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Saturday, February 24, 2018

The State of the Future: Identity, norms and values of East Africa’s youth

With a median age estimated at 18 years, and with about 80 percent of the population below the age of 35 years, East Africa is one of the youngest regions in the world. While the future is uncertain, unknowable in precise ways, the youth will determine the character of that future. This article is based on a survey of East African youth that was commissioned by the East Africa Institute of the Aga Khan University. The overarching objective of the study was to understand how youth construct and re-configure their sense of identity, what their values are, their attitudes and norms. About 7,000 individuals between the age of 18 and 35 were interviewed in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. The findings provide reasons for hope and despondency. This study seeks to contribute to scholarship and public discourse on social construction of identity and values in the context of increasing urbanization, the dominance of neoliberal market economy and major transformations affecting traditional norms and the rise of individualism.

Youth and Identity
The study reveals that East African youth were adaptively constructing and re-configuring their identities along five key dimensions. About 40% of the respondents said they were youth first, while 34% identified first as nationals/citizens of their countries. Moreover, 11% identified themselves by their faith first and 6% identified as members of their family first. Only 3.5% reported their tribe or ethnicity as the first dimension of their identity.

Youth as the first dimension of identity, signals a sense of internal cohesion and solidarity. Identity as youth is also consistent with the policy and legal categorizations by society and state that establish youth as socially distinct category. This distinct identity as youth enhances a sense of esprit de corp; a sense of belonging that also confers a sense of social entitlement as well as shared grievance. It is not uncommon to hear youth agitate for affirmative action to set aside youth seats in parliament or cabinet and prequalification of delineation of youth quotas for government tenders. Further analysis revealed differences in ordering of identity at the national level. For example, Tanzanian respondents identified as predominantly as youth, In Kenya and Rwanda respondents identified as citizens of their respective countries and by their religion. Among respondents in Uganda, family and tribe were important dimensions.

However, the ordering of identities are not static, East African youth were indeed reconfiguring their identities between age 18 and 35 years, which is perhaps related to progressive developmental shifts. The study revealed that ethnic, familial and religious dimensions of identity also get amplified between 18 and 35 years. The age-graded self-perceptions and identities reflect and suggest conformity to mainstream societal norms, which also provide insights into differences observed between countries. In Kenya for example, the proportion of youth who identify by ethnicity increased from 4% to 7.8% between the ages of 21 and 35, representing a 90-percentage point increase. These results confirm the strong ethnic inclinations in the Kenyan society. The converse was true in Tanzania where ethnicity as a dimension of identity remains stable across the life course of the youth, from 18-35 years.
The surge in salience of ethnic identity among 30-35 year old youth is in conformity with the exigencies of adulthood – finding employment and or business opportunities. As they grow older, they realize that reciprocity is ethnically determined and networks are essentially ethnic. Hence, the age-related changes with regard to rank-order of identity dimensions reflect progressive developmental shifts as well as trajectories of conformity with mainstream adult orientations, attitudes and values. The age-related accentuation of ethnic distinctiveness observed in Kenya is in sharp contrast to a more stable and muted sense of ethnic identity in socially cohesive Tanzania. Unlike in Kenya, Tanzania, since it’s founding has focused on diminishing the prominence of ethnic identity. Tanzania’s ruling party elite has consistently drummed up the ethos of Ujamaa – equitable economic production and distribution of public resources to drive social cohesion and economic progress.

Ethnic identity is perceived as antithetical to social cohesion and the ideals of nation building.  Tanzania’s first President, Julius Nyerere, projected nationalism as counter identity to ethnicity or tribalism, emphasized the need to weave a nation out of a tribe and resisted the politicization of ethnicity. In Rwanda, ethnicity as an identity has been outlawed after the 1994 genocide. President Museveni of Uganda has indicated that Uganda will be “fully evolved” when tribal, clan, and religious identities are inconsequential Kenya’s own Nobel Peace Prize laureate advocated for increased participation by youth to promote social cohesion based on shared identities that transcend ethnic lines.

The dimensions of identity are critical staging platforms for meaning and sense making and provide an important context for understanding the basis, origin and evolution of attitudes, norms and orientations, as well as practices. Our findings illustrate how meanings and practices derived from mainstream culture, political and institutional settings, normative and symbolic groupings of belonging (youth, religion) and historical path dependence determine the dimensions and ordering of identity.

