Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Youth are our future, not pawns in political competition

Edmund Burke, 18th century political theorist and philosopher wrote; “Tell me what are the prevailing sentiments that occupy the minds of your young men,[and women] and I will tell you what is to be the character of the next generation”.

The future is not some indistinct unknowable property. We are all involved in the active construction of the future. Through policies or actions we enable or obstruct the thriving of our children and shape our destiny. What our children eat and how the learn determines our place in the global productivity league table.

Over 80 percent of Kenya’s population is aged below 35 years and the median age is just 19 years. If you doubt these statistics, take a close look at the faces of Kenyans who swarm political rallies. If you are still not convinced take a walk on the streets of the cities and towns of this great land.

Alvin Toffler, American futurist and author of Future Shock, argued persuasively about why youth must participate in the present moment. Toffler wrote; “The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they — at some distant point in the future — will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely… because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties”.

Politicians have exhorted the youth to register and vote in the 2017 elections. The imperative to register has been unanimous across the ethnic political divide – Kenya’s future is in the hands of the youth. The electoral power of the youth is consequential. For instance, about 55 percent of Nairobi’s population is between 18 and 35 years. But not to think of youth beyond voting would be tragic.

The problems that face Kenyan youth are complex and urgent. Our schools fail too many young people. Labor participation among youth is less than 40 percent. Majority of youth are unskilled, unemployed, underemployed and underpaid. The ranks of working poor youths are swelling rapidly.

Policy makers and donors, without shame or remorse, continue to promote wrongheaded interventions in the name of youth empowerment. For example, there is little evidence that youth funds are working. There is also a growing fantasy that somehow agriculture and entrepreneurship are the panacea for youth unemployment. Moreover, the current wave of TVET proliferation plans is not informed by skills gap or labor market needs.

According to Burke, “the arrogance of age must submit to be taught by youth.” Alvin Toffler’s warns that to imagine that we can run our society without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.


The youth have exemplary passion and creativity, and are enthusiastic about being part of the solution to the myriad problems we face as society. They are crying out for a chance to get involved, beyond voting.

Success of Kenya's new curriculum will depend on implementation

On January 30th 2017, Education Cabinet Secretary Dr. Fred Matiangi launched Kenya’s new basic education framework. The process to replace the current 8-4-4 system of education has now commenced. The current system has been criticized as overburdened with subjects, examination oriented and not capable of producing entrepreneurial graduates.

The new curriculum is competency-based and is undergirded by values. This new child-centered curriculum will nurture our children’s potential and produce engaged, empowered and ethical citizens. According to the framers of the new curriculum framework, education will not be about grades but about learning how to learn, critical thinking and problem solving. School will be a place where imagination and creativity will come alive. And most of all, our schools will inculcate in our children the most important obligation– citizenship.

In the new curriculum, basic education will be delivered in three stages: Early years (2 years in pre-primary and 3 years in lower primary); Middle school (3 years in upper primary and 3 years in lower secondary); Senior school, comprising three streams of specialization, i.e., science, arts and social sciences.

I am awed by what Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development (KICD) and the Ministry of Education have achieved. The curriculum framework is based on sound theoretical foundations. Moreover, the curriculum design has taken the bold step to diminish the primacy of standardized test scores. This new curriculum is focused on the learner and their intellectual and personal growth throughout the education experience. 

What is especially laudable in this new curriculum is that the role of the teacher is fundamentally changed. The teacher will be the sage on the stage no more. The teacher will be a friend, the guide on the side. The new curriculum re-casts the teacher as coach, facilitator and mentor. The new curriculum promises to make school about learning, not senseless memorization of irrelevant facts and standardized test scores. The new curriculum is about creativity, imagination and passion. And most of all, the new curriculum is about learning to learn, giving students the skills for life-long learning and building a solid foundation for self-efficacy.

Implementing such a bold and liberating curriculum will not be easy. A majority of teachers and parents will be lost and disillusioned. Many will wonder if this is even practical or realistic within our context.  For some, that citizens will be prepared to think, reason and challenge is a pretty revolutionary proposition.

We must think carefully about the implementation of this new curriculum. While it is bold and novel, it will not be self-executing. We must invest in teachers. Teachers currently in service must be re-tooled in pedagogical approaches that will support their new roles. Teacher training and certification must adhere to the highest standards.

Let us all support KICD and the Ministry Education to prepare our children for a truly brave and new world. We must not be discouraged or overwhelmed by those who want us to lower our ambition and scale down our investment in the children of this great land. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

TVET expansion should be guided by labor market needs

The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in technical vocational education and training (TVET) in the international policy community. Here in Kenya, the TVET Act of 2013 aims to strengthen quality and relevance of TVET to respond to the changing needs of the labor market.

Under the TVET Act, the Technical Vocational Education and Training Authority (TVETA) was created to deal with accreditation, registration and licensing of institutions and trainers. Currently Kenya has 10 national polytechnics. The goal is to establish one national polytechnic in each of the 47 counties. Furthermore, the government plans to build 290 technical training institutes (TTIs), one each constituency. Ministry of Education officials estimate the about 130 TTIs have been built so far.

Last week I attended the National TVET conference at KICC in Nairobi. This conference brought together a wide range of stakeholders, including government, industry, academia, donors, civil society, youth, students, educators and politicians. Various speakers emphasized the vital role of technical and vocational training. There was wide consensus among the participants that TVET was critical to addressing the urgent concerns around skills and unemployment among youth.

Here is the context in which we must understand the need for vocational education and training. According to the 2016 Economic Survey, 85 percent of the 841,000 jobs created in 2015 were in the informal sector. Unemployment among Kenyan youth aged 18-35 is estimated at about 55 percent. Every year about 800,000 young Kenyans – about 35 percent graduating from primary school and 75 percent graduating from secondary education – enter the labor market without any skills or training. Less than 10 percent of youth eligible for vocational education and training are enrolled in TTIs.

