Monday, May 2, 2016

Let’s make our cities safe and fun for children


We often imagine the future as some misty, remote untouchable horizon. We imagine the future as an eon constructed by agents unborn or presently inactive in the extant moment. Nothing could be more delusional. The future is the collective creation by acts of genius or blunder those alive today. 

There are myriad inescapable extant realities that fundamentally define the future. However, I would like to focus on two; the youth bulge and urbanization. In particular, the convergence of the two has consequential implications. 

Our part of the world is the least urbanized sub region of Africa. But today, the pace of urbanization is fast and unprecedented. The rate of urbanization in Kenya is estimated at about 4.4 percent, which 62 percent higher than the annual rate of Kenya’s population growth. Moreover, we are a very youthful country, with a median age of about 19 years. Some estimates show that even by 2050, the median age will be only 25 years.

In a few years a majority of Kenyans will be urban dwellers. Consequently, a majority of Kenyan children will be born and raised in an urban environment. However, a majority of residential neighborhoods in urban areas are informal and squalid. Poor water and sanitation, slum-like housing, and a lack of open spaces for recreation and play often characterize urban neighborhoods where a majority of Kenyans live.

The urban spaces in which our children play and live are insanitary and unsafe. Hence, children are prone to infectious diseases, physical injury and cognitive impairment. A study reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Spanish researchers in Barcelona showed that green spaces improved development of short-term memory and reduced inattentiveness in children.

The East African Institute of Aga Khan University in partnership with Korogocho-based and youth-led K-Youth Media are deploying video and photography in a social purpose storytelling campaign to raise awareness and motivate public dialogue, consensus and action on open, child-friendly spaces in densely populated neighborhoods of Nairobi’s Eastlands. Although these neighborhoods are bustling with enterprise and ingenuity we could do better for our children.

These neighborhoods are home to the majority of Kenya’s urban children. Hence, the long-term implication for our society is grave especially because our urban population is growing rapidly. We say the children are the future. Because we have them here now we must act decisively to provide spaces that will enable their development and flourishing. 

Last week we had a great meeting with senior officers from Nairobi County. The government of Nairobi through its Safer Nairobi Initiative is supportive of a focus on making Nairobi the children’s capital. Learning from successful community-led initiatives like Dandora Transformation League and Place Makers we can drive meaningful participation and consensus for urban transformation.

The task of making cities must be by consultation and consensus to, identify, protect and improve child-friendly spaces in every city neighborhood. But most of all, we must see our cities through the eyes of children, and we must involve them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Burning Ivory alone will not save the elephant


Africa has the largest population of charismatic, wild large mammals left on the planet. These include, elephants, tigers, lions, and rhino. But this wild heritage is now on the precipice, threatened with extinction on a scale unprecedented in modern history.

On April 30th 2016, President Kenyatta will set 105 tones of ivory on fire at Nairobi National Park. About a year ago, Kenyatta burned 15 tones of ivory. This will be the fourth time a Kenyan president is lighting up ivory stockpiles. Mwai Kibaki burnt over five tones of ivory in 2011. In 1989, former president Moi ignited 12 tones of ivory.

The timing of the April 30th burn will coincide with the next wildlife conservation summit, which will be held in Nairobi, and the whole world will be watching.  Hence, by incinerating ivory, Kenya is saying to the world that we will never profit from ivory. Moreover, burning ivory is a highly robust political statement of laudable intent.

Opinion about burning ivory is mixed. Critics think ivory burning does not make economic sense and will do nothing to save elephants or rhinos. Those who support ivory burning argue that incinerating stockpiles will eliminate the demand for ivory and enhance the value of living elephants bearing tusks. Enthusiasts of burning insist that there is a direct conservation benefit to destroying ivory stockpiles. 

Poaching, which is the method by which criminals and their acolytes get their hands on ivory is nothing new in our part of the world. Ivory trade is hugely lucrative. As one would expect highly sophisticated criminal syndicates run poaching, and more often than not are enabled by highly connected public officials. In South Africa for example, poachers use GPS, helicopters and semi-automatic weapons to track and kill elephants.