Attitudes, norms, orientations, practices
When asked what they valued most, 81% of East Africa’s youth valued faith first; about 50% valued work and family first; 37% valued wealth first and 25% value freedom. Only 7% said integrity was their most important value. Further explorations of the question of integrity sought to frame integrity around attitudes, choices and actions to determine whether youth: i) admired people who use get rich quick schemes; ii) would do anything to get money; iii) would easily take a bribe; iv) would easily take a bribe; v) believed it did not matter how one made money; vi) believed there was nothing wrong with corruption. About 60% of the youth admire those who use get rich quick schemes; 55% believe it does not matter how one makes money; 53% would do anything to get money; 37% would take or give a bribe; 35% believe there is nothing wrong with corruption. While 74% of the youth believe it is important to vote about 70% were vulnerable to electoral fraud and about 40% would only vote if a candidate paid them.

About 70% of the variation among the countries was explained a along a continuum of orientations ranging from agreeing that there was nothing wrong with corruption, willingness to take or give a bribe to disagreeing with the proposition that there was nothing wrong with corruption and not taking or giving a bribe. Rwandan youth were distinctly different; saying they would not take or give a bribe and unambiguous about the fact that corruption was wrong. Conversely, Tanzanian youth would easily take or give a bribe and believed there was nothing wrong with corruption. According to the study, Ugandan youth would do anything to get money, admire people who use get rich quick schemes and don’t agree that education is more important than money. The study reveals that with respect to ethics and integrity, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are more similar, but distinctly different from Rwanda, especially on attitudes on corruption and bribery.

Corruption is generally rampant and somewhat acceptable in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Tanzania’ s President John Magufuli campaigned on a platform of integrity and restoration of an ethos of hard work, “Hapa Kazi Tu”. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has said that he is frustrated by rampant and enduring corruption despite his best efforts to curb the vice. Recognizing that corruption is an impediment to development and it poses a major challenge to good governance, President Yoweri Museveni has declared war on corruption and lamented that the fighting corruption has become complex because educated (elite) public officials are adept at concealing evidence.

Headlines such as: “ Major scandals that hit the Jubilee government”; “How corrupt Tanzanian leaders hide their billions”; “High-profile corruption scandals registered under NRM”, are not uncommon in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Kenya’s former Chief Justice Dr. Willy Mutunga has characterized the Kenyan elites, who are not different from the rest of East Africa’s elite, as embedded in a materialistic arms race, survival of the fittest, and without any moral qualms. Similarly, Dr. Jorg Wiegratz, a scholar on moral economy of neoliberalism based at University of Leeds, argues that fraud in its various manifestation, including corruption and rule violation are a manifestation of new liberal neoliberal moral order especially among the powerful elite. Neoliberal market-like incentives tend to erode the foundations of traditional ethical commitments (family, community and religion) in favor of self-interest and opportunism. 

This study confirms that attitudes tolerant or evening approving of corruption exist side by side among the youth – without contradiction – with high levels of religious piety (over 80% of youth say faith is the most important value). To understand the apparent dissonance between high religious piety and tolerance and acceptance of corruption one needs to take into account the public sectors that have the highest prevalence of corruption and bribery. These include: the police, judiciary, health, registry and licensing, education, utilities and civil registration. While these sectors offer critical services to the public, onerous bureaucracy and inefficiency bog them down. Moreover, public officials who hold these positions are beholden to a virulent culture of ethnic and political patronage and petty rent seeking.

Somehow, these public officials, especially in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda believe they are entitled to eat; the public owes them chai (tea). On the other hand, the public believes its okay to give Kitu Kidogo (something small) in return to a favor of service given to them by a public official. In a sense integrity, not taking or not giving a bribe, is an elastic value, which is ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations.

In ordinary parlance taking a bribe is viewed simply as “eating”, a normal physiological or biological need for which one must not find fault. Hence, corruption is not categorized purely as an ethical aberration; the circumstance under which one takes of gives a bribe determines the ethicality of the action. Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, whose research focuses on ethical decision-making has shown that when there is ambiguity in categorization of a particular action, one may justify and categorize their actions in positive terms thus avoiding updating ones moral self-image.