The massive expansion of TTIs is in many ways justifiable. But here are some questions we should grapple with in order to get value for our investment. What are the priority training needs for a market dominated by informal sector? In an economy characterized by a trend of de-industrialization what is the right balance between technical and other vocational skills? Is the massive expansion of TTIs merely a holding yard for youth or a truly viable path to the world of work? To what extent will national and county labor market needs inform the training programs offered by the 47 national polytechnics and the 290 TTIs?

We must pay attention to inconvenient details like qualified TVET teachers, equipment and other vital learning resources, and especially industry partners who will provide internship, service learning and employment opportunities for TVET graduates.

We have been everything but thoughtful in the expansion of university education. Expansion of TVET must not be driven by supply. What we need is a uniquely Kenyan TVET sector. TVET expansion but by careful assessment and targeted response to economic growth patterns, national and local development needs, and labor market demands.


And most of all, the TVET curriculum must responsive, constantly enriched by the changing dynamics of the market place, not by government bureaucrats sitting in a distant capital.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We can learn something from Trump's America first agenda

President Trump is perhaps the most overrated public figure of the modern era. Trump is described in his campaign website as “the very definition of the American success story”. Talk about bombast and idolatry.

Both Trump and his transition team promised that the address would be a  “philosophical document”. Two days before his inauguration, Donald Trump posted on Twitter a picture of himself sitting at a desk writing his inaugural address at his winter home in Florida. For a man who without shame disdains ideas and especially the use of precise language, I was deeply skeptical that Trump would deliver a “philosophical document”.

On January 20th 2017, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. And President Trump delivered his inaugural address. It was not philosophical. It was not uplifting. For a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, President Trump did not have any words to heal a nation shattered by political division

In a rather morbid address, Trump observed that empty factories were strewn across America like tombstones. Trump spoke in apocalyptic terms about families ensnared in poverty and communities and cities staggered by the winds of crime, drugs and gangs. Under the dark winter skies president Trump proclaimed; “This American carnage stops here and right now”.

In his 16-minute address Trump advanced rapidly to what defined his unlikely rise and what shaped one of the most unconventional campaigns in recent times. In one of his sharpest indictment of Washington Trump said, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capitol has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost. Washington flourished. But the people did not share in its wealth. “

In an unvarnished smack against globalization, President Trump charged that the wealth of America’s middle class had been ripped from their homes and redistributed all across the world. President Trump decreed that a new vision would govern America. “From this day forward, it’s going to be America first. America first”. Trump declared with emphatic boldness. Protection, In Trump’s view, will lead to “great prosperity and strength”.

President Trump’s remark about an out-of-touch elite and a political order that is massively rigged against swelling ranks of the underclass has universal resonance. Here in Kenya, a small club of ethno-political and business elite has prospered at the expense of tens of millions of hard working citizens.

Too often ordinary citizens are denied basic social services. Our children lack adequate and well-prepared teachers. Millions of youth graduating from our schools, colleges and universities cannot find work. Those who work earn too little to live on. Our cities are chocking in filth, poverty and decay.  Where is the promise of urbanization?

The swelling ranks of Kenyans, who feel left out are veritable socio-political time bomb. This election season must go beyond narrow ethnic mobilization for higher voter turn out. I think we have a chance to put Kenya and its long-suffering citizens first. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Obama legacy will unfold

“My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats”. With these words, a skinny kid with a funny name charmed a nation and a world was enthralled.

In 2006, two years after that Democratic National Convention keynote speech, The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote. “The next Democratic nominee should either be Barack Obama or should have the stature that would come from defeating Barack Obama”.

On the night of November 4, 2008 Barak Obama hailed “Hello, Chicago” as he stood in Grant Park in Chicago – before an adoring, tearful crowd – as President-elect. A world was both ecstatic and incredulous. Was post-racial America at hand?

On January 20th 2009 a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant took a most sacred oath. Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America.

On January 10th 2017 Barack Obama was back in Chicago. This time he hailed “Hello, Chicago” for the last time as president. The curtain will fall on Obama’s presidency in just three days. On January 20th 2017 Donald J. Trump will become the 45th President of the United States of America.

Everyone is talking about Obama’s legacy. Politicians and pundits are bloviating. Presidential historians are reflecting. Many believe that President Obama will be obliterated under a Trump presidency.

The Patient Protections and Affordable Care Act nicknamed Obamacare is in peril. Obama’s executive order to reduce gun violence through background checks and research in smart gun technology will be out the window under President Trump. Marriage equality could be history. President Trump will scrap the Iran nuclear deal. The Paris Climate agreement is off under Trump because climate change is a Chinese hoax. More consequentially, another conservative judge will replace the late Antonin Scalia in America’s Supreme Court.

It would be specious to imagine that Obama’s legacy has been revealed. Presidential legacies are more than policies or orders or infrastructure projects. Presidential legacies shift and bend through the tide of history. Presidential legacies are complex and often contingent on unknown and unknowns.

But we know this. Obama’s presidency revealed America. Decades of neo-liberal policies pummeled the American dream. The surge of the knowledge economy and the dawn of automation undermined America’s working class and chipped the middle class. In the rust belt coal mines shut down and factory jobs dwindled, leaving in their wake angry white men. Racial tensions boiled over. America was ready for a populist demagogue.  


But Obama the man embodies qualities we all desire. He is smart. He governed with vitality and integrity. He is perhaps one of the most charismatic public figures of my time. The power of his personal story and example will endure through the ages. Obama will be dearly missed on the world stage.

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