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Public Administration in Kenya

Kenyan Public Administration
In this piece, I explore the role international organisations have had upon the development of Kenyan Public Administration from its origins to more modern examples.


Kenya is a former British colony and protectorate, a process of colonialism which began from the late 1890s until independence in December 1963. This has greatly affected the development of Kenya and its public institutions (United Nations, Division for Public Administration and Development Management (DPADM), 2004). The country successfully transitioned into a democracy and had Jomo Kenyatta as the country’s first president. Kenyatta ruled the country until his death in 1978 and was succeeded by Daniel Arap Moi, who remained in office for a total of twenty-four years. On December 27, 2002, Kenyan voters elected the country’s third president, Mwai Kibaki, thus ending the political monopoly held by the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Since the foundation of the Kenyan state in 1963, there has been a total of 4 presidents, with Jomo Kenyatta and the current president Uhuru Kenyatta being father and son respectively. As an impact, tribal affiliation is still very much viewed as a constituent part of the political culture within Kenya with many angling to secure public administration jobs in Kenya (Aguirre, 2017).

Due to the nature of Kenya’s history, the development of the system of public administration has, like many former colonial possessions of the British empire, been inherited broadly from the British colonial state. Much of the administrative system of the state has therefore been heavily impacted and based on this style of the colonial system of public administration. This impact can also be seen within the development of the first constitution, which was modelled on the Westminster style of government (United Nations, Division for Public Administration and Development Management (DPADM), 2004). For this reason, the development of a public administration system has been heavily impacted by international organisations from the very foundation of the Kenyan state. and with much of the governance structures, albeit recently reformed, with the advent of the updated constitution enacted in 2010, being based in the colonial form of administration we can see the impact of these systems permeating through the structure of the modern-day Kenyan state, albeit with variations and adaptations through Kenya’s post-colonial history.

Owning to Kenya’s public administration system being inherited from the British colonial system (which was established in the late 1800’s), the original public administrative system built by the British was lean and focused on securing and promoting British colonial interests within the region. With the creation of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) through the royal charter of 1888, we can see that the primary focus on commercial trade was towards British interests in the region (Bates & Mungeam, 1967). However, following the end of colonialism within Kenya, the civil service particularly underwent a period of rapid expansion and went on to become one of the largest employers within the formal Kenyan economy (with a sizable informal economy being active) during the early 1990’s. The civil service has since undergone a period of decline, and with the increased role of NGOs and international organizations in service provision, we have begun to see a more diverse role being played by international organisations and individuals within the context of governance in Kenya. As a parallel to this development, NGOs and international organizations have had a role as an accountability mechanism in the state, beginning roughly around the advent of multi-party democracy which began to take shape during the early 1990’s (United Nations, Division for Public Administration and Development Management (DPADM), 2004).

Prior to this liberalization, it was not allowed for NGOs and international organizations to question the conduct of the state and its performance more generally. However, since the loosening of these restrictions, we have for instance seen many international NGOs holding the government to account, and thus more broadly serving as an effective watchdog within the country. This is not without controversy, however, and we have seen an increased number of NGOs being targeted for both real and perceived corruption and malpractice themselves (United Nations, 2001), which limits their credibility and legitimacy to hold power in Kenya to account.

The primary role of international organisations, specifically NGOs, has been around the administration of overseas development aid (ODA) in the Kenyan state. The purpose of this aid is varied and covers areas such as infrastructure and capacity building within Kenya, to basic services such as water and sanitation, as well as responding to emergencies such as droughts, famines and conflict. The relationship between the Kenyan state and the international organisations is one that is a point of contention within Kenya, with previously muted international organisations simply focusing on service provision or capacity building within the Kenyan state and the public administrative system which relied heavily on overseas aid to meet the responsibilities expected by citizens. Below we can, for instance, see the proportion of overseas aid as a percentage of Kenya’s GNI (Gross National Income). We can see that during the mid to early 1990’s the Kenyan state was heavily reliant on ODA and, as such, on International organisations – many of whom insisted on having nationals from donor nations administering the aid (which caused considerable friction with local Kenyans as we explore below). Rising to a peak of the reliance on overseas development aid, ODA constituted 16.98% of the GNI of Kenya in 1993 (“Net ODA received (% of GNI) | Data”, 2017).