This study reveals that East Africa’s youth generally admire people who use get rich quick schemes, would do anything to get money as long as they don’t go to jail and would do anything to get money. However, while youth in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda would go on to easily take or give a bribe, Rwandan youth would not. Why? Reports like policemen accused of corruption were fired in 2017 or civilians accused of bribing policemen arrested or Ombudsman publishes the list of individuals convicted of corruption related offences are not uncommon in Rwanda. Hence, Rwandan youth engage in a cost benefit analysis, which informs the ultimate decision about dishonesty (taking or giving a bribe or a belief that there was nothing wrong with corruption).


The example of Rwanda offers hope because it demonstrates the importance strong leadership and an unequivocal commitment to integrity and public accountability in shaping the attitudes and perceptions of youth. The findings of this study suggest that identities, values, norms and attitudes are shaped by and co-evolve with institutions and antecedent cultures and practices of the wider society. Any positive change we desire must start with the adults. Youth are our mirror image.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Our children deserve quality, relevant curriculum

Kenyans are talking about basic education curriculum reform; what our children should and how they should learn. According to the government, current curriculum delivered through the 8-4-4 system does not serve the current and future needs of our society.

The proposed basic education curriculum framework is excellent but not perfect. But the government has not done a great job communicating the new curriculum to the public – what the new curriculum is about or why we need to change the curriculum in the first place. And more importantly, the public has not had a chance to give their views. Even teachers have not been adequately involved in the curriculum conversation.

The current system is criticized for being exam-centred. Moreover, the current system does not instill in our children the necessary values and a sense of community. More importantly, a review of the current curriculum concluded that learners did not acquire adequate entrepreneurial skills for self-reliance, and apart from apart from high unemployment, social vices such as crime, drug abuse and antisocial behavior were on the rise. Talk about a stinging indictment.

The government believes that the new curriculum whose vision is to enable every Kenyan to become engaged empowered and ethical citizens, will equip learners with skills, knowledge, attitudes and values to thrive and make the world a better place for everyone. It’s about citizenship, living together. Most importantly for me, the curriculum reform is about values and ethics; about the examined life. The unexamined life, according to Socrates, is not worth living.

Moreover, the mission of the new curriculum is to nurture every learner’s potential. In a word, it is learner-centred. This new curriculum affirms, like Plutarch, Greek philosopher and writer, and Socrates, that education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. It is about setting alight the creative imagination and fanning the flames of innovation in our children.

The new curriculum is about learning to learn. It is not just about the subject matter; it is about the content of the learner’s experience. Hence, learning is reinstated as a process of co-creation.  The delivery of the new curriculum re-imagines the role of the teacher and pedagogy. The teacher will no longer be the sage on the stage. The teacher will be the guide on the side; coach, mentor and facilitator.

Whatever is ossified and mechanical about the current curriculum is its subjugation of the child in his or her context – the child and their community. Thankfully, one of the six guiding principles of the curriculum is Community Service Learning.  In simple language, this is a form of experiential education where students learn through iterations of action and reflection and in the process link personal and social growth, cognitive and academic growth. 


While education is not part of President Kenyatta’s Big Four Action Plan, it is the foundation without which anything we build is in vain. The education curriculum reform is worthy of the Mr. Kenyatta’s leadership. To guarantee every Kenyan child quality education would be a most durable legacy.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The future of urban food is fragile

Our common future is urban. About 40 percent of Africans live in urban spaces. This proportion is set to soar to 50 percent by 2035. Expanding at an estimated rate of 4.2 percent, the rate of urbanization now outstrips Kenya’s annual population growth by about 62 percent.

By 2050, 1.3 billion of Africa’s estimated 2.4 billion people will be urban. Urban areas could be Africa’s growth engine and driver of prosperity. It is estimated that Africa’s cities account for over 55 percent of gross domestic product. Hence, Africa’s battle for sustainable and equitable prosperity will be won or lost in cities.

But African cities are already facing significant challenges with regard to provision of decent basic services such as housing, health, education, water and sanitation. The unprecedented rural-to-urban migration over the last two decades has touched off a vigorous proliferation of slums in most African cities.

