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Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Role of the Modern Presidency

At the peak of America’s military, and economic power, a youthful and good-looking president enamored the American people and the world. Kennedy, like all of us had innumerable flaws. He had Addison’s disease. In many ways he symbolized male sexual privilege. Many historians and biographers suggest that Kennedy was all appearance and no substance.

But Kennedy’s 35-month presidency was tumultuous. His administration ricocheted from crisis to fiasco. He was not universally loved at home. Kennedy was a reluctant supporter of civil rights legislation. But when he called for it, many whites in the South were enraged. It was Lyndon Johnson who deployed his own far more impressive political acumen to get the landmark civil rights act signed.

Abroad, Kennedy embraced a policy of insurgency. The disaster at the Bay of Pigs invasion on Cuba had a lasting impact on the Kennedy administration. The administration initiated Operation Mongoose — a plan to sabotage and destabilize the Cuban government and economy. The plan included the possibility of assassinating Fidel Castro. The relationship between Cuba and the United States remains strained. Kennedy backed a coup in what was then South Vietnam, which resulted in the murder of President Ngo Dinh Nhu. And upon is death left Lyndon Johnson a deteriorating situation.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) International Survey released last Friday revealed that 90 percent of all Americans approve of how Kennedy handled his job as president. No other President of the last half-century even comes close. Ronald Reagan comes second with 78 percent, followed by Bill Clinton with 74 percent. Americans have elevated Kennedy to the league of great presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

These are incredible ratings, considering that Kennedy was in office for just 1036 days. What did Kennedy really accomplish?  

At 43 years of age, Kennedy brought to the White House an image of youth and vigor. He was a great communicator with charisma. His election campaign against Richard Nixon was on the promise to “get the country moving again.” Kennedy had a sense of the importance of inspirational leadership and was determined to deploy it to the full. 

Kennedy’s inaugural address is one of the finest in presidential rhetoric. At the outset he purposed to blunt the sting of his party’s victory when he said,  We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom –– symbolizing an end as well as a beginning -- signifying renewal as well as change”.

Kennedy appealed to sacrifice from all of us, Americans and all of mankind, when he urged;  “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man”.

Kennedy carved a stone of hope from the mountain of distrust following the Cuban missile crisis. On June 10, 1963, his finest and most inspiring speech, aimed at easing Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. “Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process, a way of solving problems. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor; it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union”. Kennedy followed this speech up by negotiating the so-called Limited Test Ban Treaty.

In my view Kennedy’s short tenure was transformational and defined the modern presidency. The essence of the modern presidency is in inspiring and exhorting a country and its citizens to do better. The presidency must be about advancing the ideals of personal liberty, freedom of press, merit, equality, justice and the rule of law.

The presidency must be about inspiring hope, individual excellence and national exceptionalism. Acts like building super highways, modernizing the railway or bringing technology to the classroom are bureaucratic, transactional and not worthy of record in presidential legacy.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Undergraduate education must balance science and humanities

Convergence is emerging in discussions about the future of higher education in the global south. There is growing worry that the south is not training sufficient numbers of university graduates in subjects and fields, such as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), that are critical to driving a 21st century economy.

While serving as Kenya’s minister for higher education, William Ruto declared that the government would withdraw funding for social sciences and humanities subjects in public universities. Similarly, education officials in Tanzania have expressed the need to orient tertiary training to technology-based fields. Parents are also getting sucked into this wrongheaded narrowing of education to meet vocational goals.

The perspectives of both the government and parents have a basis in economic concerns. Where government funds higher education, subjects or fields perceived as having no immediate “practical” value like literature, history and philosophy are considered a waste of resources, where “returns on investments” are highly improbable.

Africa’s education, from pre-school to graduate school is deeply rooted in the culture of rote learning. This culture has its origins in our colonial heritage, where the mission of education was to produce literate natives to populate subservient roles in the colonial administration. The top echelons, where thinking was required were the preserve of the colonists.

Half a century after independence, little has changed in Kenya. Our curriculum-centred education system demands nothing but mindless re-call of unconnected facts from our children. A vast majority of my fellow citizens abhor thinking. Sometimes I get the feeling that asking questions or thinking critically about things might be subversive or treasonable in our country.

I have spoken with many employers who are deeply frustrated by the fact that many young people graduating from our schools and colleges, who by the way are technically competent, lack the capacity for logical thinking or complex reasoning. I have taught at a public university and I know that a vast majority of students entering college do not have the requisite levels of speaking, reading and writing. But three or four years of college education does not remedy this.

