The role of elites in driving towards long-term prosperity: The case of Kenya in Sub-Saharan Africa

A country’s prosperity and development depend on the state’s strength, and the efficiency of the services it provides. Therefore, it is crucial to have strong institutions that, together with government policies, guarantee and defend society’s basic needs, such as freedom, education, security, or the rule of law. The role of elites with power is, therefore, fundamental to ensuring the country’s sovereignty and development; it is the duty of elites to empower society with the necessary tools to question nepotism and corruption. Moreover, for efficient state services, public policies that favor the welfare of its citizens, and strong institutions that guarantee the functioning of democracy and fundamental rights, a country’s elites must support these initiatives and use their power and influence to steer the country toward a path of prosperity. Elites have a responsibility to make decisions and draw up plans for development because they are the ones who have the capacity to make things change. 

When we refer to the elites, we are not only talking about people in charge of managing the government and politics of the country but also civil and economic elites and, in general, the people with real influence in decision making. These can be civil society leaders, businesspeople, cultural leaders, or politicians. In this essay, when I speak about elites in general, I’m referring to all of these people: those with power and influence. 

Through their actions, these leaders determine whether a state will develop strong institutions or instead be captured by powerful elites that hinder socioeconomic growth. For executive, legislative, and democratic institutions to function well and benefit the pathways to freedom and prosperity, elites must first act in favor of these objectives. As we will explain later, this happens when a development bargain exists. The participants in this bargain must acknowledge the primacy of the institutions themselves—recognizing that the institutions sit above the people who hold any political, public, or regular office. The elites are the ones with the power to make the necessary changes, but they also have the force to prevent change from happening at all, allowing corruption, civil conflict, or any other brake on a country’s development to continue. 

As Acemoglu and Robinson detail in their book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies and the Fate of Liberty, the role of the elites is decisive: 

Achieving liberty is a process; you have to travel a long way in the corridor before violence is brought under control, laws are written and enforced, and the state starts providing services to its citizens. It is a process because the state and its elites must learn to live with the shackles society puts on them, and different segments of society have to learn to work together despite their differences.1Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (New York: Penguin Press of Penguin Random House, 2019). 

In this essay, I highlight the ways in which elites in power can be decisive for stable development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of all world regions, Sub-Saharan Africa has the biggest age gap between leaders and their populations, as well as with the world’s longest-serving head of state, President Paul Biya of Cameroon—eighty-nine years old at the time of writing, and in power since 1982. Acemoglu and Robinson point to Malawi as an example where leadership traditionally has been shortsighted and corrupt.2Acemoglu and Robinson, States, Societies . . . Still, in 2020 Malawi’s judiciary annulled an incumbent’s electoral victory, and the country now ranks eighth (of thirty-three) in the region in respect of the rule of law.“3Malawi Ranked 67 out of 139 Countries on Rule of Law, Rising Five Positions,” press release, October 14, 2021, However, despite leadership goodwill, change doesn’t happen overnight: President Lazarus Chakwera had to dissolve his cabinet in 2022 due to corruption allegations, and the country remains one of the world’s poorest.“4Malawi Has Saved its Democracy But Not its Economy,” The Economist, September 22, 2022,

Some countries have managed to develop a functioning plan for stability. Kenya and Zambia, for example, show that despite some obstacles, steps toward freedom can be taken by empowering institutions that constrain elites’ power. In contrast, others persist in failure because their governments have not prioritized economic and political progress as the main objectives. Therefore, to explain and analyze the decisive role of the elites in achieving developed, democratic societies, we will need various illustrative examples of how their actions can favor or harm their people. 

Historically, each country has had different approaches to dealing with violence, corruption, or poverty. Carrying out a plan to improve, even a little, the labor conditions or fundamental rights of an underdeveloped nation is a very complex matter. There is no single formula or recipe; each country has achieved prosperity to a greater or lesser extent with different policies and types of government. Each nation has its conditions, history, time, culture, and way of thinking. That is why the route to prosperity depends on the case and it is impossible to speak of “formulas for development” that work in any context. Many attempts by international organizations and powerful foreign governments to help underdeveloped countries have failed. The plan must be drawn up and led by the elites: they are the only people overseeing the country and have the most significant capacity for real influence for change. 

