Building Kenya's Future: An Interview With Vice President Saitoti

IN a wide-ranging interview, Kenyan Vice President and Minister of Finance George Saitoti, outlined his government's strategy to respond to both economic and political challenges now confronting Kenya. Mr. Saitoti, a former mathematics professor, and a squash and classical music enthusiast, chaired a politically-sensitive committee earlier this year to hear public suggestions for improved government.

The hearings began on the narrow topic of election reforms but, with government approval, quickly broadened to a whole range of issues, including limiting the terms for president, restoring independence to the judiciary, and adopting a multiparty system.

``Every country must always reexamine itself on and off,'' Saitoti says.

Earlier this year after the government detained leading multiparty advocates, riots broke out that brought adverse publicity for Kenya around the world, especially in the United States. Saitoti said that ``if one reads a foreign paper in the capitals of Western Europe, one would think that right at this time Kenya is really crumbling and there is chaos all over the streets ... I do not know of any country in the world that on and off hasn't got these problems of demonstrations.''

According to the government's estimates, 6 million new jobs will be needed between 1985 and 2000. A job market study by the government estimated that the ``modern sector'' (not including farming) was creating only about 53,000 jobs a year.

``Failure to solve this [growing unemployment] is an absolute crisis,'' says T.C.I. Ryan, economic secretary for the Ministry of Finance. Many of the jobless are streaming into slums around the capital, Nairobi, often finding no work and living in tiny one-room shacks without water or lights.

Saitoti outlined the government plan to counteract this flow and create jobs in rural areas: ``We have got a strategy of trying to ... provide small-scale industries in the rural areas.''

Tax breaks and rural road building are being promoted to make it more attractive for entrepreneurs to open businesses. But such efforts are only in their initial stages.

The vice president acknowledged that less than 20 percent of Kenya's land is considered good for farming, saying that for the country this represents a ``very major challenge.''

President Daniel arap Moi has pushed terracing as a soil conservation method, with notable success in some areas. Meanwhile, ``per capita production in agriculture is declining significantly in Kenya,'' say Richard Ford and Janet Welsh Brown in a new study by the World Resources Institute.

Kenya's population, the Population Reference Bureau estimates, is growing at 3.8 percent annually, down slightly from a few years ago. Saitoti estimates the rate to be slightly below 3.5 percent. Either way, it will take only about 20 years for Kenya's population to double.

But with an economic growth rate of about 5 percent, better than many other African countries, Saitoti says that ``we're running ahead of the game.'' He says that to maintain growth, Kenya and other developing nations will need more grants and easy-term loans from the world's donors. He also urges the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which provide much of the help, to ``slow down the pace of implementation'' of the rigorous economic reforms they require for loan approval.

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