Monday, November 23, 2015

Africa Rising narrative is a shameful appeasement

Once upon a time, emaciated children, conflict, military coups, poverty and disease dominated the media image of Africa. Rapid GDP growth, expansion of infrastructure, bulging consumer class and a vault of opportunity for investors are the new accentuations in Africa’s meteoric makeover.

Africa has metamorphosed from a “scar on the conscience of the world”, in Tony Blair’s words, to a great vault of opportunity. This is Africa Rising. However, there has been very little critical reflection, especially among African scholars, on the Africa Rising saga. Similarly, in the desolate days of hopeless continent narrative, African scholars offered very little intellectual reflection.

Historically, Africa has been spectacularly at ease with outsiders defining and framing its problems and destiny. For example, there is a pervasive belief that in the 21st century, an Asian style Green Revolution might solve Africa’s chronic low farm productivity. Moreover, Africa is awash with development NGOs who believe that small, isolated short-term projects could make a dent on household poverty and put whole communities on a solid path of durable socio-economic transformation.

Africa Rising is inextricably linked to the sudden appearance of emerging economies, especially China, whose histrionic eruption of belated industrialization has fuelled an unprecedented surge in global demand for commodities. China’s appetite for Africa’s raw materials, as well as the dramatic surge of foreign direct investment in Africa has had the singular effect of orchestrating a new scramble for Africa among developed countries and corporate leaders. Essentially, China’s engagement with Africa affirms that the continent is a new and viable opportunity for global capital to invest and reap.

Africa Rising is a shameful reproduction of the old, problematic order; Africa’s lop-sided reliance on exporting raw commodities and importing manufactured products. This is the extraordinary tragedy of Africa Rising. And just like in the past, Africa’s political and business elite has a solemn obligation to preside over the production of a surplus to be appropriated voracious global capital.

Africa Rising is really about GDP growth that is overwhelmingly buoyed by expansionary fiscal policies, commodity booms, flow of foreign capital, and massive aid flows in the case of Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Moreover, while Africa’s GDP growth at 4.5 percent is impressive at face value, it is too feeble to produce durable and inclusive growth. The continent needs to grow at 7 percent for the next 20 to 30 years to register meaningful wellbeing improvements.

Alongside with the Africa Rising narrative, there has been a mistaken belief that China and the emergence of BRICS would somehow challenge free market ideology, and hopefully usher the redistribution of economic power. On the contrary, China is instituting neoliberal economic policies to re-balance its economy and stimulate domestic rather than export driven growth. I think the entry of the BRICS merely serves to diversify dependency.

Africa Rising has not been accompanied with requisite structural transformation, which I characterize as an expansion of industrial activity, diversification and value addition of export products, and shift of labor from low productivity to high productivity sectors. Moreover, the dominance of cheap manufactured imports from places like China and India will entrench Africa on an irredeemable path of de-industrialization. But there is no doubt that the exuberant eruption of China has given Africa’s political elite some space for manoeuvre.

For example, Kenya has advanced a Look East policy as an attempt to cultivate deep economic and strategic relations with China and checkmate the West.  Let me make this very clear. Africa must be very clear-eyed when dealing with China. China and the so-called BRICS, just like everybody else are self-interested and exploitative. Our engagement with the West and China is within the old logic of division of labor, production or supply of primary commodities and import of cheap manufactured products.

Africa’s progress must not be measured by rising GDP growth or exports or higher level GDP per capita owing to expansionary fiscal policies. Africa’s progress must not be fuelled by a whimsical mood swing by outside pundits. Africa’s progress must be built, brick by brick, by raising industrial output, sophisticated exports, and deployment of Africa’s huge reservoir of young people in high labor productivity sectors, away from street vending, operating motorcycle taxis and manual farm labor.

Given the scale of development changes the continent faces, the Africa Rising narrative is an appeasement that serves the interests of the global political economy and Africa’s extractive political elite.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

We must act with fierce urgency to halt global warming

Global terrorism remains one of the foremost challenges of our time. In an evil, barbaric attack last Friday, Islamic State militants struck a concert hall, a stadium, restaurants and bars in Paris. One hundred and twenty-nine people died, and about 350 were wounded, some critically. The world is united in grief. Our hearts bleed with the French.

In two weeks, Paris will be the focus of another urgent global challenge. The world will descend upon Paris to talk about climate change. The conference of parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change is the largest ritual of global waffle. This 21st conference is unlikely to be different. This is despite the fact that dangerous warming is on the march and time is running out.

Dangerous global warming, owing to the rapid accumulation of greenhouses gases, is linked to our dependence and addiction to fossil fuels. Moreover, carbon emissions are strongly correlated with economic growth. The worlds most advanced economies are also the worst polluters. China and the United States of America lead the pack of the countries that foul our atmosphere the most.

The positive association between economic output and greenhouse gas emissions has caused governments in the developing world to argue that aggressive measures to curb emissions would undermine growth and prosperity targets. In a sense, every nation feels entitled to pollute its way to prosperity. Here in Africa, we imagine that our share of carbon emissions is negligible. Hence, the burden of responsibility for action to curb emissions and slow down global warming lies with the industrial West and the advanced economies of Asia.

At every successive conference of parties, Africans have argued that they are the victims of the adverse impacts of global warming caused mostly by developed and middle-income economies. Africans have argued that they are inordinately exposed and hence significantly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

For nearly 25 years, we have known that urgent action was needed to forestall green house gas emissions and prevent damaging and irreversible impacts on ecosystems, economies and societies. But we have failed to take any urgent measures to enable a global shift to a low carbon economy. Governments and dominant policy makers are not convinced that there is such a thing as a low carbon, green growth pathway.

Policy wonks and politicians in developed and developing countries often argue that aggressive action to curb greenhouse gases will have devastating consequences on economic growth, jobs, and poverty alleviation. This in my view is bunk; grade “A” idiocy. On the contrary, if we don’t act now the full and complex impact of climate change could wipe out up to 20 percent of global GDP annually.

Experts have warned that we are firmly on the path to a 40 C warmer planet characterized by extreme weather, unprecedented sea level rise, disease, declining global food stocks, unprecedented extinctions and loss of biodiversity and associated ecosystem services. As we go to Paris, we must remind ourselves that even though the possibility of a globally binding agreement is remote, the stakes are high and time is running out.

It is hard to imagine an orderly, peaceful world that is 40 C warmer. In Africa, hungry and infirm citizens pouring out on the streets, starving refugees waiting cross borders and raging conflicts over resources, especially water and pasture will push the world into irredeemable turmoil. Major cities like New York, Vancouver, Hong Kong, and Dar es Salaam could be washed off the face of the earth. Brutal summer heat waves will kill hundreds of millions especially in Europe, North America and Asia. Moreover, the complex feedback effects of a warmer planet are unthinkable.

We are on the precipice of Armageddon. We must give up our addiction to carbon. This 21st Conference of Parties must be different. We all must act, individually and collectively to restore our planet on path of sustainable growth. Our addiction to carbon has pushed the planet to a calamitous tipping point.

What is wrong with us? Perhaps the threat of catastrophic climate change is not immediate or concrete. I think The Day After Tomorrow is here! What is stopping individuals, nations and the global community from acting with fierce urgency to redeem the world from a path of imminent peril? A green growth path, with low to zero carbon emission, is no longer an option.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Its time to make real "Africa Rising"

“After decades of slow growth, Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia”. With these bold words in 2011, the influential Economist Magazine declared that Africa was rising, surging under its own wings.

In the decade before 2011, six of the world’s ten most vibrant economies were from the continent. In the same decade, African economies grew more rapidly than Asian economies, especially those in East Asia. A band of Afro-optimists, hugely evangelical about the fact this was Africa’s century, burst forth on the global discourse square.

African leaders acquired a swagger. A continent once blighted by poverty and disease was now home to hundreds of millions of consumers. Africa was the new frontier. Everyone, nations like China, India as well globally significant corporations were falling over themselves in the new scramble for the wallets and resources of Africans.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) would not be left behind in the race to hype Africa’s new growth and optimism narrative. In a study conducted in 20011, the AfDB proclaimed that Africa’s middle class was a whooping 350 million (or 34 percent of Africa’s population), nearly the size of the US population. This was of course incredibly overstated and grossly misleading. In 2014, the Standard Bank Group provided a more realistic estimate, of just 15 million middle-income households in 11 African countries.

A handful of African scholars and public intellectuals cautioned that the foundation of Africa’s growth was too feeble to support strong, inclusive and enduring growth. But as always, the voices of African intellectuals is often ignored, drowned or scorned by African governments or dominant establishment Western knowledge brokers. We all drank the Africa Rising Kool-Aid.

Despite a decade long economic boom, the structural transformation of African economies is yet to get off the block. The rural economy, which supports a vast majority of the population, is on its knees; starved of knowledge, technology, inputs, markets, and infrastructure.

The tailwind of commodity price boom and a benign global financial environment (global liquidity), which fueled huge public spending on infrastructure and consumer spending, is weakening. A gale-force headwind has begun to pummel a majority of African economies.

Africa’s expansionary policy has not been a tool for managing business-cycle contraction. On the contrary, ballooning public debt and profligate public spending, especially on infrastructure, has been a growth strategy. It is no wonder that debt continues to mount in countries like Ghana, Malawi, Zambia and Kenya. The list of countries, which face the risk of debt distress, is growing furiously.

Moreover, Africa has failed to harness the demographic dividend. Africa’s large youth population is malnourished, poorly educated and lack skills. In many African countries, youth unemployment is about 55 percent. With unemployment rate of about 62 percent among women, Africa’s labor markets are unfavorable for young women. If Africa’s slips into a sustained stagnation the implications on social and political stability, in a continent where the youth comprise nearly 70 percent of the population could be dreadfully dire.
Weak labor participation by women undermines the hope for demographic transition. Investments in human capital, including health care, education, and especially the integration of women in labor market, are fundamental at the initial stage to speed up the transition, improve the productivity of the workforce, and increase the magnitude of the potential of a veritable dividend.

The Africa rising narrative reminds me of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. As the story goes, excited by freedom young Icarus flew high to salute the sun. He forgot that his gigantic wings were held by wax. His wings melted and he fell into the sea and drowned.

There is some growth. But poverty endures for the vast majority of Africans. Launching on a firm path of growth and following in the footsteps of Asia will not happen just because of exuberant endorsement by Western journalists. Nor will it happen just because of flattering, cherry picked growth statistics by the Bretton Woods Institutions.

I believe in Africa and its people. Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia. Africa has a real chance to harness the demographic dividend, achieve a demographic transition and launch on a firm path of strong, enduring, inclusive and transformative economic growth. But Africa’s rise must be built from the bottom up, by the people and for the people of Africa.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Africa must lead effort on Climate Change at CoP 21

Climate change describes larger than normal variability in weather and climate parameters, especially rainfall and temperature. Global warming is a feature of climate change around which much debate and controversy has been generated by critics and cynics.

For some in the west, the existence of winters, some blistering, is sufficient evidence that climate change and global warming is ridiculous. But here in out part of the world, as in most of the global south, there is no room for debate. We know from the projections of climate change impacts as well as from everyday experience that Africa will bear the brunt of climate change.

Here in Africa, climate change will reduce yields of most staple foods, especially grains and tuber crops. Lower grain yields and food price spikes could lead to a 20 per cent rise in malnutrition among African children. Variable rainfall patterns are likely to constrain fresh water supply, compromising hygiene and increasing the risk of water-borne diseases, which kill over one  million children under five years of age. Climate change is creating the perfect storm, with pandemics invigorated by warmer climate, water scarcity, hunger and malnutrition, poverty and changes in disease vector ecology.

The cost of responding to climate change impacts will be steep. According to WHO, the direct cost to health, excluding costs in agriculture, water and sanitation, is projected to reach $2-4 billion annually by 2030. The World Bank estimates that $75 billion will be needed annually to deal with the impacts of climate change such as tropical diseases, decline in agricultural productivity and damage to infrastructure owing to sea-level rise.

Evidently, the cost adaptation or mitigation, are well beyond the budgetary capacity of most African governments. It is easy to say we did not foul the atmosphere and argue that responsibility must be common but differentiated to account for the fact that the industrial west and China must cut emissions and meet the cost of adaptation and mitigation.

Such arguments are sensible and compelling but also simplistic and irresponsible. Here is a simple illustration to make the point. Your kids are asleep in the house. Your neighbor deliberately or inadvertently starts a fire in his compound and all you do is yell out at him from your backyard to come into your house, which smoldering, and put off the fire. It is because of such arguments that we have been stuck with the Kyoto Protocol for over 20 years, as the planet got warmer.

Climate change is an existential threat to “Our Common Future”, which requires much greater responsibility at individual, community, national and global levels to return our planet on a path of equitable and sustainable development. This is not the time to engage in philosophical or moral debates about who is the greater or lesser polluter. This moment calls for urgent and aggressive action by not just individuals or nations but by all citizens of the world and all nations.

Africa has a choice. Do we yell from our backyard, haranguing the west and China, as hundreds of millions of Africans face misery and death from more severe and frequent drought, floods, hunger, disease and war over dwindling farmland, pasture and water?