Good results flourish when elites in power assume the responsibility of leading their people to paths of prosperity and freedom. And when the elites in question do not seek a way toward prosperity, freedoms remain minimal, and the population is at the mercy of their mismanagement; this does not help the country’s development. 

For this analysis I will focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically the case of Kenya. Kenya’s recent good performance—it is a regional leader on measures such as separation of powers, stability, and democracy—has set it on the road to freedom and prosperity. Specifically, I will talk about how advances and improvements in education (thanks to the bargain that emerged from previous governments and their policies) have helped Kenya along this road. 

Policies for improving access to regular, good-quality schooling in Kenya have been a perfect example of how political elites can contribute to developing prosperity and freedom, since education is a central factor in both. This analysis will focus on the elites’ contribution to these changes. Despite endemic corruption and ethnic conflict undermining its development progress in the past, the country’s leadership has, in recent years, stood out for favoring long-term progress through independence of its institutions, and for favoring stability. As a result, Kenya shows evident improvement in education, indicating that paths to prosperity are underway. 

In his book Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose, Stefan Dercon points out that what matters most for success is a “development bargain”: a shared commitment among those with the power to shape politics, economy, and society to strive for growth and development. The elites’ willingness to take advice and learn from mistakes is essential. Dercon also explores how these bargains come to be: 

Why aren’t the [Democratic Republic of the Congo] or other countries that haven’t succeeded practicing better economic policymaking focused on growth and development? My simple answer: if success requires an elite bargain that favours growth and development, then failure suggests the lack of this bargain. What is it about these countries? How does a development bargain emerge in some places and not others?5Stefan Dercon, Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose (London: C. Hurst, 2022). 

This essay seeks to answer Dercon’s questions, framed as “Why have a development bargain and good policy emerged in Kenya and not in Uganda?” First, through a case study, I will decipher what has caused Kenya to take steps toward freedom, showing it to be an example of a job well done by the country’s decision makers. Then, focusing on education as a fundamental indicator to measure development, I will assess why policies targeting prosperity have succeeded in countries like Kenya, while elsewhere in the region, such policies have failed to progress and stagnation persists. 

Kenya: Long-term vision 

There are specific moments when a society hits rock bottom and faces a decisive point that could split the country or unite it toward a common goal. In Kenya, that moment was 2008, when 1,133 people died and 650,000 people were displaced from their homes due to major post-election ethnic clashes, according to the final Report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, published five years after the events.6Report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, vol. 3, Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), Kenya, 2013,, 82. 

Many felt the country might fall into a full-blown civil war and turn into yet another failed state, as had Kenya’s neighbors Somalia and Sudan (later South Sudan). However, when the country was at its worst, elites showed the traits that everyone expected of them: seriousness and professionalism, to leave differences aside and work together towards healing existing differences. 

Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga entered into a power-sharing agreement in 2008 that ended the immediate violence, although it would face problems later on. They set the path for future long-term agreements that have driven Kenya to become a regional example of stability, democracy, and growth. The proven commitment of Kenya’s political elites to accepting court rulings in political disputes, and their willingness to seek compromise with opponents at difficult moments, have seen them become vital continental peace brokers. For example, former president Uhuru Kenyatta played a vital mediating role in peace negotiations in South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

All of that wouldn’t have been possible without the political will in 2008 to invest in the country’s future. Leaders in liberal democracies tend to prioritize short-term, quantifiable, and achievable goals which the electorate will recognize as theirs and spur their vote in the upcoming polls, rather than long-term structural changes that won’t be recognized and whose success depends on their successors upholding such policies. 

In his 1919 essay Democratic Ideals and Reality, British political geographer Halford J. Mackinder wrote: “Democracy refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defense.”7Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Polit-ics of Reconstruction (London: Constable, 1919). The conclusion Mackinder reached a century ago is today increasingly felt across a globalized world where breaking events complicate long-term goals. A decade after the 2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the entire globe. Once the economy started to regrow, the Russian invasion of Ukraine altered supply chains and immediate priorities. 

