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"Michuki Gave 'Implementation' its True Meaning"

Kenyan John Michuki, center, President of the Eighth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, talks during the Ninth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention hosted by Indonesian government in Nusa Dua, Indonesia, June 23, 2008.
AP Photo

"Michuki Gave 'Implementation' its True Meaning"

Op-Ed, The Daily Nation

February 25, 2012

Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Science, Technology, and Globalization; Science, Technology, and Public Policy



John Michuki, Kenya's Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, passed away on February 21, 2012.


John Michuki will be remembered by many for his bold acts as a Cabinet minister.

He will be fondly recalled for bringing order to the matatu industry.

Or for ordering the raid on the offices of the Standard newspaper and justifying his acts.

Yet, long after his specific actions as a minister are forgotten, Michuki will be remembered for his dedication to "getting things done", or "implementation".

He was very aware that this is what set him apart from other leaders and expressed it so clearly in at least one long meeting I had with him on a visit to Harvard.

In fact, he was quite clear that the ultimate purpose of public policy was to get things done.

He dedicated his public life to the idea that one's sense of purpose had to be expressed in clear outcomes, many of which were dramatic.

But the commitment to implementation also comes with other personal qualities. The first of those is courage.

There is no doubt that Michuki acted with remarkable courage and conviction. He publicly justified his actions.

Many can question the merits of some of the actions but not the determination to getting the task at hand accomplished and justified.

As a public servant, Michuki was willing to take personal risks to achieve his goals.

The matatu and mungiki cases are examples where the direct action that he took carried immense person risks.

This is particularly important because, in many cases, public servants would worry first about their political survival before they took on challenges of this magnitude.

Courage is not enough unless it is guided by vision. He headed the Environment ministry at a time of heightened global interest in climate change.

He was concerned with two things. First, he wanted to be sure that global justice prevailed in international climate negotiations.

Michuki was also acutely aware that Africa had limited capacity to leverage international support as it was negotiating from a position of weakness.

He was uneasy with the idea of negotiating as victim in a global system that lacked enforcement mechanisms.

His solution to the challenge was to propose a massive reforestation programme involving children across the country.

Tree-planting was not a new idea to the land of Wangari Maathai. But his vision was to galvanise the entire country through the engagement of schools.

Such an act, he reasoned, would give Kenya the political clout to discuss carbon credit from a position of strength.

Michuki was not simply parading a vision. He had done the numbers and provided extensive details on how the mission could be accomplished.

He was aware of the technical difficulties of achieving this and actively sought out ideas on how to promote tree-planting in Kenya's arid and semi-arid areas.

This brings me to another aspect of Michuki's legacy. Effective implementation requires the capacity to assess a wide range of options and the willingness to experiment with new ideas.

Intellectual curiosity and interest in detail were some of his hallmarks. On another occasion in Arusha we returned to the issue of tree-planting.

I offered a seemingly outlandish idea of using synthetic material (polymers) that can capture water and only growing plants can extract it.

Michuki was intensely curious about this idea and we discussed it in great detail, including sharing contacts on how to obtain samples.

It does not take too much stretching of one's imagination to identify other applications of materials used in diapers such as flood control.

There is no doubt that Michuki had from early childhood developed a strong sense of self-worth that served him well the rest of his life.

His early interviews that have surfaced on social media reveal his signature self-confidence which he developed early in life.

Many will continue to debate the merits of his actions and his methods of achieving them. But there is no doubt that Michuki represents a rare class of leaders who take great personal risks to get things done.

If Michuki wished to be remembered as a public servant, he would have wanted his name to be associated with two other words: policy implementation. I also suspect that he would want the impact of such implementation to be dramatic.

Michuki, in his unique way, had the qualities of people who not only leave great legacies but also inspire next generations to change the course of history.

It is not enough that his life be remembered; its better parts need to be re-enacted or continued.

Writer is professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

Full text of this publication is available at:

For Academic Citation:

Juma, Calestous. "Michuki Gave 'Implementation' its True Meaning." The Daily Nation, February 25, 2012.

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