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Saturday, July 28, 2012

What Presidential Aspirants Know about Science Matters

Self-ordained presidential aspirants are roaming the country. Their lips are dripping with amateurish proclamations of Kenya’s problems and a shockingly myopic vision of the solutions we need.

As enlightened citizens, we need to know how those who are running for president will address issues that are critical to our country’s future. It is not enough to peddle reform credentials and proffer insipid pledges such as fighting corruption and ending tribalism.

I bet that you and I subject our housekeepers to a more stringent hiring process than the Kenyan electorate does for the President of the Republic of Kenya. The presidency is the most serious job in the land and the bar must be higher.

The real challenges – low agricultural productivity, hunger and malnutrition, environmental degradation, poverty, climate change, energy security, water scarcity, unemployment and disease – that Kenya faces today and in the years ahead will need solutions based on science and engineering.

I suggest 10 science related questions that underlie key national development challenges, which presidential aspirants should address.

1. Economic Growth. Economist Joseph Schumpeter characterized the entrepreneur as the purveyor of the “creative destruction” and systemic change necessary for sustained economic growth. Our society needs to adopt novel approaches to unleash innovation, entrepreneurship and new jobs for a bludgeoning population. What policies will best ensure that Kenya becomes a world leader in innovation?
2. Education. We live in a knowledge-based economy driven by science, technology, engineering and math. National teaching and testing of science emphasize recall of information over deep understanding, reasoning and critical thinking. Students have no time to integrate their ideas or engage in scientific inquiry and discovery. What role should the government play to better prepare our children for the science and technology-driven global economy?
3. Energy. Every development challenge we face today is also an energy challenge. The high disease burden can be attributed to a lack of energy to boil water, power diagnostic equipment, or refrigerate life saving vaccines. The weak manufacturing and industrial base is made worse by unreliable and expensive energy. Food insecurity is exacerbated by shortage of energy for irrigation and mechanization of farm operations. What policies would you support to meet the growing demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?
4. Agriculture and Food Security. Kenya’s agriculture is in utter shambles. Our soils are degraded. Our famers work so hard for so little. Many Kenyan families do not have enough food to eat and our children are malnourished. Obesity is on the rise among the middle class. What steps would you take to increase the productivity of our famers, ensure access to healthy food for all Kenyans?
5. Fresh Water. Kenya's natural water resources do not provide equitable access of water to the various regions of the country. This leaves most of the population without any fresh water. The country’s meager water resources are now at risk because of increasing consumption and pollution. What steps, if any, should the government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Kenyans?
6. Public Policy and Science. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society. Science must inform public policy and decision-making.  How will you ensure that policy and decision-making is informed by scientific evidence?
7. Vital Natural Resources. Kenya does not need globally binding agreements to appreciate that a population expanding by over 1million per year needs more food, farmland, water, energy and shelter, which cannot be met on a declining natural capital base. What steps should the government take to ensure sustained availability of vital natural capital?
8. Research and Kenya’s Future. Nationally funded research has helped to produce unprecedented economic and social progress in the developed world and more recently in China. What areas would your government prioritize for investment in research? 
9. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is growing concern about the adverse impact of climate change on the lives of the poor. What is your position on appropriate adaptation, mitigation and other policies to reduce vulnerability of livelihoods and the national economy to the varied and complex impacts of climate change?
10. Human Development and Population Health. The first few years in the life of a child are critical for promoting healthy physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development. A large majority of our children aged 0 to 5 face deficiencies in terms nutrition and intellectual stimulation. Moreover, thousands of children die from preventable diseases such as diarrhea and malaria. What steps would you take to help our children grow up great and protect our population from premature mortality?

The best forum for addressing these issues would be a live TV debate among the aspirants. The voting public would grade the aspirant’s responses and evaluate their suitability for the presidency.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Healthy Environment Vital for Health and Wealth of a Nation

“One-eyed reason, deficient in its vision of depth”, is how the Anglo-American philosopher Alfred Whitehead described the scientific thought and philosophy of the 18th century.

The 18th century – the Age of Reason – astounds me with its fertile yet flawed imagination. So much of our understanding and relationship with our planet began then: the plenitude of nature; the notion of equilibrium; man’s dominion over nature; our industrial and consumer apparatus.

Today we live in an era shaped by human agency. From trawlers scraping the ocean to the miners stripping the earth to chainsaws decimating forests to nutrients chocking our lakes to factories fouling our atmosphere, our civilization has wrought an epoch of unprecedented planetary change, “the Age of Man”.

Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Crutzen called the “Age of Man” the Anthropocene, in which our actions to satisfy the demand food, fibre, fodder and energy put mankind at par with a force of nature. The Anthropocene marks a catastrophic transformation in our relationship with the planet and imperils the services of nature, which undergird our health and wellbeing.

Ecologist and economists have coined the phrase ecosystem services to describe the multiple services of nature that sustain human health and wellbeing on the planet. Although environmentalists and development practitioners use the term ecosystem services with promiscuous ease, it reinstates the fundamental and inextricable interdependence between mankind and nature.