Despite such phenomenal world events, to which Kenya has been not a stranger, the country has followed a comprehensive plan to spur its growth into a “newly industrializing, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens . . .” That is the main goal set in the Kenya Vision 2030,8“About Vision 2030,” Kenya Vision 2030, accessed February 20, 2023, agreed upon in June 2008, only four months after the power-sharing agreement. 

The post-election violence was the turning point that forced leaders to step up and deliver wide-ranging policies. Vision 2030 was not a mere document, but a strategic plan to swiftly overhaul the institutions of all levels of Kenyan society and upend a divisive path. More important than the document itself is that all leaders have committed to it as a national program; Kenya now has its third president since the Vision was launched. 

Vision 2030 has helped to evolve all pillars of Kenya’s society. Kenya has invested heavily in infrastructure to reap the benefits of regional integration through the African Continental Free Trade Area and become a continental powerhouse. The country is already seeing the results, shipping batteries and tea to Ghana9Mariamma Diallo, “Kenya Ships First Batches of Batteries, Tea Under AfCFTA Pact,” Voice of America, October 10, 2022, and becoming a key route for exports in East Africa. Kenya has made its lack of natural resources a strength by diversifying its economy, sustaining annual growth of over 3 percent for every year since 2009 (except 2020).“10GDP growth (annual %) – Kenya,” World Bank, accessed February 20, 2023, Despite failing to achieve the probably unrealistic 10 percent annual target that was initially set, the country became in 2020 Sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest economy, surpassing commodity-dependent Angola.11Prinesha Naidoo, “Kenya Tops Angola as Sub-Saharan Africa’s No. 3 Economy,” Bloomberg, June 5, 2020, 

Leaders’ commitment to change is also visible in the political sphere. In 2010, leaders agreed to reform the constitution, making changes that some had sought for decades. For instance, amongst the amendments was a new provision for contested elections in the judiciary, which reduced the possibility of violence. The country’s institutional strength and separation of powers were shown in 2017, when the Supreme Court annulled the elections won by incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, becoming the first country in Africa to do so. However, this would mean nothing if elites refused to accept or abide by the court ruling. After three election cycles, those who lost electoral court cases always accepted the final verdict, showing democratic maturity. 

In an effort to spur public spending toward peripheral areas, improve service delivery, and reduce ethnic tensions, the country also devolved powers to 47 newly created counties. The country’s decentralisation has been the most significant commitment of Kenyan national elites to the country’s long-term sustainability, as it meant them relinquishing some political power by transferring competences and funding to counties. 

Education: An elite decision toward prosperity 

Investing in good-quality education is the best decision democratic leaders can take to make a country grow in the long term. Over the years, several studies have directly linked economic growth and investing in educating a country’s human capital. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calculated the cost of not investing in education. Its 2010 paper titled The High Cost of Low Educational Performance estimated that a 25-point increase in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores achieved through twenty years yields consistent economic growth through human capital value addition: “By the end of expected life in 2090 for the person born in 2010, GDP per capita would be expected to be about 25% above the ‘education as usual’ level.”12Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), The High Cost of Low Educational Performance: The Long-Run Economic Impact of Improving PISA Outcomes (Paris: OECD, 2010), 

However, it is essential to commit to education in the right ways. Development economist Lant Pritchett has been investigating for many years how to improve students’ learning foundations, including through the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) program. Overall, the evidence from RISE and elsewhere has shown that focusing on a one-size-fits-all model imposed through a top-down bureaucratic system does not benefit learning. Some governments have tried to modernize their curricula by standardizing them for all in the name of equality, but as Pritchett proves, this only generates weak learning environments.13Lant Pritchett and Martina Viarengo, “Does Public Sector Control Reduce Variance in School Quality?,” Education Economics 23, no. 5 (2015), 557–76. Excessive public control of what is taught and how it should be taught only sets a barrier to each student’s uniqueness and curtails their freedom. 

