to rethink urban and rural development. For example, imagine re-planning the neighbourhoods in Nairobi’s suburbs; designing and building mixed-income housing, with schools, hospitals, open spaces, commercial arcades and in proximity to modern industrial parks — high-tech, digitally intensive industrial complex — that catalyse economic growth and the structural transformation we sorely need.
Strategic public investment that de-risks the agriculture sector such as electricity, reliable water for irrigation, insurance, roads and railway could stimulate private investment. Such investments will enhance efficiency, productivity, and catalyse the emergence of agro-industrial nodes across the country. Inevitably, this enhances national food security while triggering demand for quality housing, healthcare and education.
With careful and thoughtful planning the Big Four could be transformative in historic proportions. But if implemented as single isolated, sectoral government projects, the Big Four will fail. If we fail the Big Four will define an indelible legacy of failure for Uhuru and Kenya.
Uhuru has said many times that he is open to novel ideas. Now is the time to bring our best ideas forward and ensure successful implementation of the Big Four agenda. This must be the legacy of our generation.
Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University