Balancing development and social needs

A few weeks ago a friend asked me what could be done to prevent the developments taking place in rural areas from interfering with the lifestyles of the rural communities.

His main thesis was that as the country prepares to benefit from the increased discoveries of extractives in the country, there is the flip side of the benefits.

The main depiction of developments is normally massive infrastructure and other buildings. It is a focus of many regions that desire to develop. However, these come at a cost to traditional lifestyles.

My colleague’s question was how to respond to these eventualities. Do we allow people’s lifestyles to be transformed? Do we ignore this eventuality or do we stop it from taking place in the first place. His questions intrigued me and focused my mind to the well-known concept of sustainable development.

A concept developed several years ago, its main rationale is the need to balance the needs for economic development with those of social needs. In the above example sustainable development provides us with an analytical lens of determining which direction to take.


Sustainable development realises that decisions between whether to pursue the path of economic development, environmental protection of preservation and promotion of cultural and social issues are always intractable but must not always result in choosing one over the other.

On the contrary a balance should be struck that results in considerations of environmental, social and development imperatives. This is the basis of sustainable development, a concept that Kenya has included in its governance architecture by dint of Article 10 of the Constitution.

In implementing the principle of sustainable development, a key tool that is familiar to many Kenyans is the tool of Environmental Impact Assessment, commonly abbreviated as EIA. EIA helps to ensure that development options integrate environmental, social and economic considerations and are consequently sustainable.

It does this by identifying, predicting and evaluating possible impacts of a proposed development activity. These impacts are both those are beneficial and those that are detrimental. Having evaluated these impacts, EIA also enables elimination or minimising of possible negative impacts of a proposed project.

The current process of undertaking an EIA involves anyone who is proposing to carry out a development project, as identified in the law governing EIA conduct, undertaking an EIA and based on this applying for an EIA licence for the National Environmental Management Authority.

Ideally, therefore EIA would provide an objective processes for balancing development arising from the extractive industry and the need for protecting the lifestyles of local communities, the main dilemma my friend posed to me.

However, the current practice of EIA does not meet this objective. First, there is huge concern that since the law requires that the project proponent identifies and pays the expert to undertake the EIA, the objectivity of the report is sometimes compromised as a result.

Whereas the law provides for publication participation in the process of compilation of an EIA report and issuance of a EIA licence, the past practice of public participation have not been satisfactory.

In addition while EIA is about identifying and considering alternatives, the process has hitherto not been seen as about debating and determining alternatives.

Developers argue that EIA is about preventing developments from taking place, while the contrary arguments hold that EIA is only about collecting revenues from license fees.

There is an ongoing process of amending the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act, the law that governs the conduct of EIA.

We should also focus much more on Strategic Environmental Assessment and improve the utility of EIAs a as a tool for real consideration of alternatives and balancing of interests and concerns.

In instances where EIA licenses are granted, vigilance and follow up is needed to ensure that the development complies with the conditions in the EIA license.

This is the reason why the process includes requirements for monitoring and auditing. While the existence of EIA within our laws is positive, its current practice must be fixed to be able to deliver the required dividends.

Dr. Odote is a senior lecturer, Centre For Advanced Studies in Environmental Law and Policy(CASELAP) University of Nairobi.