Instead, governments should set a foundational basis after which schools and teachers can have their own freedom to set their values and foster tailored learning for their students. Ignoring societal differences and trying to assign the same pace of learning to all students will only leave behind those from the most unfavored backgrounds.14Lant Pritchett and Amanda Beatty, “Slow Down, You’re Going Too Fast: Matching Curricula to Student Skill Levels,” International Journal of Educational Development 40 (January 2015), 276–88. To ensure good-quality learning, governments must first dedicate time and resources to teacher training to ensure they attend the workplace and are committed to their students’ education. 

Kenya’s Vision 2030 set the country’s educational reforms for the upcoming decades in terms of both quality and quantity. As a priority, leaders sought to bring education centers to arid and semi-arid land areas, especially in the north and east of the country, by constructing new schools, reforming primary education centers, and hiring more teachers. Without school buildings, teaching is impossible. 

Then, government officials decided to renew its curricula to focus on students’ qualities. By 2017, the country had developed a competency-based curriculum focused on learning practical competencies that could serve them for a future in the labor market, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, self-efficacy, and communication, amongst others. Pritchett’s investigation found that “re-centering teaching on students’ skills and abilities has enormous payoffs,” and is a “low-cost solution to improving learning.”15Pritchett and Beatty, “Slow Down, You’re Going Too Fast . . .”. 

This curriculum’s implementation has had its problems, for example in teacher training, resources and equipment, and public participation.16Beatrice M’mboga Akala, “Revisiting Education Reform in Kenya: A Case of Competency Based Curriculum (CBC),” Social Sciences & Humanities Open 3, no. 1 (2021), 10007. Yet despite these shortcomings the reforms have helped Kenya to leapfrog its neighbors on several indicators of education; it is now a leader across east and southern Africa, both in attendance and performance. Primary completion is universal for female and male students; and lower secondary completion reaches 79 percent, 30 points higher than the regional average and above its income group, according to the World Bank’s latest Human Capital Index.17Human Capital Country Brief – October 2022: Kenya, World Bank, accessed December 20, 2022, Students also now get better grades and excel in mathematics and languages. 

Pritchett and the RISE program identify five actions that will allow an education system to flourish.18Lant Pritchett, Kirsty Newman, and Jason Silberstein, Focus to Flourish: Five Actions to Accelerate Progress in Learning. Research on Improving Systems of Education (Oxford: RISE, 2022), Kenya has already implemented three of these: commit to universal, early foundational learning; align systems around learning commitments; and support teaching. Now, to ensure the success of the reforms and prove their commitment, elites must follow up with the last two measures: measure learning; and adapt the new curricula to what the data shows as time passes. 

These results were only possible with enough budget to implement the reforms. As of 2020, total government expenditure on education in Kenya as a share of GDP was 5.1 percent, higher than the 3.4 percent average across Sub-Saharan Africa, according to World Bank data.19“Government Expenditure on Education, Total (% of GDP) – Kenya, Sub-Saharan Africa,” World Bank, last updated October 4, 2022, 

Reacting to unexpected events: Leadership in times of crisis 

Kenya’s educational leadership has also proven itself in its responses and plans for unexpected events. Kenya’s government, like most around the world, closed schools when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020. Four months later, the government decided to cancel classes and declare the school year invalid. 

The decision was controversial and understandably criticized, not only due to learning losses, but also due to the wider, known effects of school closures and restriction of movement. Calls to one phoneline to report violence against women and girls rose by a staggering 301 percent in the first two weeks of lockdown, and reports of gender-based violence increased by 87.7 percent during April–June 2020, according to data from the National Crime and Research Centre.20“‘I Had Nowhere to Go,’” Human Rights Watch, September 21, 2021, 

The government defended its decision, arguing that the deep inequalities between students who could afford to learn from home and those without the technology and space to do so would generate a knowledge gap. 

