ULTIMATE WHITE ELEPHANT

Why Kenyans turned against large loans

Chief culprit in this change of attitude obviously the Chinese-built SGR.

In Summary
  • We may not know very much about railways, but we do know when the numbers of a much-hyped “development project” do not add up.
  • SGR is now openly mocked as “a railway to nowhere” and judged to be the ultimate white elephant project.

I am old enough to remember a time when the arrival in Kenya of a delegation from the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank was front page news. For all intents and purposes, the visitors might as well have been gods descending from Mt Olympus.

There would be wall-to-wall coverage of the VIPs visit, starting with photos taken when they landed at the airport; more photos of the god-technocrats shaking hands with our ecstatic Finance minister; and detailed coverage of any press conference these gods of finance might see fit to hold while they were here.

I cannot remember at this distance if they were met by traditional dancers at the airport. But they certainly qualified for that singular mark of honour, which back then was usually reserved for visiting heads of state. And there was good reason for this.

Back then, just about any great leap forward in our attempts to “build our nation” involved some foreign agency or rich country coming in to help us out. And so, we in general celebrated anyone who came to offer development funding, whether through a loan or a grant.

 
 

For example, Kenyans were grateful for the Kasarani Sports Centre, which was understood to be a gift to the Kenyan people by the government of China. It was a singularly appropriate project for an established sporting super-power like Kenya, which had up to then lacked a world-class sports arena.

But even more significant were the institutions established with the help of the Japanese government, especially the Kenya Medical Research Institute, which put Kenya on the global map for collaborative biomedical research; and the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, which to this day remains one of our leading public universities.

And if you have been following the recent problems in the Kenyan small-scale tea-growing subsector, it might interest you to know that before Independence, tea was grown solely as a plantation crop on very large farms.

In the past the multilateral lending institutions as much as donor nations would generally ensure a reasonable level of transparency in their lending. But nowadays it seems that a different – and inscrutable – kind of mathematics applies when it comes to some of our government’s mega projects

Small-scale tea growing was only made possible through a ground-breaking World Bank-supported programme in the early years after Independence, and indeed was for many decades considered a classic case study in successful agrarian innovation in a developing nation.

The IMF technocrats were held in even greater awe than the representatives of these other lenders and donors, as they generally only came when we were in trouble and needed loans to “secure financial stability”. And Kenya received many of those, in response to the various monetary and financial crises that we faced from time to time.

And yet look where we are now. With very few exceptions, lenders are now routinely abused as neo-colonialists out to “recolonise” our country and enslave our people. Certainly, there can be no question of traditional dancers meeting any such lenders at the airport.

The chief culprit in this change of attitude is obviously the Chinese-built standard gauge railway, which has been an epic public relations disaster for Kenya and China. It is now openly mocked as “a railway to nowhere” and judged to be the ultimate white elephant project.

This is hardly what was expected in the days when it was launched in an elaborate ceremony by the President himself.

 

We Kenyans may not know very much about railways, but we do know when the numbers of a much-hyped “development project” do not add up.

We learn of importers being told that they now have been blessed with a brand-new and highly efficient railway, for which they should be eternally grateful.

But at the same time, these importers are sternly warned that they must use this wonderful new railway to move their containers from Mombasa to Nairobi, whether they want to or not, and even if they already have their own fleet of trucks. Something about this SGR railway obviously does not add up.

In the past the multilateral lending institutions as much as donor nations would generally ensure a reasonable level of transparency in their lending.

But nowadays it seems that a different – and inscrutable – kind of mathematics applies when it comes to some of our government’s mega projects.