Kenya’s relationship with the wider world, and specifically this interaction through international organisations, was very much one of receiving support and aid. With exports during this period mainly consisting of consumer goods that were assembled within Kenya, and with 1,959 billion USD in exports (and with imports at 3,278 billion USD), Kenya ran a significant trade deficit during these years – with the year of 1997 taken as an example (Kenya | Trade Summary | 1997 | WITS | Data, 2017). At the same time, Kenya’s public administration system was being heavily influenced by the impact that international organisations had on the development of public service provision and many began to worry about the threat of reliance, rather than development, setting into the Kenyan public administration system, with many departments working in close conjunction with international organisations in areas they would typically manage in other settings.

With regards to the structure of governance within the state, Kenya has a bicameral parliament system with power divided amongst three primary areas:

Legislative: which constitutes the Senate (upper house), which was only recently added to the 2010 constitution and consists of 67 seats, with 47 elected through the first past the post system across the 47 constituencies and a further 20 being co-opted to the senate and the speaker who is elected by the senators. The National Assembly (lower house) which has 349 members with 290 elected through the first past the post system, a further 47 women elected from the constituencies, and 12 nominated representatives with the lower house being elected by the first past the post system.

Executive: which consists of the president who is elected by a direct popular vote and serves for a period of five years.

Judiciary: the judiciary branch is headed by the Supreme court of Kenya which is the final arbiter of the interpretation of the constitution and consists of a total of 7 judges.

This reliance on development has marred the relationship and impact of international organizations with Kenya and led to a number of incidents of friction with regards to the pace of structural reforms in Kenya and more generally their effectiveness in public administration (Cohen, 1993). We can see this particularly with regards to organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank who increasingly make aid conditional upon structural improvements taking place within the economy, thus causing considerable frustration within Kenya’s public administration system and highlighting the increased role international organisations play in policymaking and public administration in Kenya.

Addressing Shortfalls

The primary consideration for many international organizations operating within Kenya has been addressing shortfalls in public administration and service provision in the context of the state’s role of service provision due to resource scarcity. This can especially be seen with regards to the problems the Kenyan state has had with regards to retention of public administrators and the role played by these officials in ensuring a baseline of adequate service provision, average pay for those involved in Kenya’s public administration system who are paid quite poorly in comparison to comparable salaries available in the private sector (Cohen, 1992) with the state in 1971 seeking to address this problem by legalising the practice of civil servants having and engaging in private business to supplement their incomes. Due to this alongside a number of other factors, many aid organizations believe that Kenyan officials engage frequently in corruption and are hesitant to include them directly within their projects, opting instead to include foreign experts & advisors to coordinate and implement many aid-related projects which works towards limiting the capacity to address structural shortfalls in Kenyan administration due to lack of experience.

The debate on the role of advisors has taken account of the key consideration of whether foreign experts are indeed a drain on aid and inhibiting the development of local expertise and skills within this area, with some arguing that early in the history of the Kenyan state that such officials were indeed necessary to the development of an effective public administrative system and others arguing that they served solely as a drain and that contrary to being experts were, in fact, less qualified for the positions they held within the context of Kenya’s public administrative system. As stated within (Cohen, 1992) the ideal function of such foreign advisors is to address particular areas which are considered shortfalls or gaps within local capacity, while simultaneously training and developing the skills of local public administrators, in this view we can see that the role of the foreign experts is to act as a stopgap with regards to development of capacity within the local context. The aspect of foreign advisors affecting the developmental capacity of generating skilled local officials within Kenya can be seen clearly with regards to service provision and tackling endemic corruption, through a spoils system being generated on inefficient use of resources by sometimes unaccountable service providers in the context of foreign advisors and domestically unaccountable international organisations who are active in the area of service provision typically the realm of public administrators.

Two of the primary projects which were involved in developing the capacity within Kenya’s public administration, specifically focused on ensuring that those at master-level education were filling and remaining in positions primarily in roles that looked at economists, planners, and data management specialists were ran through two international universities. The York University Project (1970 -1981), alongside a project ran by the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) sought to address these shortfalls in Kenya’s Ministries of Finance (MOF), Planning and National Development (MPND), and Agricultural and Livestock Development (MALD). They sought to structure this by providing short-term expatriates `gap-filling advisors’ (Cohen & Wheeler, 1997), by aiming to ensure that adequate cover was provided in the respective ministries they could ensure that skills and experience up to the masters level was developed locally within Kenya. This use of gap-filling advisors serves as an early stage impact of international organisations, in this context universities sought to allow for experience and skills to be developed within Kenya’s governance structures. The role of these gap filling advisors was many fold, they primarily looked at the introduction of improved organisational structure as well as seeking to improve senior management practices and improving the technical methodologies and core competencies of the officers they work with, looking to improve analytical and applied capacities of the professional officers they worked with. With regards to an example provided within (Cohen & Wheeler, 1997) we can see the disparity outlined in terms of pay, that government salaries in 1991 for qualified economists & statisticians was roughly $2,700 per year including the housing allowance, which is roughly one-fifth the starting salary of similarly qualified professionals in an aid agency or international consultancy, or comparatively the salary for a mid-level manager in the private sector could expect roughly $30,000, the impact of international organisations was strongly felt with regards to retention levels of staff within the kenyan public service, a similar level was recorded in 1997.