Despite this being a difficult decision to take—and one which, in retrospect, could have been enacted better—leaders invested their energies in planning to catch up with lost time. In October 2020, some classes came back and in January 2021, nine months after the lockdowns began, schools fully reopened with a new interim calendar and a plan to return to the pre-COVID school calendar within two years. The Ministry of Education decided to add one more term per year, making it four instead of three each year, meaning students would get taught one full year and an additional period the following year. To incentivize the return to classes, and to ease the economic burden of extra school fees on top of the pandemic, the government reduced school fees by 16 percent. As of 2023, students have already recovered the lost school year and will soon be back on the original school calendar. 

As with any other country, Kenya was not ready for such a disruption and made errors in its initial decisions. However, the effort taken in planning toward a regular return to classes shows the importance of having committed leaders with a long-term vision toward prosperity. 

The path of Kenya’s education sector through the pandemic compares favorably to neighboring Uganda, where leadership has failed to find creative solutions to short-term crises. Schools remained closed for two years due to COVID-19, only restarting in 2022. At that point, 10 percent of students did not report back to school21United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), “With 23 Countries Yet to Fully Reopen Schools, Education Risks Becoming ‘Greatest Divider’ as COVID-19 Pandemic Enters Third Year,” press release, New York, March 30, 2022, and empirical studies predict that those who did would carry a learning deficit of 2.8 years.22Noam Angrist et al., “Building Back Better to Avert a Learning Catastrophe: Estimating Learning Loss from COVID-19 School Shutdowns in Africa and Facilitating Short-term and Long-term Learning Recovery,” International Journal of Educational Development 84 (July 2021), 102397. Furthermore, instead of working toward alternative plans to avoid further closures during health emergencies, in November 2022, the government of Uganda closed schools again for several weeks due to an outbreak of Ebola. The repeated use of school closures as a control mechanism hinders children’s education and shows a lack of leadership and care for a country’s prosperity. 

In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the elites’ decisions, or lack thereof, are crucial for the well-being of a country. Kenya’s case—of leadership focused on a long-term vision while still providing solutions for short-term shocks—is an example in the context of Sub-Saharan Africa. 


The work of the elites in political power is essential, and the role of institutions as the basis for controlling and sustaining the path toward development is an unquestionable pillar. In the case of Kenya, mainly focusing on the country’s education system, we have seen how the role of elites has been decisive in the country’s progress in prosperity and freedom. The route to development is, as Acemoglu and Robinson put it, a “narrow corridor”: a complex process that does not happen overnight. However, Kenya continues to walk that corridor for development. What is exciting and positive for the country is that the elites intend to learn to live with the shackles society puts on them. 

Stefan Dercon points out the importance of political elites being willing to take advice and learn from mistakes. We have been able to appreciate how this has been happening in Kenya. Thanks to elites in power favoring the will of society, a power-sharing agreement ended the terrible violence of 2008, beginning a new journey toward political and social stability. Moreover, accepting court rulings in political disputes and agreeing with the opposition in tense moments have turned Kenya’s elites into vital continental peace brokers. The year 2008 was a critical turning point. The elites, despite their differences, have been able to sustain a long-term vision that has helped it become a reference in the region, take a clear path toward prosperity, and overcome setbacks. 

Education is a crucial example of elite commitment to freedom and prosperity. American economist Theodore Schultz believed that investing in human capital is the most significant investment a country can make. The wealth of nations depends on their capacity to grow their human resources rather than their physical resources or particular policies. 

There is no recipe or formula, but situations can improve when things start pointing in the right direction, seeking liberty and growth. Kenya is a striking example that it is possible to move forward and improve the quality of life of its inhabitants. Of course, Kenya is not an “ideal” country; it continues to grapple with severe problems, above all, rampant corruption. But, notwithstanding that, its long path toward being the stable country it is today shows that when elites are committed, structural changes can happen through long-term planning and taking little steps towards a great common goal. 

Luis Ravina Bohórquez is a professor of economics at the University of Navarra (Spain). 

Image: A general view shows Kenyan Members of Parliament inside the Parliament building as Finance Minister Njuguna Ndung'u presents the Government Budget for the 2023/24 fiscal year in Nairobi, Kenya June 15, 2023. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi