Monday, May 11, 2015

Achieving sustainable development must go beyond setting goals.

For more than 40 years we have talked about the sustainability of our life choices as a species. From 1972 in Stockholm to 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, we are yet to reach a consensus on concrete action to put our civilization on an even keel with our planet

In 1972 Donella Meadows and colleagues in their seminal book, The Limits to Growth, pleaded for profound technological, cultural and institutional change to avoid the increase of our ecological footprint beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity. Evidently we have not paid attention. Collectively, we have been long on rhetoric and short on concrete action to steer our planet and our civilization on a sustainable path.

The world’s population has grown from 3.84 billion in 1972 to 7.3 billion today. Globally, we lose about 23 hectares of arable land per minute. In 30 years we have seen the unraveling of the Green Revolution as soils turned saline, ground water has been depleted. As we opened up land for cities, farms and pastures we destroyed habitats and exterminated biodiversity and vital biodiversity collapsed. As we powered our homes and factories and moved goods and services we cast a cocktail of foul gases into the atmosphere our planet warmed and the oceans acidified.

In 1987 we formalized the definition of sustainable development, awakening the conscious of politicians and development aficionados to an evolving global crisis. But the world barely stirred in its slumber. The notion of sustainability became instantly divisive in an ideological sense; largely perceived as an assault on the broad and noble goals of accumulation for socio-economic development.

In 2002, Nobel Laureate and Chemist described our age as the Anthropocene; the age in which mankind posses a capacity to alter Earth processes on a scale hitherto assumed possible by earthquakes, volcanoes and glaciers. In 2009, a group of scientist warned that were pushing hard beyond the safe operating zone on vital life support systems. Johan Rockstrom and his colleagues added the notion of planetary boundaries to the global discourse on sustainability. For over decade before 2009, a group of interdisciplinary scholars under the auspices of the Resilience Alliance had argued for inclusion of transformation and renewal when talking about sustainable development.

The rise of China, economically, seems to have complicated the path to a global agreement on curbing green house gas emissions. China believes that it too, just like Europe, Japan and North America must burn dirty hydrocarbon fuels on its way to economic and social advancement. The US believes that cutting back emissions and leading the scientific and technological innovation to transition to green economy will somehow diminish its global power status. How ludicrous!

On global warming Africa is the victim here. Africa believes it is owed technology and loads of cash to adapt to climate change. What about Africa’s own budgetary resources? We know that grand theft and corruption has created thousands of odiously wealthy politicians and public servants. Do African universities have any role in driving innovations to cope and adapt to the local effects of climate change?

Moreover, Africa is to too poor to preserve its forests, wetlands, lakes and farmlands. The excuse usually is that we must destroy these resources just to eke out a living. We would like to believe that there is some kind of Environmental Kuznets Curve; that we must destroy and profit from nature, and create the wealth to then preserve nature. We are saying to nature there is no such thing as free lunch. This is Grade B tripe!


In the foreword to Jeffery Sachs’ new book, The Age of Sustainable Development, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon notes that poverty plagues mankind, climate change threatens livelihoods, conflicts are raging and inequality is widening. The Age of Sustainable Development is beckoning. Do we have the courage to hearken to the call?

We must do more that converge in New York in September 2015 to register commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We committed to the MDGs and 15 years down the road there is so little to show, except the need to agree on another set of global development goals. Can this time be different?


Sustainability must be more than goals nations commit to. It must reflect individual and collective understanding and respect for the inextricable connections between humans and nature and about equitable and inclusive socio-economic prosperity for all of mankind.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Youth bulge and urbanization key to Africa’s future

Urbanization and the unprecedented surge of a youthful population are re-defining Africa in irreversible ways. Hence, Africa’s future is inextricable bound to its youth and cities. The unresolved question however, is what kind of cities is Africa building and what does the future hold for Africa’s youth?

Africa’s youth are in the vanguard of what many economists and Afro-optimists have described as Africa Rising. In many ways what has characterized Africa rising is the surge of demand for goods and services and the inevitable spending by a youthful urban population.

Nairobi’s emergence as the IT innovation central and Africa’s most intelligent city is courtesy to Kenya’s indomitable youth. The youth have quickened the pace of Dar-es-Salaam, a city once characterized as laid back and easy.

 Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world. However, Africa’s urban age is characterized by uncontrolled sprawl; expansion of slum settlements; lack of water and poor sanitation; hunger and malnutrition; gridlock and inadequate investment in public transportation an; weak institutions for urban governance. The World Bank cautions that Kampala could become a mega slum in the next 10 years if no action is taken to improve the quality of infrastructure and commercial investment. Can Africa harness the urban age and drive rapid and equitable economic transformation?

