Local government in Kenya, 1958-2002

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: History


In August 2010, Kenya's new constitution was promulgated, amidst widespread public enthusiasm and optimism. A key element of the constitution is the emphasis on devolution. Kenya's previous constitution had been repeatedly criticised for concentrating wealth and power in the centre of the country; there is a widespread expectation that the new constitution will reverse that centralization, and spread both power and wealth more widely. The main mechanism for devolution is the creation of forty-seven county governments, each with an elected governor and an assembly. Guaranteed a share of at least 15% of total government revenue, it is hoped that these county governments will create an entirely new dynamic in Kenyan politics, and the development of this new level of government will be at the centre of political change in Kenya over the next decade.

The proposed research will provide an historicized understanding of earlier experiments with local government. This will offer insights of potentially enormous value to the policy-makers involved in the process of developing the new devolved local government, and to donor governments and international agencies who are expected to be closely involved in supporting this process. For the proposed system of local government is by no means unprecedented. Kenya came to independence in 1963 with a structure of county council governments that had been developed over an extended period, and which initially enjoyed substantial revenue-raising powers of their own. The project of the doctoral student is intended to answer a key question, of direct and pressing relevance: how was it that this system of local government was undermined, so that by the end of the 1980s county councils in Kenya had become a byword for corruption and inefficiency?

In answering this question, the project will engage with, and offer new contributions to, the rich and often contentious scholarship on the post-colonial Kenyan state. Much of this has been concerned with the emergence of a political culture of authoritarian centralism, associated with an ethnicization of politics at a local level which became more intense over time. But very little of it has offered any discussion of the question of local government, and why this apparently failed to resist centralization.

In taking an overtly historical approach, the project will demonstrate the value of extended historical research in providing usable insights to policy-makers. Governance initiatives in Africa have been criticized for their lack of understanding of local circumstance, and the bilateral and multi-lateral agencies which support such initiatives are not in a position to undertake the sort of prolonged and focussed research work which is required to develop a historically-grounded understanding. This research project will offer a model for a collaborative approach to produce usable knowledge.

The research will draw on an extensive documentary record, including open sources held by the Africa Research Group at the FCO, and material at the Kenya National Archives, and on interviews with individuals who were involved in local government at various levels - as politicians, as civil servants, as party or civil society activists, and as voters and ratepayers. The research will produce a range of outputs, aimed at both academic and non-academic users: conference papers and an article, a doctoral thesis, presentations and written briefings aimed at policy-makers and current civil servants and advisors who are involved in the development of the new system of county governments. Close association with the governance support work carried out by FCO and DfID will assist with access to these users. The project will also provide a model for future partnerships of this kind, and will provide the student with a unique training and transferable skills in under

Planned Impact

Who might benefit from this research?

Beyond its impact on UK government understanding and policy, this research would also benefit a range of other audiences, who are either directly involved in or affected by the implementation of the new constitution in Kenya, or who are interested in the relationship between good goverance and effective local government elsewhere in Africa. These will include:

policy-makers and civil servants in Kenya engaged in the development of the new devolved local government;

diplomats and others involved in advising on this process;

diplomats and governance advisers with an interest in the relationship between state and local government in Africa more widely;

civil society organizations involved in the Kenyan process;

the Kenyan public more widely.

How might they benefit from this research?

By improving understanding of the historical weaknesses of local government in Kenya, the research has the potential to inform the development of the new devolved government in ways which avoid previous mistakes; this information may feed into the process at any one of several levels: through direct impact on Kenyan civil servants; through influencing the advice and support offered by bilateral and international agencies; through informing the civil society organizations who will be critical partners in the process and through developing popular understanding of the history of local government. The research also has the potential to offer comparative insights of value to those working on improved governance elsewhere in Africa, and the place in this of effective and accountable local government.

What will be done to ensure that potential beneficiaries have the opportunity to engage with this research?

The partnership with Africa Research Group and with the UK government's development and diplomatic presence in Kenya will allow the research results to be disseminated to these multiple potential users. In addition to informal interactions during the research process, the student will work with Africa Research Group to develop briefing notes and presentations. An interim presentation will be given in Kenya to an invited audience of civil servants and international advisors and diplomats, with an interim briefing note circulated more widely; a further presentation will be made at an open meeting aimed at journalists, and civil society activists as well as civil servants and international advisors; and a 5,000 word final report, suitable for wider circulation, will be circulated at the end of month 35 of the project. Throughout the project, Africa Research Group, together with colleagues elsewhere in the FCO and in DFID, will seek opportunities to work with the student to ensure that the research findings are effectively disseminated to potential users.


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