An incisive report “Ivory’s Curse: The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa” published in 2014 claimed that poachers enjoy ‘official’ protection and cover to facilitate killing and trafficking of ivory. According to the report, the enablers of poaching are deeply entwined with runaway corruption in government, and highly connected public officials dominate poaching and the transport chain up to the point the ivory is loaded into a shipping container.

We must put ivory stockpiles beyond economic use. But like the war against official corruption this will demand every ounce of political will we can muster. One kilogram of ivory is worth $3,000 so the stakes are high and the battle will be bruising and long.

However, we must not forget the real threat to elephants and other wild biodiversity, the decline of the ecological integrity of our park and reserve system. A majority of our parks isolated islands of wilderness, which do not contain the necessary habitat resources to support viable populations of large mammals like elephants and rhinos.

What is the point of saving elephants only to sequester them in isolated, ecologically unviable parks marooned in a sea of unplanned human settlements? We must bring back sound ecosystem science to Kenya Wildlife Service.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Britain must not cut development aid contribution


Last year the British parliament passed a law, which binds the Britain to give away 0.7 per cent of national income in development assistance abroad. Britain is one of the few OECD countries that have met the United Nations ODA target for OECD countries. Today, nearly one in every Ksh.1, 000 spent on aid by OECD comes from Britain.

However, the British citizens are unhappy with this law. A petition by the Mail On Sunday, a leading British newspaper, has received sufficient support to force a fresh debate on the scale of British largesse. Over 200,000 British citizens who have signed the petition believe that it makes no sense to rack up public debt while pumping huge sums of taxpayer money into dubious projects abroad.

The subject of aid has drawn, and continues to generate fierce debate among scholars and development practitioners. The proponents of aid argue that it is necessary and it works. The opponents of aid believe aid is somewhat evil; fuels corruption and props up unaccountable dictators in a majority of recipient countries.

Moreover, those promoting the petition in Britain argue that the aid industry has created a global expat elite class, whose preservation has become more important than needs of the poor. William Easterly, a virulent critic of aid argues that the top-down, planner’s approach of aid is both ineffective and flawed. More often than not the recipients of aid projects have little or no say on the projects. Hence, accountability is diffuse and there is no consequence for lack of results or impact. 

The power dynamic around international aid is problematic. The donor country often sets the priorities for development assistance through aid. Yes, there is some degree of consultation, where respective country officials work with donors to align funding priorities with national development plans. I am not sure that the results or impact of decades of billions of aid money provide any evidence that there is meaningful consultation.

There is no doubt that the Africa and the rest of the developing world needs financial assistance from the OECD. Critical investments are needed to reduce maternal and infant deaths. Millions of children die, needlessly, from preventable diseases like malaria, respiratory infections and malaria. Malnutrition is robs Africa of its future when millions of stunted children suffer life-long cognitive impairment. Investing in strengthening public institutions and civil society will bolster good governance in Africa.

What is needed is a transparent, believable and effective model for connecting social development needs in poor countries with OECD resources. The petition by the British taxpayers must not be about cutting back aid contributions. British taxpayers should petition their government to be more thoughtful and deeply consultative in prioritizing how it spends taxpayers’ money. They must demand accountability from recipient communities and governments as well as British field officers who design and implement development projects. Moreover, citizens in the developing world need to petition their own governments to show positive social impacts of projects funded through aid money.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Its time for Africa to chart its path for progress


The pace of change on the African continent is bewildering. Africa’s development or modernization path will be different, unconventional compared to the trajectory of growth and change that might have been imagined just two decades ago.

About 20 years ago, Africa’s engagement with the rest of the world, through commerce and FDI was minuscule and unremarkable. The only way the rest of the world knew how to engage with Africa was through loans, most which were burdensome several years later, and aid. Africa was counted out.

Consider this. Today a majority of Africans have access to a cellphone; the pace of urbanization is dizzying; the large proportion of educated youth is unprecedented. Responding to the opportunities or confronting the challenges that will determine Africa’s progress in the 21st century and beyond will not rely in a large measure on lessons and experiences of the last 10 years or even the last couple of years. In my view Africa is a new place and development models formed in the paradigms of the 19th and 20th centuries just won’t do.