In 2015, the World cautioned that Kampala could become a mega slum in just 10 yeas unless appropriate action was taken to improve planning and the quality of infrastructure and commercial investment. Moreover, an estimated 61 percent of Nairobi’s population lives in informal, unplanned settlements.

While squalid living, characterized by poor housing, inadequate water and sanitation services, insecurity, rising inequality remain critical and growing challenges, there is another looming crisis that stalks Africa’s unprecedented urban growth. It is the food crisis.

A study by the Africa Population Health Research Centre revealed that up to 50% of urban households faced severe food insecurity. Similarly a study on the prevalence and depth of hunger in Nairobi conducted in 2011 by Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development showed that 44% of households in Nairobi were under nourished with 20% being ultra-hungry.

A new study by the East Africa Institute of the Aga Khan University shows that Nairobi households spend a whooping 28 percent of their income on basic, staple food – maize, wheat products, milk, cooking oil and vegetables. The proportion of spending on food is higher than what households spend on housing, education and healthcare combined.

The study also reveals that Nairobi’s food supply system is in the hands of self-organized, informal actors who control all of the 18 major wet food markets. These informal actors perceive the County’s market and trade officials as extortionist, motivated by corruption and rent seeking. The markets are temporary, squalid and insanitary, lacking water and sanitation, garbage is seldom collected and they lack decent drainage.

The study estimates Nairobi’s average food sourcing distance at 149 km. With the exception of vegetables and fruits sold in upmarket grocery stores like Zucchini and Fresh and Field Fresh Vegetable, the food sources are not traceable.

Climate change, land fragmentation, rural-to-urban migration, urban sprawl will accelerate the decline in agricultural productivity, and exacerbate the urban food crisis. Just like we grapple with the challenges of housing, public transit, water and sanitation, we must direct our planning and investment energies to ensure equitable access to safe, nutritious and affordable food, from resilient sources.

We must invest more in research and innovation

On September 30th, this past Saturday, I attended the inaugural Annual Early-Career Health Researchers’ Symposium. The Faculty of Health Sciences of Aga Khan University organized the Symposium. 

Sixteen great research papers were presented and I was one of the judges. The topics ranged from nurses knowledge and practices on catheter associated urinary tract infections to female sexual dysfunction and fertility to improving facility-based quality of care during childbirth through clinical mentorship to drug discovery. The quality of research and the youthful exuberance of the researchers were impressive.

After an exhausting and inspiring day, I thought about of good research. I thought about the power of good research to drive the advancement of quality of life, as well spur socio-economic development. Think about what a dense research ecosystem, teeming with research active faculty, students and industry, working in collaboration could do for this country and the continent.

I am talking about research across multiple disciplines, and bringing together collaborators from university, research institutions and industry. And, working from diverse fields as literature and the arts; music and dance; pharmacogenomics; politics, law and government; journalism; plant genetics, agriculture, nutrition and urbanization; biodiversity environment, economics, anthropology and culture; geography, history and engineering

Our problems are man made and must be solved by world-class, research-led innovation. But the scale of our problems outstrips by far the output of relevant research on the continent. Africa produces just 1% of global research. In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty depressing.

However, according to the World Bank there is hope. Africa’s research output has doubled in the last decade. Most of Africa’s research focuses on agriculture, and health sciences. But sorely missing from the tally is research in the physical sciences, technology and engineering. This should worry institutions like the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation as well as the Vision 2030 Delivery Secretariat. 

While scientific productivity is on the surge we still have a long way to go. A ranking by Google Scholar Citations reveals that the top 100 scientists from Kenya’s institutions, together, have 77,635 citations, a measure the importance and quality of their research. To put this into perspective, the late US social scientist and Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon has over 307,000 citations.

Our research output is not great. All of us together, public and private academic and research institutions must step up investment and productivity in research. This will require public sector leadership in identifying key questions and priorities for research and innovation.

Such investment must include funding for graduate and postgraduate researchers. To achieve excellence in life sciences, technology and engineering, we must mobilize both public and private resources to build world-class research infrastructure, especially laboratories, science and technology parks. As exemplified through the Early-Career Health Researchers’ Symposium, we must invest in nurturing a new generation of research leaders.

Moreover, we must meet our development challenges by supporting innovation and the transformation through research excellence. This will also create new jobs, innovative businesses for millions.

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