Acton Commentary

Kenya: Hope and Reality in the Life of a Nation


A little more than a week ago, twelve Kenyan religious leaders representing six denominations met with an American Catholic priest, an American Reformed minister, an Australian intellectual, and a Washington, D.C.-based policy analyst in Putten, Netherlands. The purpose of this remarkable gathering was to discuss the political and economic realities currently facing the nation of Kenya. The discussions roamed across the full gamut of challenges facing the people of Kenya — private property rights, economics, corruption, educational systems, environmental concerns, and poverty. In every way, the gathering could be described as incorrigibly ecumenical, international, and intellectually stimulating. The participants came away with great hope in the face of formidable challenges.

It was not the United Nations, or a Non-Governmental Organization, or any other politically motivated body that funded or sponsored this meeting. Rather, two Dutch Christians who have exhibited tremendous concern for the continent of Africa sponsored the gathering. These two men, famous in their workaday worlds but private about their good works, have given significant portions of their wealth to assist the people of Africa in realizing their dreams of a healthier, safer, and more prosperous continent. I realized the profound personal commitment of these men to Africa when one of the gentlemen shared a story with me about the recent death of his son. He had just buried his son, a missionary in Nigeria, who had been killed during a robbery. The concern of the father had become the mission of the son, a mission that cost him his life.

Despite the many hardships faced by Kenya, it is a nation poised to be a leader in Africa. Kenya may well serve as an example for all African nations struggling mightily to throw off the poverty and corruption that has run rampant for decades throughout society, business, and government. Within Kenya, hopeful signs are emerging. A new president is in place after a peaceful transition of power (a first in Kenyan history) and a new constitution is in the works. For the first time in many years, Kenyans are enthusiastic about the future of their nation and they are cheered by a sense of national possibility.

With politics and economics dominating the discussion, it would be fair to ask: What do these representative members of the leading Christian churches in Kenya, including Catholic, Episcopal, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Independent, have to contribute to these seemingly very unreligious topics? In the minds of many, religious leaders should stay out of discussions addressing economics, politics, and business. Many are convinced that the focus of the clergy ought to be aimed at the care of the soul, to the exclusion of all else. Those who hold this conviction point to numerous historical instances of religious leaders becoming comfortable with the institutions of power to the detriment of their vocations. Such instances, lamentable as they are, cannot and should not be denied, especially if they are to be avoided in the future.

Still, it must be remembered that the vibrancy of civil society depends on the moral convictions of its citizenry, demonstrated in public and private acts of virtue. John Stuart Mill, in his Considerations of Representative Government , asks which form of government is best. After considering some of the many options and answers given by other philosophers, Mill offers that the form of government does not matter nearly so much as the “qualities of the human beings composing the society over which the government is exercised.” Executive, legislative, or juridical processes do not make much difference “if the moral condition of the people is such that the witnesses generally lie and the judges and their subordinates take bribes.”

The religious leaders gathered in the Netherlands last week shared Mill’s seminal insight into the character of a nation’s citizenry and its representative institutions. In the opinion of the gathered Kenyan clergy, a new government and a new constitution will not significantly change the living conditions of Kenyans — 60% of whom live under the poverty level and earn less than $300 per year.

Furthermore, these religious leaders have also seen through the false promises generated by decades of receiving billions of dollars of aid through charitable and governmental organizations. Such aid, however well-meaning, has done little more than offer false hope, accomplishing little in the way of creating a healthier and more prosperous society in which the majority of people are able to provide for themselves and their families.

For a prosperous and stable Kenya to capitalize on the promise of the present moment it will need to pursue the formation of those cultural, political, and economic institutions that allow for economic development and national self-sufficiency. To chart a new course, it must say ‘no’ to the funds offered by those organizations that attach strings to their support that are hostile to Christian values and undermine the dignity of the human person. The new government, in its efforts to win the presidency, has made big promises that are unlikely to be realized. As a result, a practical, but determined realism now pervades the outlook of the religious leaders of Kenya and they know that they must lower the level of expectations. They see, far more clearly than most Western elites, that a bargain requiring them to trade dependence on non-Kenyan organizations for dependence on the Kenyan government is a fool’s bargain, to say the least.

Kenya’s religious leaders know that they must be the ones who preach and teach responsibility and accountability. The task of proclaiming the virtues of honesty and the benefits of hard work falls to them in a unique way. They are the ones who must and will confront corruption in government, business, and society, speaking hard truths to a society averse to hearing it. Finally, it is they who are the creators and stewards of a morally informed culture—a culture that forms the foundation of authentic freedom and the necessary precondition of lasting economic development.