Monday, November 3, 2014

To Harness the Youth Bulge, Expand Access to Secondary Eduction

Kenya’s youth bulge, can be a curse or a blessing. According to President Kenyatta “a large number of idle and frustrated youth pose a significant risk to the survival of the Kenyan State”.

 In Mr.Kenyatta’s view to turn the youth bulge into Uhuru a blessing is pretty straight forward. He believes that if many young people get money and opportunity to earn a living and “buy into the Kenya dream” they could be a veritable driver of growth and prosperity.

Mr. Kenyatta’s fears are not unfounded. His remarks, made at the  National Security Strategy seminar last week, came just after the African Development Bank said Kenya’s growth has made a few richer while majority struggle to survive. According to the bank Kenya risks degenerating into a fragile state when only a few reap the benefits of prosperity. 

We are witnessing prosperity of the few by the few for the few. According to the African Development Bank, high levels of poverty, regional disparities, limited access to basic services, inequality and unemployment underline the prosperity of the very few and the exclusion of the many from “buying into the Kenyan dream”. Like Mr. Kenyatta, the bank warns that if not addressed, poverty, inequality and the high rate unemployment could pose a threat to Kenya’s stability.

According to Mr. Kenyatta, idle and frustrated youth can be “drawn to ideologies that undermine the legitimacy of the State and can be used to destroy our democratic dispensation”. Just in case you forgot, the median age is about 19 and nearly nearly 80 per cent of Kenyans are classified as youth, aged below 35 years.

The high walls, razor wire fences, the booming security industry underscore a growing sense of fear and insecurity among Kenya’s upper middle and wealthy classes. The rich want to scoot out of town. The proliferation of the exclusive gated suburbs is nothing but a shameful reminder of the dogged determination of the wealthy to secede from the messy insanitary state of our cities.

Think about the tens of millions of Kenyans who work so hard and yet cannot feed or clothe or provide shelter for their loved once. They are the majority. I am reminded of the words spoken by JF Kennedy more than half a century ago;  “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”.

I have said many time in this column that we must summon the courage to act to confront inequality, tackle poverty and extend opportunity to all citizens. And it must start with the 890,000 kids who will sit KCPE this week. Consider that over 7million children are enrolled in primary school compared to just over 2 million enrolled in secondary school. Such a high drop out or attrition rate is both immoral and unconscionable. 

We have too few secondary schools. The ratio of secondary schools to primary schools must be one to one. Moreover, secondary schools are simply unaffordable for a majority of Kenyans. For instance national public schools charge up to $1,200 a year, a figure, which until the economy was rebased, was higher than our per capita GDP. In a competitive, globalized knowledge economy, secondary education must not a privilege of the few but a birth right of every Kenyan child.

The task force on secondary school fees has made recommendations to make secondary education more accessible. These include elimination of unnecessary levies and increasing annual government subsidy from $120 to $146. Wealthy Kenyans spend between $3,500 and $12,000 per year on tuition for their children.

To paraphrase Kennedy’s words; can we forge against these enemies a national alliance – bringing together all the ethnic ragtag coalitions – to deliver the solemn pledge of our forbears to expand opportunity for a majority of youth and build a more inclusive society. Divided, there is little we can do against the unholy trinity of poverty, unemployment and radicalized youth.
And in the immortal words of JF Kennedy, the trumpet summons us again to bear the bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

If the bulwark inter-ethnic understanding and cooperation may push back the jungle of petty strife, let all of Kenya’s people join in forging a new order, not more fractious and fleeting balance of ethnic power. What is sorely needed is a new dispensation in our politics, where the strong are just and honorable and the week live in dignity and security.

The youth bulge would be boon because if 75 percent of every cohort graduated from tertiary education with skills they would add more than $10 billion annually to the economy. 


I encourage the government to consider carefully, the recommendations of the task force on secondary school fees. Affordable, high quality secondary education capped with tertiary level skills is the best way to forestall the risk posed to the Kenyan state by idle and frustrated youth. 

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