Africa must go to CoP21 with a set of realistic and actionable proposals or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), which underscore a sense of duty to the fierce urgency of now. We cannot afford to wait on the west or China to finance the cost of mitigation or adaptation for us.

Africa must show through its development policy priorities that we are committed to achieving a low carbon and climate resilient development. Kenya’s Climate Change Bill 2014 provides a legal and institutional framework for mitigation and adaption to the effects of climate change; coordination mechanism for formulation of programs and plans to enhance the resilience of human and ecological systems against the impacts of climate change.

Moreover, Kenya’s green growth plans are exemplified by investments in in geothermal energy generation, promotion of solar lanterns and establishment of a sub-national adaptation fund (County Climate Change Fund). Adequate and sustained budgetary and institutional resources must be made available to support these plans.

Most importantly,  we all have a moral obligation as citizens of the world to act responsibly and preserve the planet for posterity. CoP21 must be about what you and I can do curb global warming.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Now is the time to scrap KCPE and KCSE

Kenya is facing a veritable crisis of integrity. Not one facet of our lives is untouched; the police, the courts, the civil society, the executive and legislative bodies. Even private business, including banks have not been spared.

That the public institutions named above are mired in varying levels of sleaze, some unspeakable is not divine revelation. What in my view is disconcerting is that the decay of morality and integrity has spread to what I think are hallowed places; faith based organizations and the education system.

Fundamental values that define functional and progressive societies are often instilled through public education. These include, honesty, generosity, reciprocity, self-reflection, dignity, honor and patriotism. Through education we learn the value of service to others. Through education we learn to sacrifice to achieve cherished goals. Through education we encounter first hand the association between honest hard work and success.

Assessments, diagnostic, formative and summative, have served the noble purpose of providing both the learner and the teacher with a fairly objective basis for evaluating progress in mastery of requisite knowledge, skills and attitudes. The essential logic of assessments is that in the end, teaching and learning must produce proficiency or mastery. Failure is not a permissible outcome.

Today the noble aims of assessments or examinations have been subverted. Education is now just about examinations. What happens in our schools is not education. Our schools are obsessed with examination grades. Parents demand high grades. Teachers crave high mean grades. Headteachers derive prestige, high enrollment and revenue from high grades.

A high-stakes exam-centric education has turned schools into grade factories. Our school buildings, in my view are mausoleums, containing the remains of education. We have defiled the creative proclivity of our children and murdered the soul of education. Parents and teachers want high grades from students by hook or by crook.

This year we have witnessed leakage and cheating in the KCSE examinations on an unprecedented scale. The government has labored to provide assurances and defend the credibility of examinations. Public confidence in the 2015 KCSE is irredeemable lost. I am sure the students and teachers who gave their all, through sacrifice and honest hard work, feel deceived. 

An exam-centric education system is at the heart of the leakage, cheating and the corruption in public education. Grades are king. Grades are up for sale. There is lots of money to be made. In a society where ethics and morals and integrity are threadbare, we have no trepidation about how we make money. Money to “feed their children” is an offer most public officials find impossible to refuse. For up to Ksh. 2000 for a paper, a lot of public officials could feed their children. And many teachers and parents will have their dancing shoes on when the results are announced early 2016.

I think the rampant and shameless leakage and cheating in the national examinations offers an new impetus for urgent reform in our education. An essential part of the reform must include abolishing high-stakes standardized national examinations; KCPE and KCSE. What we need is a system of seamless transition from primary to secondary schools. A high school education must be a birth right of every Kenyan child, unconstrained by a terminal examination.

Similarly, transition to post-secondary institutions – polytechnic, college or univiersity­­­ – should be determined by an admission process designed by such institutions. Continuous assessment records over four years in secondary school could in my view, provide a more reliable measure of a students ability, compared  to the current standardized test that is riddled with malfeasance. 

I offer some ideas to motivate debate: i) replace current content heavy curriculum with a problem-based approach to learning to encourage critical thinking, analytical reasoning and discovery; ii) assess learning through multiple ways, including school-based formative assessments and student portfolios; iii) promote knowledge application and reflective practice at all levels through service learning.  

I believe now is the time to abandon high-stakes standardized examinations, which are evidently corrupt and questionable. I believe the time is right to broaden the methods of assessing learning to evaluate more comprehensively, the multiple purposes of education.

Calling for the resignation or sacking of KNEC officials or the CS for Education misses the point. We must have the courage to scrap national standardized examinations, re-claim the soul of education and emancipate our children to learn. It is the right thing to do.


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