According to IMF, Africa’s working age population will reach 1.25 billion by 2050. Furthermore, this rapid growth in Africa’s potential labor force means that it must create 450 million new jobs for new workers projected to join the workforce between by 2035. Potentially, the rising share of Africa’s working-age population could put its competitive advantage beyond the reach of any other continent or sub-region.

How well are we preparing young people for a competitive globalized knowledge economy where basic literacy and numeracy alone just won’t do? Honestly, not very well.

Over 38% of Africa’s children aged below 5 years are stunted. Research shows that compared with normal children, stunted children: score 7 percent lower on math tests; are 19 percent less likely to be able to read a simple sentence at age 8, and 12 percent less likely able to write a simple sentence; and, are 13 percent less likely to be able to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school. Moreover, 7-16 per cent of grade repetitions are associated with stunting.

Here are some worrying observations from Kenya. About 1.3 million children enrolled in primary school in 2007. Only 880,486 completed primary 8. A staggering 417,483 children dropped before end of primary school. In the 2014 KCPE examinations, only 432,000 or 34 percent of 1.3 million children enrolled in primary one in 2007 scored above the average 250 marks, good enough to join high school. Such a low level of transition to high school is unconscionable. Moreover, according to Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi confirmed that 2 million children are out of school.

But it gets worse. There is a mismatch between the skills that young people offer and the ones that employees need. Employers are flooded with applications but complain that they cannot find candidates with the right abilities. And here is the evidence. On average 56 percent of students graduating from East African universities lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market. In short, 56 percent of our graduates are half-baked. This sobering finding was revealed in May 2014 in a study conducted by the Inter-University for East Africa (IUCEA) and the East African Business Council (EABC) to establish employers’ perceptions of graduates.

In South Africa, uneducated youth are unemployable and enthralled in an orgy xenophobic violence against fellow Africans. Jobless rates among young black South Africans is probably 55 percent. In Nigeria, staggered by the winds of unemployment and discontent young Africans are vulnerable to the virulent ideology of hatred served by homegrown terror cells like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. Millions of Africans, mainly from West Africa, the Sahel and Eritrea either perish in the desert or drown in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to migrate for Europe for work and a chance to live their dreams. 

Africa’s transition to the urban age and the youth bulge, in combination, could ignite an unprecedented African renaissance and socio-economic transformation. How we leverage the capacity of Africa’s youth and harness the opportunities of urban transition will determine whether the 21st century belongs to Africa. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Re-think cities to take advantage of urban transition

East Africa is, by recent estimates, the fastest urbanizing sub-region in Africa. Consequently, our cities and towns will face monumental challenges associated with new and incremental demand for food, housing, health services, education, transportation, recreational space, and jobs for a bulging youthful population. 

However, East Africa’s urban age along with a youth bulge growth presents a new beginning. East Africa’s urban age presents an opportunity to turn a new page with respect to solving problems that have festered for too long; lack of access to clean water and sanitation; gender inequality in education; lack of access to clean domestic energy; and, inability of women to take charge of their reproductive health. East Africa’s urban age could be both empowering and liberating.

The real challenge presented by East Africa’s transition to an urban age is unprecedented massive urban growth in a context of significant urban governance failure which, in combination, generate multiple and entwined threats to equitable and sustainable urbanization.

The challenges we face in our cities today: uncontrolled sprawl; expansion of slum settlements; lack of water and poor sanitation; hunger and malnutrition; inadequate public transportation infrastructure; lack of jobs; and, weak institutions for urban governance could derail the unique opportunity and promise of the urban age. In order to keep the opportunity and promise of the urban age on track we need to re-imagine in a radically different way, paradigms and visions for a 21st century urbanism.  

East Africa’s major cities – their form and function – were conceived in the logic of European urban models of the 19th and 20th century. As Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, did in 1961 we must challenge the principles orthodox or conventional city planning. The imperatives that informed the form and function of cities a 150 years ago are incompatible with the visions of sustainable urbanism in the 21st century.  

As Jane Jacobs observed, the intellectual foundations of the so-called modern urban planning suffer from a misconception of how cities actually work. According to Jacobs, livable cities are created by the everyday experiences of the life of its their inhabitants rather than the abstract imaginings of master plans.

In the 21st century, urban living must be informed and constrained by three paradigms, namely: a heightened sensitivity to efficiency; reducing our carbon footprint; and, a determined commitment to creating equitable and pluralistic societies. These paradigms are not met when the dominant logic of our cities privileges urban sprawl through misguided odious investments in superhighways. These paradigms are not met when we don't invest in affordable public transit systems that efficiently connect a surging and talented youthful population to jobs. These paradigms are not met when the growing use of private automobiles accelerates dangerous climate change and makes our bodies infirm.

