Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Can Trump restore world peace?

In his first oversees trip US President Donald Trump bounced along to a Saudi sword dance.  Like his predecessor, Barack Obama, Donald Trump received the highest civilian honor, the order of Abdulaziz al-Saud.

Trump placed immense distance between himself and the virulent anti Muslim rhetoric that was the hallmark of his election campaign. When President Obama skipped the funeral of Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia, Trump tweeted “ I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia it were held in a Mosque”.

Trump acknowledged that Saudi Arabia is home is home to the holiest sites for one of the world’s great faiths. Trump has a newfound fondness for Muslims. Trump declared that America was adopting “Principled Realism” and decisions will be “based on real-world outcomes, not inflexible ideology”.

In his Saudi Arabia speech Trump said “I have always heard abut the splendor of your country and the kindness of your citizens, but words do not do justice to the grandeur of this remarkable place”. Trump moved from “Islam hates us” to “young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free of fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred”.

Owing to his tremendous learning during his trip to the Muslim world I hope President trump would understand that when we see masses fleeing from war, plunder, blood drenched earth, murder and rape we see innocent men and women, and children who must be shown compassion.

Acts of terrorism and war anywhere demean all that is holy everywhere.  Show compassion Mr. Trump. Unclench your fist. Lift the travel ban and welcome refugees because in your own words Muslims have “borne the brunt of the killings and the worst of the destruction in this wave of fanatical violence”.

Trump’s message on terrorism to the over 50 Muslim countries was unequivocal. According to Trump, it’s a battle between good and evil and, the choice between features. Trump further declared, “terrorists do not worship God, they worship death”.

The solution, according to Trump, a better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. He urged Muslim leaders to drive extremists “out of your places of worship and drive them out of this earth”.

While we must demand action from Muslim leaders, it is also important for Trump to completely and sincerely restrain himself from spreading anti Muslim rhetoric of hatred that appeals to his political base, and fueled his election victory.

The root causes of violent extremism are complex. They cannot be supplanted by military assault alone. If Trump is sincere he must walk the hard and long road to help Muslim societies to build stronger economies and deepen civil liberties. The dreams and aspirations of hundreds of millions of Muslim children, especially girls must flourish.


We all must hope that this is not some phony dial back or re-set just to close arms trade deals with governments of the Muslim world.

Is Sonko the voice of Kenya’s underclass?

First it was Brexit. Then a real estate mogul triumphed. A comedian, Beppe Grillo, delivered the NO vote in the Italian constitutional referendum. Emmanuel Macron’s “On the Move” trounced France’s establishment parties.

Across the world, globalization and technology have been accused of concentrating wealth, power and privilege in the hands of political business and intellectual elite at the expense of an expanding, exploited underclass.  

Everywhere, the underclass feels disposed, cheated, left behind and unloved. They feel they are getting poorer when everyone is getting more prosperous. For the underclass a globalist ideal is at the expense of their prosperity. The liberal globalist idea is antithetical to inclusive prosperity at home.

Populist leaders are emerging to give voice to the underclass. Cas Mudde, a professor of political science at University of Georgia, defined populism as “thin ideology”, which could be attached to a variety mainstream proclivities, such as racism or nationalism.

But the expression of populism in the America, Britain, and France is not just a “thin ideology” in search of a wagon to hitch on. The populism we are witnessing is a robust challenge to complacent elitism. The populism we are seeing today is what British politician Nick Clegg has referred to as “raging grievance surging across the democratic world”.

The populism we are witnessing an angry underclass, which is demanding a seat at the table. People like Donald Trump and Beppe Grillo have been extremely successful at exploiting anger at an establishment that is out of touch with ordinary people. Giving voice to the frustration of the underclass is one thing. But providing answers to the solutions to their problems – poverty, inequality, rising unemployment – is quite another.

Why should you care about the populism and underclass chatter? Poverty is on the march. Inequality is deepening. We are deep in the era of jobless growth. Urbanization is proceeding at a dizzying pace and a Kenyan urban underclass is crystalizing. Yet our politics is broken, unresponsive.

