Developing Our Software: Lessons from Kenya

Over the past four years, I have made 24 trips to Kenya.  The country became a part of my life when Kenya exploded into the headlines in 2007-2008, following the elections of 2007.  The post-election violence led to the death of 1,300 people, the displacement of another 660,000 people, and a major disruption in the economic, social, and political conditions of the country.  In the spring of 2008, I was asked by Africa Nazarene University and several leading businessmen in Kenya to facilitate a process around youth employment and youth empowerment.  The numbers, those indicators of success or failure, have been overwhelming. Sixty percent of the youth between the ages of 18-35 are unemployed.  Each year 750,000 young people graduate from secondary school.  250,000 will find employment; of the remaining 500,000 only ten percent of them are prepared or equipped for the world of work. This reality and the realization that 60% of Kenya’s youth are unemployed or underemployed threatens the political stability of the country and has led to the development of a whole industry of peace building to be sure the violence is not repeated in 2013.

Kenya’s leadership and the various institutions of the country are busy building the “hardware” that will reposition Kenya as an economic leader in East Africa and on the continent.  New construction, highways, hospitals, universities, and changes in agriculture are giving hope that Kenya will move from economic dependency to economic independence.  Kenya is experiencing about 5% economic growth over the past several years – a promising recovery, but still has some distance to go.

Mugo Kibati, the leader of Kenya’s Vision 20/30, (a plan and strategy to drive economic, political, and social reform) has said, that while Kenya is seeing success in its various “hardware” projects, it still has a way to go to develop the right “software.”  When Kibati talks about software, he is talking about the spirit, the moral fiber, the heart of the Kenyan people. Kibati often reminds his audiences, that “Kenya is building first-world systems but still thinks and acts like a third-world country.”  Paying attention to the software will and should change that reality. With the new constitution, a renewed focus on anti-corruption activity, and a change in the way people think and act in relationship to building their own future, there are signs of hope that the “software” of the country will improve.  It is exciting to see the energy around the Uungwana initiative (doing the right thing as opposed to being Ushenzi (selfish and greedy), the growth of the National Prayer Breakfast movement in Kenya and other institutions building an internal moral compass in their development activities.

Watching this transition in Kenya, has led me to think about the “software” of my own country.  While living in Kenya, I monitor the news of my birth country and watch what it is that captures the headlines.    Petty political bickering and fights over procedural rules in Congress when the country continues to be crippled by major unemployment and lack of economic growth is cause for concern.  Today, the United States may still be the strongest and most influential economy in the world, but we are showing signs that the software of our nation may soon unravel our effectiveness or the stability of the hardware that fosters economic growth and development.  No leadership is willing to transcend the crisis of the moment.

In my 60 years, I have never seen it worse.  The focus on the trivial and the emergence of incivility in our politics and normal day-to-day discourse threatens who we are as a people.  The behavior of the financial services industry and its corporate leadership during and following our housing boom, should be a wakeup call to all of us.   We have something to learn from Kibati.  We have first-world systems but we are rapidly moving from a first-world mentality to a third-world mentality that glorifies the outrageous and empowers the sensational.  We no longer pay attention or value the “software” of a nation. Weakened values, bitterness, anger, and the art of the political attack defines us.  We are better than this. Frankly, if we continue on this course, the nations of Africa who are paying attention to not only building roads, but also building the character of their people can and will pass us on the race to the summit of economic influence.

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