Moreover, the paradigms of 21st century urbanism are not met when the city of Nairobi prioritizes public private investments to build additional parking spaces in the CBD to for 4,500 cars rather than build a public square, with recreational and performance spaces to build social capital for a vibrant modern city. These paradigms are not served when little planning resources are devoted to creating a city that encourages walking and cycling; a city that liberates its residence from the tyranny of the car. Ubiquitous squalor and poverty that characterizes East Africa large cities could become a defining feature of emerging secondary and small cities. Hence, we must challenge and re-think orthodox urban planning paradigms if we are to achieve a sustainable transition to the urban age. We cannot repeat the failed models of the past centuries.

We are on the warm threshold of a complete and irreversible transition to a predominantly urban society. Our decisions, in response to what are evidently urgent challenges to urbanism must be supple and adaptive to change. As we very well understand, urban infrastructure invariably requires huge capital and can typically railroad urban development along an unsustainable trajectory, which constrains options for adaptive response.


East Africa’s late entry into the urban age is fortuitous. We have so much to learn from the failures of the cities of Asia, Europe and the Americas. There is a real opportunity for us to lead the world in building cities for the new age; adaptive, functional, and efficient. We must begin a debate about the desirable re-imagination of East Africa’s urban transitions.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

To alleviate gridlock, limit the use of private cars

Recently, road users in Nairobi were super outraged because rush hour traffic ground to a halt when the county government began to execute a plan to eliminate roundabout intersections. Vitriol on Twitter rolled like the waters of a mighty stream.

Staggered by public outrage the colored drums used to seal of the roundabout intersections rolled. And Nairobi got its gridlock back. The county authorities, by the act of rolling out the colored drums, conceded that they had not have a viable plan.

I thought Nairobi residents would be inspired to seek a bold, sensible and permanent solution to Nairobi’s numbing gridlock. I sent an appeal on Twitter asking #KOT to suggest practical ideas to solve traffic gridlock. I learned that #KOT is extremely long on whining and finger pointing and woefully short on solutions. Have we become a nation of whiners? Is #KOT, despite its enormous power merely a lynch and activist mob?

I have read some truly bizarre suggestions about what is needed to resolve Nairobi’s traffic problem. The myth out there is that we need tens of billions of shillings to build light rail transit, multiple level stack interchange and constant flow intersections. How to accommodate cars in our cities is the most urgent consideration. But we have failed to imagine livable and vibrant cities for people, without automobiles.

Next time you drive around look at how much land and infrastructure is dedicated for the automobile in Nairobi or other Kenyan cities; from parking at the street level to gas stations, to car sale yards to roads. Compare this to sidewalks or cycle lanes or open recreational space or benches on the street. If an alien were asked who owned or lived in our cities, they would say cars and trucks.

When it was inaugurated, Thika Superhighway was lauded as a bold and direct panacea to traffic gridlock. The hitherto long-suffering commuter on what was Thika road heaved a long sigh of relief. Today, Thika Superhighway is now gridlock central, especially during morning rush hour. The exits no longer work. The more roads you build the more traffic you get.

Cities will always lose the battle to satisfy the demands of private motorists. The cost of satisfying the whims of middle and wealthy classes is colossal and unjustifiable. To believe that more roads could solve urban traffic gridlock is analogous to accepting the fallacy that bloodletting could drain evil fluids, which cause disease.
Half a century ago, critics of highways predicted there would be irredeemable tensions between vibrant people-centered cities and the needs of cars. Urban planners chickens have come home to roost. Orthodox city planning is not based on any knowledge about cities work in real life.

Traffic gridlock will strangulate and snuff life out of urban living. It is easy to blame the number of cars on the road. It is easy to suggest that gas prices are too low and ought to be raised so poorer drivers get their cars off the road. The annoying gridlock and insatiable demand by cars for wider roads is really a symptom of our incompetence at urban planning and management.

The combined effects of a lack of safe walking or cycling areas, a lack of investment in public transit and expansion of highways without enforcing land use planning, which has encouraged a proliferation of suburbs, and widespread use of private cars. Unfortunately, considerable energy and public resources is, now directed at dealing with the symptoms of our incompetence, rather than addressing the root cause of the problem.

The use of private automobiles is the cause of gridlock. Get rid of them. Create a disincentive for use of private cars. Such disincentives must be complemented by realistic choices for private care users.

Five measures could limit use of private cars and alleviate gridlock: 1) Create a metro system, with express lanes for commuter services and car pool; 2) Enter a public private public partnership to provide park and ride services; 3) Eliminate of 60 percent of public street level public parking; 4) Develop regional planning framework between Nairobi county and the counties of Kiambu, Machakos and Kajiado to contain urban sprawl; 5) Introduce of road toll charges within a radius of 15 km from the CBD.


Expensive infrastructure or elimination of the roundabout will not solve Nairobi’s traffic gridlock; near extermination of use private cars will.

SUDOKU

Free sudoku by SudokuPuzz

Readers