Nairobi’s candidate for governor on Jubilee Party ticket, Senator Mike (Sonko) Mbuvi has built his meteoric political ascent on a multi-ethnic coalition of Nairobi’s large underclass. Sonko gets the youthful urban underclass. Sonko is talking about runaway unemployment among urban youth and the cost of unga. He is talking about training and skills for youth.

Sonko responds to personal distress, including illness, bereavement and debt. Sonko is talking about poor housing and high rents. Sonko is talking about the rights of Boda boda and Matatu operators. He is talking about hawkers and their right as bona fide entrepreneurs.

Setting aside Sonko’s theatrics and lack of policy chops, he has a huge loyal constituency. In a survey conducted by the East African Institute in 2014 a majority of Kenyan youth identified Sonko as their role model.


Sonko’s multi-ethnic urban coalition is re-defining our politics. Ignoring him would be politically naive and socially disingenuous. Regardless of the outcome of Nairobi’s governor race, Sonko is politically viable and relevant beyond 2017.

Monday, May 1, 2017

We can be a good, thoughtful, reflective society

A ship's crew which does not understand that the art of navigation demands knowledge of the stars will stigmatize a properly qualified pilot as a star-gazing idiot, and will prevent him from navigating. These words written circa 380 BC by Plato in The Republic are singularly relevant to our society today.

Plato’s words ring true because we now live in a society where critical, thoughtful intellectual engagement is frowned upon as distractive, idle theory. Public discourse and policy decisions and even action is often unbridled by sound knowledge or evidence.

Anti-reason stretches from the pubs to pop culture and to the pseudo intellectual universe of university lecture theatres. The dominant cultural momentum in our society is at odds with reason and evidence. Moreover, the bewildering materialist culture of a neo-liberal economy gone awry has made everything intangible and beautiful, such as knowledge and intellectualism, unworthy.  Just show me the money.

Contempt for thought evidence and reflection defines the ubiquitous lassitude buttressed by clumsy broadcast and print journalism, mediocre exam-centric public education, which has bred an inexhaustible reservoir of a slothful and ignorant public, and most of all, a dearth incisive of public intellectuals.

The dearth of public intellectuals is exemplified by fact that ours is a society where issues of great moment are framed and led by a bellicose political class. Our so-called intellectual class, the kind that inhabits digital and print media lives not by prodding but by pandering or placating political or ethnic interests.

In the words of Plato these mercenary intellectuals trick themselves out as philosophers. I use the word intellectual to mean someone who lives for ideas, which suggests that he or she is dedicated to the life of the mind. Few academics and almost no politician in our country today could qualify as intellectuals by this construction.

The surge of unreason is at odds not only with rationalism but also with what I think are the fundamental tenets of liberty. The flight from reason and fact-based action is capable of inflicting vastly greater damage to freedom and democracy, the essential foundations upon which to build equitable and sustainable economic growth.

The 2017 campaigns will most likely be dominated by tyranny of unreason, characterized by single-minded men and women of parochial persuasion, who peddle innuendo and prey on the ignorance of our fellow citizens. In a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey in January 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “ If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what will never be”.


There has never been a more critical moment for us to harness, in addition to other tools, our collective intellectual resources to confront the reality of our most urgent challenges, including deep and worsening ethnic division, a ponderous constitution, unbridled corruption and moral decadence, poverty and rising inequality, mediocre public education and deterioration of state capability. Disdain for reason and critical thought comes at a colossal cost.  And posterity will judge us harshly.

Economic survey report should guide planning

The 2016 Economic Survey report reveals priority areas for planning. This report provides the state of the economy across multiple sectors between 2011- 2015.

Kenya’s economic growth structure remains problematic. Agriculture accounts for 30 percent of Kenya’s GDP. Manufacturing contributes a paltry 10 percent. Retail, transportation, financial services, construction, education, information, telecommunication and other service sectors account for 60 percent of GDP. 

The report reveals that enrollment in secondary education increased by about 44 percent, from about 1.77 million in 2011 to 2.56 million in 2015. In the same period enrollment in primary school grew by 4.2 percent from 9.6 million to 10 million. The proportion of pupils who transition from primary to secondary has increased only marginally from 60 percent to 63 percent between 2012 and 2015. However, the rate of completion of secondary school is only 48 percent.

