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Friday, August 30, 2013

Resilience in Working Agricultural Landscapes

Ann Bleed - School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, leads a panel discussion with Line Gordon of Stockholm Resilience Center; Alex Awiti of Aga Khan University, Nairobi, Kenya; Doug Beard of the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey; Marty Anderies of Arizona State University; and Craig Allen of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit

Monday, August 26, 2013

The great task of moral construction is never finished

Prof Jeffrey Sachs' remarks at the March on Washington 50th Anniversary. Delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:
If the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, it is because righteous souls in each generation pull that arc towards its hallowed end. 50 years ago at this spot, King spoke to righteous men and women who braved police dogs and water cannon to fulfill their role in shaping the moral universe. They did their job bravely and well and we honor them today.
Yet the great task of moral construction is never finished. There is no final victory on Earth, only an inheritance of justice that each generation must renew and pass to the next. 1963 was a year of moral crisis and renewal. It was a year to rescue America's soul and to move the world, as John F. Kennedy did with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It was a year of martyrdom of that young president, who had told us that "when one man is enslaved, all are not free."
2013 is another year of moral crisis. America is mired in income inequality. America enslaves multitudes of black and Hispanic young men to feed the avarice of its privatized penitentiaries. America despoils the Earth by its heedless fracking and burning of fossil fuels. And America sends drone missiles that kill innocent wedding-goers in a misguided war on Islam.
It was the genius of the generation of 1963 to recognize the indivisibility of morality. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Pope John XXIII knew that racism, poverty and militarism all carry us away from human needs and aspirations.
It is our turn to bend the arc of the moral universe. We too must banish the moneylenders, not from the temple but from the lobbies of Congress and the White House. We too must beat swords into plowshares, joining together with Iranians, Egyptians, Palestinians and Israelis, to honor the prophets of peace. And we must end our assault on nature, leaving oil and coal in the ground and harvesting the sun and the wind instead.
In our age of greed and glitter, the work of justice often seems to be stilled. But do not be deceived. For the ancient cry still moves us today: Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live in the Promised Land.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Building Blocks for a Great Society

On June 14, 2013 I was invited to speak to the graduating class of the Aga Khan Academy Nairobi. I felt greatly honored by the invitation but was worried about what I would say. The unremarkable rambling of the guest speakers at my three graduations inspired me to be more thoughtful about my remarks to these young men and women.

I shared three thoughts with, which I think would be relevant to all Kenyans, as we struggle to emerge from the primordial discord of ethnic division into a great and inclusive society.

The first thought was about greatness. And I don’t mean greatness in the narrow self-idolatry, self-serving, self-promoting way. I mean greatness in service; always putting others’ needs before our own. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events”.

The scale of need in our society is great and daunting. But equally compelling is the abundance of our capacity for compassion, goodness and kindness. You must not be persuaded by cynicism and apathy, the belief that nothing can be done to heal the sick, alleviate hunger and poverty and make music to soothe broken souls.

Greatness comes not from the scale of your position or education or wealth. Greatness comes from sacrifice, and citizenship; a dogged commitment to give back, a stubborn determination to look not only after your own but to reach out in the service of others.

St. Mathew wrote, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it”. But I say to you, class of 2013, fear not the path of greatness for the lack of people traveling on it.

But most of all, I hope the eternal words of the great English poet and preacher, John Donne, will ring true in your lives “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Greatness comes through involvement in mankind.

The second thought was about marching to the beat of your own drum. In the age of the “wisdom of the crowds”, march to the beat of your own drum; not in the self-centered big ego kind of way; although a self-assured swagger helps with getting a date.

Follow the enchantment of your dream, and learn to be yourself. It is not as easy as I make it sound. But it is how the big thinkers, entrepreneurs, army generals and inventors were able to make their dreams come true. You must learn to follow your heart. Following your heart will liberate you to enjoy more freedom and fulfillment.

Steve Jobs said to the class of 2005 at Stanford, “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition”.

The third thought was about perseverance. Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel gathered 600 children. Then he made them a deal; they could eat one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. He followed these kids 15 years later. It turns out that the ability to hold out was correlated with greater success and self-control later in life.

That ability to delay gratification will keep you focused on achieving your goal, ignoring tempting distractions. You must endure and persist and keep going in the toughest of time. There will be many false starts and setbacks. You will stumble, and you will fall.  But always fall forward.

American inventor Thomas Edison, known for 1,000 patents failed 9,999 times before he perfected the light bulb. Michael Jordan is remembered for his six championships, not his nearly 15,000 missed shots. If you find yourself going through life with too few failures, it means only one thing; you have set your sights too low. So worry, be very afraid when you do not fail.

But you must always remember that education does not take place only in stuffy classrooms and musty libraries, it happens everywhere. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Monday, August 19, 2013

Half a Century of Unreason

In The Republic Plato writes, “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 ring so true and in so many dimensions about our society, and especially our disdain for knowledge and evidence as a basis for public discourse and action.

