The Invisible Hand of Development


Our first attempts in Nakuru to get people speaking about problems that could be translated into simple business solutions failed to bring good results.

Over the weekend we had another chance to try again during our stay in Lalwet, a rural village 25km out of Nakuru. Over a dinner of Ugali (the Kenyan staple food) Peter and myself chatted with the Chairman of the Lalwet Lobby Group, the organisation tasked with improving the wellbeing of the local community. While discussing the Lobby Group’s activities we inquired about any past failures.

This specific question led to a serious and in-depth discussion exploring some of the challenges the group has encountered with their projects. One good example that the Chairman talked about was a fishpond business that didn’t even survive its first year. The reason for the failure, the Chairman explained, was internal arguments between the group members over the fair allocation of work.

It got me thinking, is this not the same challenges that the Kibbutzim faced in Israel?

The reason why so many collective ideas fail, I believe, can be best understood using Adam Smith’s analysis of human behaviour. He argued that the natural instinct of an individual is to better himself and his family. Smith saw this as such a powerful driver of human behaviour that he believed by setting free these personal ambitions the invisible hand would improve society as a whole.

Discussing with the Chairman these political-economy paradigms learnt at the University of Northampton, and applying the methods of identifying problems and interviewing developed here with Balloon Kenya, led me to see clearly an inherent conflict that exists in development. Individuals often require a group to start projects because individually their means are too small, but in a group an individual can lack incentives leading to the group falling apart and the project failing.

Through defining this problem we arrived at a conclusion that in future the Lobby Group will have to emphasise individual incentives if they want their projects to succeed.

I hope that this general but simple statement can really help the community design future successful initiatives. After all, as the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping said, ‘it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.’

Learning from our task, I realised that identifying problems is more possible that I initially thought, but only if you really listen and take the time to understand.