Growth and differentiation in Kenya’s public sector, ca. 1920s to 1960s

Källarsalen Session 2: Paths towards sustained development in the global south: Historical lessons organized by Erik Green and Ellen Hillbom


Valeria Lukkari


The gradual construction of extensive bureaucracies in sub-Saharan African countries since the colonial era has been noteworthy and has been deemed problematic in many ways. The state in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa has functioned as the largest employer of the wage-earning population, and the expansion of the public sector has been particularly remarkable since independence. This type of development has an important drawback. Previous research suggests that as the state promoted the creation of a complex bureaucracy, it discouraged the development of private indigenous enterprise.

In Kenya, the public sector constituted 46% of all wage employment outside agriculture in the year 1966, while private sector employment stagnated from the 1960s to the 1970s (Vinnai, 1974). Kenya as a case study is of particular interest due to the relatively large settler population and the comparatively extensive administrative apparatus as well as the consecutive Africanization of this sector. The majority of the Kenyan post-independence elites could, indeed, be found in state employment (Simson, 2017). Tracing down the historical development and growth of the public sector in relation to the private sector is, thus, the main objective of this study with the additional aim of providing a more dynamic picture of the public sector actors.

The public-private differentials are taken as a departure point into a more thorough exploration of the public sector. The dynamics between the private and public sectors in colonial times are only narrowly explored, although the disparities in employment and remuneration between the two have been previously noted (Collier & Lal, 1986; Bigsten, 1987; Kilson, 1970). Going from a situation at the beginning of the colonial period in Kenya when the public sector would tend not to compete with the private sector in order to keep wages down (van Zwanenberg, 1975), to the public sector employing most of the educated and highly paid workers in the late 1960s, testifies to a shift in the dynamics. Thus, analysing the dynamics between the two sectors is important for understanding the development of the economy and the opportunities provided for African labour in the formal wage sector of Kenya.

This study finds considerable disparities between public and private sector employment and remuneration, which over time, however, seem to diminish. Additionally, differentiation within the public sector is detected. The paper contributes to the understanding of historical public-private differentials in Kenya as well as to the comprehension of the growing importance of the public sector.


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