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Conflict, Cooperation, and Corruption: USAID in Kenya in the 1990s

U.S. policy toward Kenya during the long presidency of Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002) fluctuated between a close Cold War embrace, to unusually harsh public criticism, to quiet pressure behind the scenes.  Moi’s tenure was marked by consolidation of power, outbreaks of political violence, and corrupt elections. In the end, however, Moi respected constitutional limits and stepped down, acquiescing in the victory of an opposition presidential candidate.  It was the first democratic and relatively peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party in Kenya’s history.

Kiertisak Toh spent over eleven years in Kenya, at times in the middle of a political tug of war. In the early 1990s, USAID Washington asked Toh not to engage directly with the Kenyan government.  New USAID administrator Brian Atwood (1993-1999) was concerned about engaging too closely with the “corrupt Moi government.” This led some locally-employed USAID staff and others to question why Kenya was being singled out amongst equally corrupt neighbors with significant human rights problems.  Meanwhile, a new American Ambassador arrived with a mandate to patch up relations after her predecessor had levelled particularly harsh public criticism of Moi and his government.

On the ground, USAID officials like Kiertisak Toh had to reconcile these conflicting messages and execute long-term, sustainable development programs.  Looking back, Toh is proud that USAID took the long view, and takes satisfaction from the progress Kenya has made toward democracy.

Kiertisak Toh spent 1986–89, 1992-96, and 2001-05 in Kenya working with USAID, in roles ranging from Program Economist to Mission Director.

Kiertisak Toh was interviewed by Carol Peasley on February 9, 2018.

Read Kiertisak Toh’s Oral History HERE.

Drafted by Christina Krisberg

“[T]here was a perception of Kenya being singled out.”

Dealing With a Tough Message From USAID Washington: Despite the harsh rhetoric from Washington of not supporting the [Kenyan] government, many of us in the field never really stopped working with the political leadership, the professionals in various government ministries or agencies, and other public institutions.

. . . When you lived and worked in the country, you took the rhetoric from Washington and put it against the reality of trying to get something done in your development programs. Everyone knows the old saying that governments are not monolithic; there are true reformers both in and outside the government. But we had to find some way to put the saying into practice by finding with whom we could work within the government, and in what manner, while also creating social capital – trust and mutual respect.

But the high-volume rhetoric … did not help those of us who tried to work to develop local capacity and institutions as investments for sustainable and transformative development. I had FSNs who asked me why the AID administrator Brian Atwood “disliked” Kenya so much. They took it somewhat personally and they could see that their neighbor countries, for example, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea at the time, whose leaders Atwood seemed to be comfortable with. So, there was a perception of Kenya being singled out.

“They became our agents, and often these NGOs and contractors were mistakenly seen as donors, not as agents for USAID… the real donor.”

New Ambassador, New Message:  [W]e had Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal (1993-96) …. Apparently, her mandate after [the controversial ambassador Smith Hempstone, 1989-93] was to restore relationships with the government. She had her own . . . way of diplomacy. It was a different way of carrying out diplomacy in a difficult situation. . . .[W]e still obligated our funds with the government, but we did not channel the funds through their system. Instead, we had our own special accounts. And we channeled most of our funds to NGOs, civil society, and contractors…. [E]ven though we were not channeling money directly to the [Kenyan] government ministries or agencies, our technical officers had a good relationship with their counterparts. They informed government officials and often invited them to participate in USAID-supported activities.

… It was somewhat ironic, however, when we bypassed the government by programming USAID funds directly to NGOs or contractors, these NGOs and contractors often had to work with the government or asked the mission to help them deal with the government to do their jobs. In effect, they became our agents and often these NGOs and contractors were mistakenly seen as donors, not as agents, for USAID… the real donor. At any rate, we managed. And in hindsight, we did a pretty good job with our long-term investments in enhancing local capacity and institutional building.

“[O]ver time I think a more representative government slowly has emerged.”

New Constitution, Devolution of Power, More Efficient Tax System: Despite all the issues we have had on the political front with the Kenyan Government, governance reform and progress in democratization continues – occasionally, two steps forward, one step or one step-and-a-half back. But, over time I think a more representative government slowly has emerged. The seeds have been well planted in Kenya today, for example with its new constitution, devolution of authority to subnational governments, the creation of a more effective and efficient tax system – the value-added tax implemented more than a decade ago. USAID assistance has played a role in all these reforms and institutional development. It is still a work in progress, but I’m quite confident that these changes will endure, but not always in a straightforward [manner].

“[T]he success, in no small measure, is due to continuity..”

Long-Term Success: Most importantly, the professionals and the institutions we invested in have, in turn, facilitated a long-term perspective on development, an acceptance of the need for sustained investment, and conditioning the exercise of patience. The success, in no small measure, is due to continuity: a long-term commitment to stay the course and have patience with development investment—that works.



USAID/Kenya – Program Economist                                                                                            1986-1989
USAID/Washington – Program Economist, Africa Bureau/East Africa                                1991-1992
USAID/Kenya – Supv. Program Officer and Deputy Mission Director                                  1992-1996
USAID/Malawi – Mission Director                                                                                                1997-2001
USAID/Kenya – Mission Director                                                                                                  2001-2005
Retirement from USAID                                                                                                                   April 2005