The dominant cultural momentum in our society is at odds with reason and evidence. Anti-reason stretches from pop culture to the pseudo intellectual universe of university lecture theatres. Contempt for thought evidence and reflection defines the ubiquitous lassitude buttressed by FM radio, television, inept journalism, mediocre public education, scarcity of public intellectuals and most of all a slothful and ignorant public. 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”.

The dearth of public intellectuals is exemplified by fact that ours is a society where issues of great moment are framed and led by the political class. Our so-called intellectual class, the kind that writes newspaper columns, lives not by challenging popular opinion advanced by politicians, but by pandering to it. And 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.

I have watched in disbelief when every time sticky issues confront us; ranging from the legacy of Dedan Kimathi to the post election violence, corruption and devolution, the Kenyan public gets paralyzed by the tranquilizing combination drug of “move on and focus on nation building and national reconciliation”. Furthermore, I am always stunned by the how little the general public understands and integrates the history of our so-called independence struggle and the contemporary political economy.

I always get  blank stares whenever I suggest that we are society differentiated more sharply by class rather than ethnicity. In my view tribalism was invented in 1966 to blunt the nascent but portent threat of land based political agitation posed to KANU by Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Jomo Kenyatta’s characterization of Bildad Kaggia as a renegade who sided with Jaramogi Odinga to challenge him annihilated Kaggia politically and instituted tribalism as a virulent antidote for a proletariat, class grievance-based politics. Today tribalism is used as a platform for polarization and political mobilization to advance competing economic interests of establishment right wing versus anti-establishment more left wing. But the slothful credulous citizen is sold the bill of goods about their turn to eat every election cycle.

Related to this and of even greater concern is that we are for the most part disinterested in the process by which truth is discovered, the canons of evidence-based reasoning – especially the embrace of open inquiry, in which process unexpected and even uncomfortable facts could be unearthed. In my view the places for free, critical and dispassionate public debate are lacking. Therefore the culture of the future will most likely be dominated by tyranny of unreason, characterized by single-minded men and women of parochial persuasion.

The surge of unreason is at odds not only with rationalism but also with what I think were 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. A conversation about our collective fidelity to reason, fact and the pursuit of truth is especially critical as we begin to enter the ceremonies of 50 years of independence, at which point we will drown ourselves in uncritical self-congratulatory pities of our great accomplishments.

Never has there 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. Kenya must face the painful truth about what the disdain for reason and critical thought has cost us. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why development and aid policies have failed in Africa

In 2005, I had the distinct honor of speaking with nearly forty children in primary 5. These eleven-year-old rural boys and girls shared their career dreams with amazing clarity and fervor. They dreamed of becoming doctors, nurses, architects, pilots, engineers and professors.

But the poise and sense of urgent purpose of one girl left me spellbound. Angela was a lot like her classmates except for one thing: she wanted to find a cure for two diseases, HIV/AIDS, which left many of her friends orphaned and malaria, which cut short the lives of millions of children like her. Her belief in the power and promise of science was awe-inspiring. Angela embodied everything that a father could ever wish for in a daughter.

Amidst depravation at home and the less than basic education infrastructure, made worse by chronic teacher absenteeism and an unwieldy curriculum, Angela’s dream was indomitable. Angela’s aspiration is the essence of development as defined by Amartya Sen in his book Development as Freedom:  enlarging people's choices, capabilities and freedoms, so that they can live a long and healthy life, have access to knowledge, a decent standard of living, and participate in the life of their community.”

Angela’s story has caused me to question existing models of economic development. Have you wondered why mobilizing aid, capacity building and technology have not lead to transformative economic growth in Africa? In their conceptualization of development, economists have long held that growth is a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle: high investments lead to capital stock increases, which lead to high output and more incomes and more savings and more investments, leading inevitably to sustainable development.

As an ecosystems ecologist, soaked in complexity and systems thinking, the liberating ideas of adaptive systems, emergence and feedback are my staple. I therefore find the dominant economic growth model woefully linear, intellectually stifling and limited in its conception of development. It is no wonder that there is little to show for six decades of the so-called development assistance in Africa. As systems thinker, I know that throwing aid, technology, capacity building and international best practice blueprints at Africa will not lead to economic development in the sense of Amartya Sen.

As a complexity and systems scholar, I think of economic development as a self-organizing emergent property of complex interactions, adaptive transformation and feedback among technology, finance, social, legal, political and cultural institutions, which give children like Angela the liberty to pursue and live their dreams. The dominant and wrongheaded assumption of economists and policy pundits is based on the notion that governments simply do not understand what is needed to make their countries prosperous. This engineering model driven by aid, policy reform, institutional strengthening and technical assistance, favored by the World Bank, IMF and bilateral donors is flawed and we have 60 years of empirical evidence. 