Something tells me that the aid and development community needs to understand and engage with Africa differently. For example, donors love to discuss the enormous opportunities presented by the fact that between 50-60 percent of land available for agricultural expansion is in Africa. Taken in combination with the reality that over 70 percent of Africa’s population is under 35 years, one would be forgiven to believe that the triple problems of Africa’s hunger, rural poverty and youth unemployment are easily solvable.

Per capita productivity on smallholder farms is depressingly low; the median age of the African farmer is estimated at about 60 years compared to just 16years in Uganda. The cellphone is perhaps the only piece of technology on a smallholder farm. Only 5-20 percent of youth in East Africa would consider a going into farming. A large proportion of youth who say they would start a business have no more than primary education. Rural areas present the least opportunities for women to prosper.

Moreover, Africa’s industrial output has been declining steadily over the last two decades. Over 80 percent of all new jobs created in Kenya in 2014 were created in the informal sector – retail, hospitality, transportation, and security. A huge proportion of FDI flows into Africa’s service sectors only generate low paying jobs in the informal sector. We must begin to evaluate the quality of FDI investments flows into the continent.

I believe that Africa’s history, present and its resources can be tapped to drive a uniquely African development pathway. But this will only happen if the African intelligentsia begins to take a more active role in defining development priorities for the continent. Over 40 percent of African children are stunted.   

Going forward, all African stakeholders public, private, civil society and communities ought to play a stronger role in defining and directing development priorities. Africa must begin to engage with the rest of the world on its own terms, and with more grit and clear-headed self-interest.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The problems is quality of teaching, not curriculum

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Last week the great and the good of this great land converged in Nairobi to talk about how our children are educated. A conversation about our education is nearly two decades late. We must all be delighted that we now have a real chance to prepare our children for the future.

We all now appreciate in this competitive, post-knowledge global economy primacy will belong to societies with the best-educated population. As far as we know today, innovation and creativity, critical thinking and analytical reasoning, communication and teamwork are the attributes that will underwrite individual flourishing and national prosperity. Moreover, the delivery mechanism of education, the curriculum, must be adaptive and nimble, not dogmatic and onerous.

The spirit and intent of the Kenya’s curriculum reform is both encouraging and laudable. When he spoke at Kibabii University last year, President Kenyatta pledged that the new curriculum would make education relevant to the lives of the learners. When he officiated at the curriculum conference last week, Deputy President William Ruto said the new curriculum would be responsive to market needs. In his impassioned remarks the head of Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, Dr. Julius Jwan, reassured the public that the new curriculum would be focused on developing critical knowledge, skills and attitudes. This would be a fundamental and welcome departure from the current emphasis on rote learning and regurgitation.

I have argued in this column that in the 21st century, a high school education must be the birthright of every child born in this country, not a privilege of the well to do few. I am delighted that the proposed curriculum allows all children to transition from primary to secondary school. Moreover, assessments will be formative to evaluate learning achievement rather, as opposed to the current system of national standardized tests, which privilege rote learning and incentivize cheating.

I have a good feeling about the direction our curriculum is taking. I am especially delighted that the focus on learning is unequivocal. The raison d’etre or the sole purpose of the curriculum is enable learners acquire knowledge, skills and attitudes that will enable them to thrive and flourish in a competitive globalized world. The curriculum intends that education is about knowledge learning and application of knowledge. The emphasis on numeracy, reading and writing in the early school years is especially laudable.

However, I am mindful that nearly all of the things that I find especially progressive in the proposed curriculum were said about the 8-4-4 system 31 years ago. Why has the 8-4-4 curriculum failed?  I think it is not too late to answer this question. Lets not be too quick to invest massive resources in curriculum change when the problem in our education lies elsewhere.

The real problem is that our children are not learning. This has everything to do with teachers and the quality of teaching, pedagogical approaches and much less with the elegance of the curriculum. The proof of a curriculum is in learning outcomes. A great curriculum does not inevitably produce learning. Great teachers produce great learning outcomes. Perhaps this is where we ought to start.

Let’s invest in recruiting, training and retaining the best teachers. We should restore the lost glory and prestige in teaching. If we don’t address the issue of quality of teachers and how they teach, we will be back at another conference lampooning the proposed new system and vigorously urging for change. 

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