For the last week or so, I have been in Tokyo, attending a conference and related celebrations that mark 60 years of Japan's development assistance to countries in Asia and Africa.

And as we have been taken around to witness the marvels of Japanese engineering on visits to global-brand Japanese corporations and inspections of public infrastructure; been introduced to the finer points of Japanese culture and hospitality; and debated the fine details of ‘Abenomics’ (the economic policies of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which aim to end Japan's many years of economic stagnation); my mind has repeatedly returned to the question of what Kenya can learn from Japan.

And having given it much thought, I would say that what we would most benefit from is if our leaders engaged in more long range visionary planning, of the kind that is taken for granted here. To illustrate what I mean by this, I need only give two examples of landmark Japanese development projects in Kenya.

First, consider the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). It is easily forgotten now that this was a ‘greenfield investment’ by the Japanese government: Kenya only gave the land; Japan did everything else, building up a huge modern university campus from scratch.

Now at that time (the early 1980s) Kenyan ideas of university education were very different from what they are now. Following what I would term as ‘the old Makerere model’, university education was seen as something to be made available only to a tiny elite of top-performing students. And if you talked of ‘unemployed graduates’ back then, people would laugh at you, as university graduates in the early 1980s could pick and choose where they wanted to work.

Indeed, it was common back then to speak of ‘The University’ as there was actually only one – the University of Nairobi. And there were no second chances when it came to university admission – if you missed out, you had better hope that your family could afford to take you to the UK or US (if they had plenty of money) or to India (which was more affordable).

So when JKUAT was proposed, there was no shortage of critics. I remember one such critic pointing out that the cost of this one university, if dedicated to building primary schools around the country, could easily create hundreds of such simple-structure elementary schools. Alternatively, this money could help build a dozen or so model secondary school. And surely those were greater national priorities than a fancy new university.

Thirty years later, with about 20 public universities and almost as many private universities, it is clear that the generous Japanese funding that brought JKUAT into existence was actually addressing an urgent national priority. It may have seemed ahead of its time in the 1980s, but now we can only wish that the Japanese had built more than one. For we now understand university education as something that should be available to all who want it – not just a benefit only a small elite can hope to possess.

And much the same can be said for another landmark Japanese greenfield development project: the Kenya Medical Research Institute, which is one of Africa's leading health research institutions.

Not that I recall any specific criticism of Kemri (which was also launched about 30 years ago) but the same argument could easily have been made: why build a state-of-the-art center for biomedical research when that same money could help build much-needed clinics and dispensaries all over the country?

But in the shadow of Ebola, which of us is not grateful now that Kenya is one of the countries in Africa with advanced diagnostic labs (ie at Kemri) and personnel trained to use them.

In all assessments of why the current West African Ebola epidemic spread so far and wide, so quickly, repeated mention has been made of the fact that those nations most devastated are precisely those which lack a robust public health infrastructure. And that if such infrastructure had existed, the epidemic would have been dealt with very differently.

All in all, it is clear enough that Kenya has benefited immensely from Japanese development assistance over the years, and, typical of Japan, such assistance has usually been far ahead of its time, with the ultimate benefits of many resulting projects only being evident long after completion.

The British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell once defined civilization as primarily foresight. In Kenya’s encounter with Japan over the years, we have found that the Japanese have enough foresight, and some to spare.

(The Star on 20/11/2014)

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