Development spending in education has remained flat over the last five years at about Ksh. 21 billion.  But here is what is truly depressing. Both development and recurrent expenditure for youth polytechnics and training declined by about 280 percent, from about Ksh. 1.45billion to a miserable Ksh. 383 million. Such low levels of investment in technical and vocational training are disconcerting especially when one considers the massive skills gap in technical and vocational fields.

The report reveals that pneumonia and cancer and not malaria and HIV/AIDS are now the top causes of mortality in Kenya. While the incidence of malaria has declined by about 47 percent between 2011 and 2015, the incidence of respiratory infections increased by 63 percent in the same period.  Inequalities in health still persist. For example more than 35 percent of registered births in 2015 in Narok, Wajir, Mandera, Marsabit and Tana River occurred at home.

Data on healthcare personal is worrying, with critical deficit in qualified individuals in the fields of nutrition, medical imaging science, medical laboratory science, registered of BSc trained nurses in metal health and psychiatry, optical and dental technology. There is an opportunity here to ramp up investment in technical and vocational training to respond to the enormous manpower needs in the health sector.

On employment, 83 percent of Kenya’s workforce is employed in the informal sector. Furthermore 60 percent of those employed in the informal sector work in retail, food and hospitality sector, where wages are low. The informal sector is characterized by poor working conditions, and attracts very low wages. While the informal sector is the largest employer, the rate of growth of new jobs is about 4.2 percent. Formal sector, which accounts for only 17 percent of jobs, grew at an average of 16 percent between 2011 and 2015. 

I don’t know who the audience for Economic Survey report is. But I think the department of planning and finance must pay attention to report, especially with respect investing in quality education, health and priorities for skill development. Job growth in the informal sector is plateauing. But job growth in the formal remains sluggish. What is the plan?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A rotten barrel will cause apples to rot

A survey conducted by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University on values, attitudes, aspirations of East African youth yielded findings that were both troubling and encouraging.

Encouraging because youth are willing to be part of the solution to the problems they face. For example about 50 percent would start their own business. A majority of youth would invest in building their communities through charitable giving and creating employment opportunities for other youth.

The findings are troubling because youth condone corruption, would participate in political fraud and engage in tax evasion. About 50 percent of Kenyan youth believe it doesn’t matter how one makes money as long as one does not end up in jail. Another 30 percent believe corruption is profitable and 35 percent would readily give or take a bribe.

Only 40 percent of youth believed it was important to pay taxes on earned income. Moreover, 40 percent of the youth believe that a bribe from an individual vying for political office would influence their vote. About 30 percent of the youth believed Kenya would be poorer in ethics and values, and experience more substance abuse.

The attitudes and values of Kenyan youth are not surprising. Kenya is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In 2016 Kenya ranked 145th out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. During a state visit to Israel in 2016, President Kenyatta revealed that Kenyans are "experienced in stealing and perpetuating other crimes". In his paper “Inequality and the Moral Crisis of the Elite”, former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga demonstrates that corruption is now the fourth arm of government, easily the most powerful and the one that controls the executive, the judiciary and the legislature.

Corruption is flourishing in Kenya’s public and private sectors. Schools and religious institutions have not been spared. Greed and flagrant violation of the law is prevalent and is seldom frowned upon. Consistently, the police, the judiciary and the Ministry of Lands have been named the most corrupt institutions in the public sector. Kenya’s private sector is teeming with corrupt individuals and businesses that are enabled by the political elite to perpetrate corruption.

Are you wondering why Kenyan youth think corruption is profitable, admire corrupt individuals, and would evade paying taxes? Dishonesty and rule violation are prevalent in our society. Values and morals tend to co-evolve with institutions. Studies have shown that weak institutions enable rule violations and impair individual intrinsic honesty.

A study published in the journal Nature –“Intrinsic honesty and the prevalence of rule violations across societies” – shows that participants from countries with a high prevalence of rule violations (PRV), including Guatemala, Kenya and Tanzania, displayed higher levels of dishonesty compared to participants from countries with low PRV like Sweden.


It is unlikely that good apples abound in a rotten barrel. Kenyan youth have been shaped by societal norms that have normalized dishonesty and corruption. It will be difficult to eradicate corruption. But we must not give up.

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