NAIROBI — A month ago, Kenya fell prey to a sudden burst of post-electoral violence that has left over 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. The violence has stunned the world.

Of course, Kenya had lived through tense electoral periods before, and few people who know Africa were blind to the many difficulties the country continued to face. But things seemed to be going well recently. This year’s campaign was exceptionally peaceful, and millions of citizens voted Dec. 27 — at times walking and lining up for hours to cast their ballot.

Kenya was unanimously seen as the “good student” of development, sometimes referred to as a symbol of an African renaissance. The “Kenya vision 2030 framework,” a set of ambitious macroeconomic, legal, and constitutional reforms, was being implemented in close partnership with the World Bank.

Cherished by the donor community, Kenya received almost $1 billion of official development assistance in 2006 — up by 250 percent since 2002. Its booming horticulture and tourist industries were hailed as models for other African states in their efforts to integrate into world trade. The country’s economic expansion, which averaged 5.5 percent in the last four years and fueled the progress of neighboring economies, appeared to prove that vigorous growth is possible in Africa even without mineral or fossil resources. Today, this economic miracle is up in the air.

All is not lost, and there are strong reasons to believe that Kenyans will surmount the current political crisis and put the country back on its promising track.

Nevertheless, as we sit on the brink of the abyss, it is worth examining our assumptions that since poverty breeds conflict, socio-economic development must foster political stability and reduce recourse to violence.

The first lesson we should draw from this month of civil strife is that development, however well-managed, cannot solve everything. Some tensions are deeply ingrained in societies, and peace requires more than any development agency can deliver. Parallel to the growth agenda, there is a specific role for bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to play in support of improved governance.

In fact, development itself generates a number of strains on societies that lie at the very roots of conflict.

Fast-paced changes of identity caused by urbanization, the empowerment of women or exposure to foreign media tend to weaken traditional norms and social networks. And, at least initially, economic growth tends to increase inequalities within a country.

By displacing traditional centers of power, development can nurture collective resentment. Ethnic manipulation is a small step away, which many political leaders are disposed to take.

None of this, however, disproves the link between development and peace, or inverts the correlation. At both the micro and the macro level, development projects and economic growth can do much to alleviate some of the structural causes of political violence. But development professionals, whose first duty is to “do no harm,” should be more conscious of the complex strains brought upon developing societies. In Kenya too, this sensitivity has been insufficient.

Ultimately, the enhanced economic activity that development generates is the only way to reduce inequalities, particularly in a context of rapid demographic growth: It is easier to work on a fairer distribution of a growing pie than of a shrinking one.

Moreover, fast-paced but ill-distributed economic growth can be accompanied by programs that focus on those who are left behind, thereby mitigating grievances. It is no coincidence that much of Kenya’s ongoing violence is occurring in the slums of its large cities. Had more attention been given to the country’s most glaring inequalities in access to water, shelter, or jobs, this population might not have chosen violence as an instrument of change.

Let us draw the right lessons from Kenya: socio-economic progress remains our best tool to prevent conflict in the long run. But the relationship between growth and political stability is subtler and less linear than we like to believe. Development is no miracle solution to violence, and may create its own set of grievances — particularly when done without regard to the abrupt changes it brings to societies. Kenya isn’t an illustration of development failing, but of development at work: complex, powerful, and yet fragile.

Jean-Michel Severino, a former World Bank vice president, is CEO of Agence Francaise de Developpement and a founding member of: www.ideas4development.org. Copyright 2008 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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