Do not get me wrong. We produce bewitchingly cleaver engineers, doctors, economists, and ecologists. But that is all they are. Unfortunately, the world we live in demands more of us, beyond the narrow limits of vocational training.

To provide a counterweight to vocational orientation and traditional rote learning, we need to inject a new dimension to education. Higher education, especially at the university level needs to emphasize and cultivate more intellectual skills, such as critical thinking and complex and moral/ethical reasoning, as well as interpersonal and cross-ethnic understanding. 

Injecting an intellectual dynamism to higher education must happen through fundamental reforms to curriculum and pedagogy or learning methods, while affirming national values and encouraging innovation and creativity in a competitive globalized world. We must understand that universities are drivers of socio-economic development and critical instruments of competition in an interconnected world.

An education system that is overly focused on “practical skills” for work readiness does not provide the foundation for engaging in critical dialogues at the core of our humanity and global sustainability. Such dialogues include: dialogues of self and society; dialogues of belief, evidence and reason; dialogues of equity, pluralism, justice and civic life.

These dialogues, I believe, would get students to reflect, over a lifetime, on big questions such as: Who am I? What aught to be? Does the universe have a purpose? Does ethical/moral action depend on reasoning? Does capitalism corrode moral fibre? How should resources be distributed to provide equal opportunity for all?

There is no doubt that our future will be shaped by more technology than we can even begin to imagine. Hence the emphasis by governments on STEM is essential but insufficient. Fortunately, encouraging models for making undergraduate education more holistic are emerging outside in the developing world. There is a move in China for a liberal arts (broad-based) undergraduate education.

Across the global south, there are attempts to remodel undergraduate programs so that students can obtain a broad, liberal education, in the hope that graduates will be acculturated to be analytical, imaginative and innovative. Here in East Africa, the Aga Khan University is developing a curriculum framework that promotes social sciences and humanities, besides biomedical sciences, with the aim of producing well-rounded health-care professionals who are effective listeners, analytical problem-solvers and ethical leaders. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Investing in Early Childhood Development is Imperative

Globally, we have made significant progress in reducing child mortality and increasing school enrollment. The deaths of children under age five declined from circa 12 million to less than 7 million between 1990 and 2011. Similarly, the number of children enrolled in primary school is up by 40 million worldwide.

However, if unchecked a lack of investment in early childhood development could erode these gains. And President Yoweri Museveni gets it! In the foreword to Uganda’s Nutrition Action Plan, Museveni writes, “Malnutrition affects millions of Ugandans in various ways, but it is particularly devastating to women, babies, and children. Malnutrition also impairs educational achievements and economic productivity, costing the government and families enormous amounts of money to treat related illnesses”.

About 40 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa are stunted. Stunted children often endure painful and debilitating cycles of illness, depressed appetite, insufficient food and inadequate care. Children who survive carry long-term deficits in cognitive capacity. Stunting is a devastating early-life growth failure.

A recent study reported by Save the Children shows that compared with normal children, stunted children: score 7 percent lower on math tests; are 19 percent less likely to be able to read a simple sentence at age 8, and 12 percent less likely able to write a simple sentence; and, are 13 percent less likely to be able to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school.
In a survey of 350,000 children in Kenya Uganda and Tanzania, Uwezo, an education advocacy organization found that 2 out of every 3 children in grade 3 failed to pass basic tests in English, Kiswahili or numeracy set at the level of grade 2. The study also revealed that children from poor households perform worse on all tests at all ages.
Invariably, children are the most visible victims of undernutrition. Undernutrition magnifies the effect of every disease, including measles and malaria. The estimated proportions of deaths in which malnutrition is an underlying cause are roughly similar to diarrhea (61 percent), malaria (52 percent), pneumonia (52 percent) and measles (45 percent). Malnutrition can also be caused by diarrhea, which reduces the body’s ability to convert food into useable nutrients.
Malnutrition, as measured by stunting affects nearly 40 percent of children in Africa. In many cases their plight began even before birth, with a malnourished mother. Under nutrition among pregnant women in developing countries leads to 1 out of 6 infants born with low birth weight. This is not only a risk factor for neonatal deaths but also causes learning disabilities, mental retardation, poor health, blindness and premature deaths.
Extensive epidemiologic studies have suggested that adult disease risk is associated with adverse environmental conditions early in development. The molecular basis for these apparently non-genetic trans-generation effects is not known. One hypothesis is that it involves epigenetics. Epigenetics is the process by which patterns of gene expression are modified in a heritable manner by mechanisms that do not involve alterations in gene sequence.
The Dutch Hunger Winter provides developmental biologists a rare opportunity for understanding differences associated with prenatal exposure to adverse environmental conditions. The Dutch Hunger Winter was occasioned by the German imposed food embargo in the western part of The Netherlands close to the end of the World War II in the winter of 1944-45. Studies have shown that Dutch babies whose mothers were exposed to famine during early gestation grew up to have higher rates of obesity than those born before or after the famine.

