The failure of success and the success of failure: The Youth Polytechnic Programme in Kenya

Published date01 April 1990
Date01 April 1990
10,179-198 (1990)
The failure of success and the success
failure: the Youth
Polytechnic Programme
Edinburgh University
Despite its successful expansion over the past two decades, Kenya’s Youth Polytechnic Pro-
gramme’ is widely regarded as having failed to achieve its original objectives. The programme
was supposed to provide a non-formal training to unemployed school-leavers in skills directly
related to local income-generating opportunities. Critics, especially amongst the influential
Aid Community, have complained of excessive formalization and an orientation in the poly-
technics to certification and paid employment. A recent national tracer study seems to confirm
the programme’s marginal impact. This paper reassesses the development of the programme,
using a framework derived from Sabatier’s work on implementation. Taking account of the
inadequate premises upon which the programme was launched, the deficiencies
legal struc-
ture, the resource overload, and the socio-economic and cultural environment, the pro-
gramme’s ‘failures’ can be seen as a successful adaption to prevailing pressures and constraints.
The real failure has been
the lack of learning from practice, which has prevented a realistic
assessment of the programme’s impact and potential. Wedded to the programme’s initial
ideals, the impact of policy prescriptions upon polytechnic practice has been limited, and
some respects even counter-productive.
First romance, then disillusion, ultimately divorce: the history of policy development
often seems to parallel that of an unsuccessful marriage, in which high hopes and
unrealistic expectations founder on a bedrock of humdrum realities and daily routine.
As with marriage, the conditions which precipitate the initiation of policy may not
be conducive to its future success. Policy often seems based on an act
faith rather
than any detached and thorough assessment of future prospects. Moreover, policy
is typically born of political expediency rather than administrative rationality; it
tends to emerge through a marriage of convenience between the interested parties,
in which the possibility of consensus depends precisely upon the latitude and ambi-
guity of the contract.
create consensus and generate support, protagonists tend
to claim far more for policies than they can realistically realize. In addition, the
ceremonial ritual of policy initiation often inspires an accompanying rhetoric of
diffuse aims and utopian ambitions, opening the door to subsequent disillusionment
Dr Dey is in the Department
Social Policy and Social
Edinburgh, Adam Ferguson
Building, George Square, Edinburgh
The original name ‘village polytechnic’ was changed to ‘youth polytechnic’ in 1985.
have used the term ‘youth polytechnic’ throughout.
0271-2075/90/020 179-20$10.00
by John Wiley
Sons, Ltd.
and failure. Thus in the process of policy formulation, policy-makers tend
criteria for success which it is subsequently impossible to attain. Indeed, successful
policies seem as difficult to detect as successful marriages. In neither case is endurance,
of itself, a sufficient characteristic to warrant the label; but if success is measured
in terms of fulfilment of initial hopes, few policies can match the ambitions which
attend their formulation. Hence, perhaps, the ubiquitous gap between the rhetoric
and reality which seems
characteristic of the policy process.
A classic example of this process can be found in the development of the Youth
Polytechnic Programme (YPP) in Kenya. This programme was initiated with much
enthusiasm following a report by the National Christian Council of Kenya ‘After
School What?’ (NCCK,
expressing concern over the lack of training opportuni-
ties for Kenya’s rapidly growing population
primary school leavers, the vast major-
ity of whom were unable to progress to secondary schooling. Amongst other
recommendations, the NCCK Report proposed the introduction of rural institutions
which would provide training in practical skills and encourage youngsters to remain
in and contribute to the development of their own areas. This proposal was endorsed
by the Kericho international conference on education held the same year, and the
NCCK proceeded to establish four ‘village polytechnics’, thereby launching a pro-
gramme which over the following two decades has led to the creation of several
hundred polytechnics in Kenya.
The YPP was nothing if not ambitious, having the virtue of addressing several intrac-
table problems at one and the same time. Most obviously,
was a response to
youth unemployment or underemployment in rural areas of Kenya. The polytechnics
were to help to ‘plug the gap’ between the number of primary school-leavers and
the inadequate level of opportunities in education, training or employment. The
NCCK Report had suggested that these youngsters typically lacked the experience
and skills which would allow them to contribute significantly to their own and their
family’s survival. Training would provide them with the necessary skills to make
a living.
Another problem addressed by the YPP was rural-urban migration. In the absence
of rural opportunities, youngsters were being tempted to Kenya’s cities in search
of work; yet statistics readily verified that the pace of employment growth in the
economy’s ‘modem sector’ in no way kept pace with the expanding number of job
seekers. The migration of rural youth exacerbated the social and political problems
of Kenya’s cities, while urban bias distorted the path of development and reduced
the prospects of rural progress.
training youngsters in skills relevant to rural
areas, the YPP could help to stem urban drift and make a significant contribution
to revitalizing rural economies.
The regeneration of rural communities was another important theme on the YPP
agenda. Polytechnics were to be local institutions, created by community initiative,
based on local resources and controlled by local representatives through management

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