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Monday, July 31, 2017

Our duty as citizens does not end when we cast our vote

After over half-century of self-rule the colonial creature is still alive, breathing and starting to thrive. Kenya’s path has not been linear or even. Kenya’s path has been complex, bounded and directed by its colonial heritage and often severely contorted by its contrived creation.

Exactly one week from today, tens of millions of Kenyans will converge in polling stations across the country to exercise a fundamental constitutional right. Kenyans above the age of 18 will mark six ballots and cast their votes for representatives of their choice.

The country has been on campaign footing for nearly three years. But the electioneering process kicked off in earnest with a mass voter registration exercise early 2017. Leading politicians literally camped in their so-called strongholds to encourage new voters to sign up.

After about nine weeks of intense political activity, thousands of kilometers have been traveled. Billions of shillings have been spent. Millions of words have been used to describe agendas, discredit or even abuse opponents and to persuade voters.

In my view the campaigns, especially between the two top presidential candidates have not been driven by the party manifestos they presented to the voting public. The political conversation has been long on innuendo but spectacularly short on specifics such as jobs for youth, quality health care and education, shared prosperity and food security, national unity and regional integration.

One would hope that the leading presidential candidates would lay out a coherent program on expanding access to quality education by improving teacher quality as well as putting more resources into improving school infrastructure. It’s not too much to demand clean water, well-lit classrooms and clean toilets for our children.

Unemployment is highest among youth who drop out of primary and high school. While they often they lack basic literacy and numeracy, their plight is compounded by lack of basic skills. What was the safe storehouse for Kenya’s unemployed has no more headroom. According to The 2016 Economic Survey report growth in the informal sector is tapering.

The agricultural sector is not thumping. Land degradation, climate change and expansion of settlement is a threat to agricultural expansion. We are in the throes of de-industrialization. Urbanization is chaotic and has failed to drive equitable prosperity. Majority of urban dwellers live in squalid slums engulfed by garbage and denied basic amenities like water, sanitation, security, hospitals and schools.

In just four short days, the campaign dust will settle, the vitriol will ebb, and the country will go into eerie silence. The question is when, how and by who will the real development challenges be addressed?


Voting is a right that comes with an inordinate burden of responsibility and an expectation of supreme discernment. But whether you vote or not, the conversation about our development challenges must not end on August 8th 2017. Leadership must be about results. Not empty campaign promises. We must hold to the fire of accountability, the feet of all elected leaders.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Even with limited data we can deliver equitable development

The ability to make good decisions is contingent on the availability and utilization of sound evidence. The overarching assumption is that the evidence is derived from reliable data. Moreover, it is expected that the data be collected by rigorously established procedures.

Morten Jerven’s book Poor Numbers: How we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it provides an insightful analysis of the production and use of data for development in Africa. The book concludes that the capacities national statistical agencies have fallen apart.

A World Bank report, Poverty in a Rising Africa, published in 2016 argued that lack of reliable and comparable data mask complex realities and makes it difficult to assess Africa’s progress. Hence, sustained and joined efforts are urgently needed to improve the quality of and timeliness of statistics in the continent.

The concerns Morten Jerven and the World Bank raise are spot on, and are strong indictment of the incapacity of the statistical offices in African countries. But there is some data. The real concern in my view is how little use we make of existing data. Whatever little data we have and however old or outdated it is, provides invaluable insights about the long-term impacts of national policy priorities. 

At the East African Institute, we looked at about 48 variables ­– from publicly available data – across all of Kenya’s 47 counties. Using both basic and fairly sophisticated data analysis and modeling techniques we uncovered insightful patterns about the differences and similarities among the 47 counties. What is exciting about the insights is that they are most indelible fingerprint of the policies were have implemented for over half a century.

From our analysis Kenya’s 47 counties divide into four neat groupings. One group comprises Turkana, Marsabit, Samburu, Garissa, Tana River, Wajir, Mandera and West Pokot.  These defining characteristics of these counties are: high fertility rates; high maternal mortality rates; low levels of mothers’ education, poor access to health facilities and stunting.

Another group of counties comprises Kiambu, Nyeri, Muranga, Kirinyaga, Machakos, Uasin Gishu, Meru, Nakuru and Nyandarua. A high density of health facilities, high levels of literacy, and high per capita access to grid power characterize these counties, unlike the first set of counties. A child born in Meru is three times more likely to celebrate her fifth birthday compared to a child born in Mandera. Moreover, a pregnant woman in Turkana is six times more likely to die of pregnancy related complications than a pregnant woman in Kiambu.

Paucity of data can no longer be used as an excuse for making bad public policy of investment decisions. And yes there is so much we can learn from half a century of policy experiments, which have led to divergent and unequal human wellbeing outcomes.

While counties like Meru or Kiambu are not perfect, they have something we can learn and replicate in Mandera or Tana River. Certainly, a child born in Mandera must have the same life chances as child born in Meru. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The myths about Africa’s progress

Africa is complex. Africa continues to defy every simplistic, normative label the so-called experts throw at the 30 million square kilometer landmass of 1.2 billion people, which comprises 54 sovereign countries.

The term Dark Continent was used to describe a continent and peoples largely unknown and mysterious to Europeans. After colonialism Africa was the spectacular poster boy of disease, war, hunger and deprivation. At the turn of the 21st century The Economist was persuaded that Africa was The Hopeless Continent.

A scar on the conscience of the world is what Tony Blair called Africa in 2001. About 10 years since a British Prime Minister and an authoritative British magazine wrote off a continent and people something changed. Africa, according to The Economist was Rising because “shops are stacked six feet with goods, streets are jammed with customers and salespeople are sweating profusely.”

On the heels of the Africa Rising exuberance was another discovery; the African middle class. A much-discredited report by the African Development Bank claimed that Africa’s middle class had tripled in 30 years to a whopping 313 million, 34% of the continent’s population.

Like the African armyworms the African consumer legion had parachuted in. Shortly, a new gold rush for the African consumer was underway. Retail outlets, new shopping malls, office space and swanky apartments ejected with fury. The world’s largest food group, Nestle and the world’s largest brewer Diageo came calling.

Today, Africa is facing the worst economic downturn in two decades. Was Africa Rising and the ensemble of the consuming classes all a phantom? Did The Economist and the African Development Bank got it all wrong? Do we understand or know how to measure economic growth and social development in the age of globalization?

It is simple and stupid; if an economy is not transforming structurally from dead-end activities such as agricultural commodities, commodity agriculture, fishing, logging and mining into activities that enhance value, with increasing returns such as manufacturing, then growth or development is neither deep nor durable.

Like Icarus in Greek mythology, the wax on the wings of Africa Rising is melting and continent is hurtling.  Africa’s growth logic is structurally flawed. For example, manufacturing value added (MVA) of African exports is falling; 23 African countries had negative MVA per capita growth during the period 1990 – 2010, and only five countries achieved an MVA per capita growth above 4 percent.

The experts and their orchestra – the United Nations, governments, donors and NGOs are spawning new myths about Africa’s development. The ingredients of the new broth of myths are youth, agriculture, Technical and vocational training, urbanization and infrastructure. I use the term myth to refer to simplistic, lazy silver bullet solutions peddled by experts.

African scholars and intellectuals arise, step up to the plate! We must lead the painstaking search for our path to durable progress. Yes, we must be part of the orchestra. But for the African dance, we must be the drummers. 

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