In their book, “Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty”, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that policies, institutions and overall state effectiveness are not exogenous but emergent properties of complex and adaptive feedback generated by a country’s political culture. To most development economists, the fact that ranks of Africa’s politicians and civil servants are dominated by kleptocrats, blindly committed to feathering their nests, seems irrelevant to understanding and explaining Africa’s sluggish pace of economic development.  

Africa’s record of development over the last 60 years is unremarkable. Classical economic models cannot explain why African nations have failed to prosper at the same pace as their Asian peers. Economists are oblivious of the fact that the economy in which they are intervening is nonlinear, and comprises institutions that interact and co-evolve with each other in a complex adaptive system.

Moreover, Africa’s ruling elites have no interest in seeing the financial, political, judicial electoral or civil society institutions adapt or co-evolve to become effective and independent. When adaptive transformation and coevolution are stymied, the self-organizing emergent property of complex interactions, adaptive transformations and feedback among agents and institutions, is economic stagnation and inequitable development. 

We cannot engineer poverty reduction or economic growth through external flows of aid or capacity building or technology transfer or legal or institutional or policy reform. Only a development model that emerges from co-evolution and adaptive transformation of vital societal institutions can give Angela the freedom to pursue her dreams. Such a model will unleash the drivers of economic growth – technology, capital, education, policy and institutional reform, land governance and democracy. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thriving cities vital for economic growth

Half of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants now live in cities. Given the dizzying pace of urbanization globally, two-thirds of humanity is likely to live in cities by 2030. Today, about one third of Africa’s 1 billion inhabitants live in towns and cities. By 2030, this proportion will rise to over 50 percent. According to a recent UN-HABITAT report the population of Dar-es-Salaam is projected to grow by over 85% between 2010 and 2025. Here at home in Nairobi, the population will swell by about 78% over the next 25 years.
A recent study in local government areas in Lagos, Nigeria revealed that unemployment, education, avoidance of boredom in agriculture and health reasons are the major factors influencing rural-urban migration. Such studies have provided credence to the myth that that provision of social amenities such as roads, water, electricity, hospitals and schools could keep young men and women in the villages, hence stem rural-urban migration.
The bad news is that this myth that rural development is the antidote for rapid, unplanned urbanization persists in most national development vision statements. Experience from South Korea is instructive. South Korean President Park Chung Hee initiated the New Community Movement in the early 1970s. This was a well-funded programme, which broke up land oligarchies, built great rural infrastructure, and provided excellent support to small farms.  Farm household income increased by 83 percent between 1970 and 1979, and rural poverty declined from 27.9 percent to just 10.8 percent over the same period.
But despite rural prosperity, urbanization proceeded at breakneck speed in South Korea with 83 percent of the population living in cities today. Seoul, South Korea’s capital city has the world’s fourth highest GDP, hot on the heels of Tokyo, New York City and Los Angeles. Some scholars have argued that South Korea has used the massive revenue flows from the cities to fund rural prosperity initiatives. Better support for rural development, especially agriculture will spur agricultural productivity but will not stem migration to cities.
In their seminal book, “The Metropolitan Revolution: How cities and metros are fixing our broken politics and fragile economy”, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argue that a city is not defined by the height of its skyscrapers but the quality of the ideas it generates, the innovation it stimulates and the opportunities it creates for its inhabitants. Similarly, Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser argues that spontaneous and serendipitous exchanges of ideas turn cities into vibrant hubs of innovation.
Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington D.C., posit that the vitality of metropolitan regions is upending traditional state power structures. Here is some evidence of the rise of the city. Home to under 10 percent of Kenya’s population the City of Nairobi generates over 45 percent of Kenya’s $42.5 billion GDP. The top 100 American metropolitan areas, home to 65 percent of the population generate 75 percent of the GDP. According to the Cities Special Initiative of McKinsey & Company 600 cities will generate about two-thirds of the world’s GDP by 2025. Cities and metros are the real drivers of national fortunes.
The future will be won or lost in the cities. In our part of the world urbanization has been largely characterized by deprivation and squalor. Poor housing, poor sanitation, unemployment, insecurity, hunger, malnutrition and water shortages are among the most daunting challenges associated with rapid urbanization in Africa.
Progress in meeting the challenges of rapid urbanization would be demonstrated by a fall in the proportion of slum-dwellers, who currently account for 70% of urban inhabitants in sub Saharan Africa. Getting urbanization right is the defining challenge of our civilization. How cities fair will therefor determine the success or failure of every human development priority in Africa. Cities will be especially vital as engines of job creation, social inclusion, innovation, productivity and environmental sustainability.
Opportunity and prosperity in Nairobi and other cities across the country are spread unevenly. For a majority of Kenya’s “cityzens”, wages are too low, food is expensive and rent is too high, even in informal settlements. Life for the “cityzen” is perilous despite new roads and opulent apartments, which have transformed parts of the city into islands of prosperity in a sea of deprivation. Urban residents yearn for dignifying jobs and paychecks they can live on, in safe neighborhoods where children can thrive. But they have no idea how this will happen. Who is in charge of our cities? 


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