Hundreds of millions of hungry mothers in Africa live on less than 400–800 calories per day, equivalent to the rations Germans limited the Dutch to.  Recent estimates show that the number of hungry people in Africa grew from 175 million to 239. Nearly one in four people are hungry in Africa.

Given the prevalence of poverty, hunger and malnutrition it is highly likely that a majority of children entering school have critical early-life growth failure, which constrains learning ability and hence their potential to be healthy and economically productive citizens. Studies estimate that early-life growth failure could lead to earning deficits of up to 66 percent in adulthood.

Programs like free primary education must go hand in hand with robust interventions in early childhood development to forestall early-growth failure. And there is such a thing as quality of citizens and our country ranks very low. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Why youth unemployment endures

Experts now believe that with nearly 75 million unemployed young people the next global financial crisis is in the making. To avert economic catastrophe, the world needs to create 600 million jobs over the next decade.

In Kenya, nearly 75 percent of the unemployed are aged between 15 and 24 years. 60 to 90 percent of young workers in developing countries are employed within the informal sector. The disillusionment and alienation of being excluded from productive employment or realizing one’s potential can have enduring social and psychological consequences for the youth.

Why has unemployment among young people reached a crisis proportion? In my view five factors are implicated.

The first factor is rapid population growth. At the current population of 1.03 billion, Africa’s population doubled in just 27 years. Here at home Kenya’s population has nearly quadrupled in just 50 years. 63 percent of the population of the East African Community region is under 24 years old. This high proportion of young people is a veritable cauldron for furious population growth far into the foreseeable feature. African countries are adding more young people than can be supported by national planning capacity or the pace and character of economic growth.

The second factor is low quality education. Even as more young people are graduating from high school and college, they lack the skills demanded by the 21st century workplace. Our education system is antiquated, predominantly influenced by left-brain education paradigms of the industrial revolution, which privilege sequential, logical and analytical worldviews. The right-brain nonlinear, intuitive and holistic view of the universe is scorned upon as nebulous and insubstantial.

I am of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge tribe and believe that a great mind must be androgynous or “non-hemispheric”. In his book, “A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age”, Daniel H. Pink argues that we are moving from an economy and society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the information age to an economy and society built on big picture needs requiring meaning makers and pattern recognizers.

Our school system; from kindergarten to university accomplish far less for our children than it should. A majority of children leave primary school without attaining the basic competencies in literacy and numeracy. Many students graduate from college today without being able to write or reason well enough to satisfy potential employers. Our education is predicated on onerous and useless content, driven by unthinking memorization and regurgitation. This kind of education does not produce the agile adaptive thinkers demanded by the conceptual age we live in.

Nobody understands the weaknesses of Kenya’s public education better than the uber wealthy civil servants and political class. They send their children to expensive prep schools here at home and then to top colleges abroad. They understand that Kenya’s antiquated education does not prepare the students for their first jobs or to become successful entrepreneurs.

The third factor is the structural flaws in Africa’s economic growth. While Africa’s economic growth in the last decade is unprecedented, it tends to trickle upward rather than downward. Services are the fastest growing sector across most African countries. This includes telecommunications, warehousing, transport, banking, security and insurance.

Growth in these areas have the lowest multiplier effect, hence has the least potential to create jobs for the majority unskilled graduates from high school and college. Robust growth in agriculture and industry are likely to have the largest potential to generate high quality economic growth, with the largest multiplier effects and huge employment opportunities. But both of these sectors are in decline, stifled neglect and globalization.

The fourth factor is the discouraged youth. In many African countries, the job market, both private and public is under the tyranny of ethnic cartels. Many young people are irredeemably cynical about recruitment processes. A growing number of young people have stopped looking for work. They have anecdotal experiences that are hard to discount. 

The fifth factor is lack of coherent national policy. Kenya offers good examples. We have implemented incoherent programs like Kazi Kwa Vijana in a futile attempt to address youth issues. In an uncertain world, the youth need skills in critical thinking and complex reasoning. This must be buttressed by inclusive economic growth policies. Ad hoc programs like the recently launched UWEZO will fail because it does not address fundamental structural drivers of youth unemployment. 


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