Conditional aid from international organizations:

Increasingly in the early 1990’s we have begun to seen a wave of public sector reforms being pursued by international organisations that sought to address some of the primary areas of concerns that were affecting international aid organisations as they were increasingly contributing more and more aid which was contributing increasing percentages of Kenya’s GDP as shown in the graph outlined above, and were becoming increasingly concerned with regards to the lack of effective progress being made on the issues of:  (i) over-centralised government; (ii) recurrent personnel costs that consume large amounts of scarce budgetary resources; (iii) large budget deficits; and (iv) declining administration capacity. Due to the nature of these problems and their role in impeding development within Kenya, increasing demands were tied to any further aid commitments to ensure that the use of aid was not supporting the above issues and creating a recurrent problem, specifically an issue of concern within the context of ODA across many regions, the issue of aid dependency, with many beginning to doubt whether such aid was supporting development or subsidising inefficiency (Kwemo, 2017) . The average yearly increase in civil servants during the years 1960’s – 1990 amounted to an annualized rate of 8.6% (OECD, 2017). This growth in civil servants concerned international organizations, due to the problems of corruption within the civil service many began to get worried that such increases were not due to the needs of the Kenyan state, but instead were being used as a political mechanism to effectively purchase votes from groups within Kenya and were being used to reward particular tribes in Kenya. Within many international organizations and state aid agencies there has been an increasing focus on what (Cohen & Wheeler, 1997) refers to as “gate-keepers” these are increasingly added to projects to ensure mismanagement of resources is kept to a minimum and that corruption does not impact the delivery of services. In the context of Kenya we can see the impact of gate-keepers increasingly being used on aid projects, and with aid contributing a lower percentage of the GNI of Kenya we can see an increased level of activity and service provision from Kenya’s public administration system. Gate-keepers in this sense are used to guard resources and authorise any and all funds employed for use in countries like Kenya and increasingly are being tasked with restricting supply of resources which are more so than previously contingent on particular policy changes or addressing particular shortfalls with regards to structural problems in the Kenyan public administration & governance system.

Kenya’s government has from an early stage had a strong activist role for the state with regards to the social and economic well being of citizens of Kenya, this is most recently illustrated with regards to the inclusion of social and economic rights within the 2010 constitution, and goes back to the burgeoning public service from the foundation of the state until the mid 1990’s where it peaked at roughly 49.6% of the formally employed population(Cohen, 1993).

There has however been considerable backlash and policy solutions put forward to reduce the dependency of the Kenyan public administrative system on international organisations, which is increasingly arriving with ever more stringent conditions, a notable example contained within (Cohen & Wheeler, 1997) is of a US-funded project with regards to land soil and water conservation in livestock agriculture, were 56% of the project funding was consumed by the US team tasked with implementing the system. Such waste has led to an increased focus on the development of the skills and expertise necessary within Kenya and for international organization’s role in public administration & governance to be reduced so as to allow for increased investment over the more traditional development aid.


In conclusion we can see that from the late 1880’s onwards, that Kenya’s governance structures have been heavily influenced by the role of international organisations and powers, whether it is the impact of the British run Imperial British East Africa Company onwards to the adoption of British styles of governance during independence, we can see from an early stage the role of international organisations have on the development of the Kenyan state. In more contemporary times we are beginning to see an increased role in pursuing policy changes coming from international organisations such as the World Bank & The IMF alongside NGO’s who are seeking to alter the structure of Kenya’s governance structures to address particular flaws in the Kenyan system of governance. This role is however a contentious one due to the nature of the relationship with Kenya relying heavily (although more recently less so) on such incentives as aid and financing for infrastructure and capacity building projects. The role of international organisations in shaping Kenya’s system of governance is pervasive and consistent throughout Kenya’s post-colonial history and is one that is increasingly demanding in terms of making policy / structural reforms a contingent factor for aid and investment to be released for Kenya.


Jason Deegan

Jason Deegan is a PhD Candidate (Stipendiat) and research fellow at the University of Stavanger. His work primarily focuses on; Innovation, Regional Studies, Smart Specialisation and Policy.

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