Human health and wellbeing ultimately depends on nature’s services. Nature regulates disease transmission by providing a reservoir of non-human hosts for deadly parasites and pathogens. Forests and soils are a living filter for water, a sink for carbon, and a regulator of atmospheric gasses. Microbes, termites and earthworms underwrite the fertility and productivity of soils. Wetlands and mangroves clean our lakes and oceans and nurture the fish. Bees pollinate the crops that nourish our bodies and the flowers that bedeck our gardens.

Alfred Whitehead was right. The mechanistic materialism of the Age of Reason is and the notion of plenitude nature is why our relationship with the planet is broken.

Under investment in nutrient and water management has led to widespread soil degradation in Kenya’s agricultural land. Soil degradation is linked with low productivity, hunger and chronic malnutrition among millions of rural smallholder farm households.

Malnutrition is the biggest risk factor for morbidity and mortality among children under the age of five in Kenya. Various dimensions of malnutrition (e.g., protein, carbohydrate, micronutrient and vitamin A deficiency) account for 7 of the 13 leading risk factors associated with the global burden of diseases. 

A recent report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and Kenya Medical Research Institute revealed that 35% of children are stunted. Malnutrition is associated with both structural and functional pathology of the brain and could have long lasting cognitive impairment. According to a study conducted in 2009, less than 37% of pupils in standard 3 attained standard 2 level competency in English and numeracy.

Studies have shown that Kakamega and South Nandi Forests lost about 10% of forest cover in the two decades between 1980 and 2000. Scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute showed that deforestation in Western Kenya highlands enhances mosquito vectorial capacity by 77%. Vectorial capacity is directly related to the number of bites per person per day and the life expectancy of the mosquito.

Rapid population growth, expansion of agricultural land in the upland catchments is responsible for discharge of sediments, nutrients and effluence into Lake Victoria. These changes have led to a highly eutrophic or fertile lake, hence the proliferation of water hyacinth and algae, with adverse consequences for water quality, fisheries, household incomes and the local economies.

Water hyacinth has been implicated in harboring the causative agent for cholera, Vibrio cholera. A study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2010 showed that yearly water hyacinth coverage on the Kenyan section of Lake Victoria was positively associated with the number of cholera cases reported in Nyanza Province. Surges in the number of cases of cholera in Nyanza Province coincide with two pulses in the eruption and abundance of water hyacinth; 1997–2000 and 2006–2008.

Putting nature under man’s dominion is woefully limited in its depth of understanding the interdependence between man and nature. Kenya does not need globally binding agreements to appreciate that a population expanding by over 1million per year needs more food, farmland, water, energy and shelter, which cannot be met on a declining natural capital base.

The seemingly inexorable decline of our natural capital and allied ecosystem services is partly due to lack of assessment and valuation. The farmlands, rangelands, forests, rivers, wetlands, lakes, coral reefs and mangroves of this country are capital assets and must be a part of our GDP reporting; valued in combination with financial capital, manufactured capital, and human capital.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Job Interview is Part Intellectual Dating Game

If there is anyone out there trying to figure out how to impress an interview panel and get a job, here is just the help you need.

Applying for a job and getting the interview is not sufficient proof that you really want the job. In article published in The Chronicle, David D. Perlmutter writes that an interview is part Broadway casting call, part intellectual dating game, part personality test.  Perlmutter adds that desperation is never an attractive trait, in romance or in hiring.

Perlmutter argues that when there are many applicants for a position many of them will meet the basic requirements for the job. The decision about who to hire will depend on less tangible attributes, what we sometimes call the “soft skills”. But I think they are really, truly the “hard skills”.
Perlmutter suggest that the interview is a chance for you to show why a decision to hire you makes sense for both parties. 

Here is what I think are the most brilliant interview tips I have ever come across. Read them and master them, if you will.

Align the elements of your application. In an employment workshop I ran recently for our department's doctoral students, I emphasized the importance of the initial page of their CV. It's the page that search committees will most likely scrutinize first and may not look beyond. So make sure it defines you well and accurately for the position in question.

If you are applying for a research-intensive position, then your dissertation title is a crucial element of self-definition. The committee will ask: Does the title fit who you say you are? This last year, my department was able to hire two terrific young scholars in the area of sports media. What made it a slam dunk for us was that their dissertations and most of their research focused on sports media. Make it easy for search committees to see the relevance of your work to the position.

Likewise with your references. As I wrote in a previous column, even the most effusive mentor can deliver an "unrecommendation" that sinks your candidacy. Imagine your reference giving an impassioned booster speech about you to the chair of the search committee—and talking at length about a completely different job than the one you applied for. Help your supporters get their stories straight.

The aligning process can also be a good test of whether you really fit a position. If you have to twist yourself into too many knots, the job is not for you.
Focus on what is attractive about a job; repeat often. You will rarely be asked outright, "So, do you really want this job?" But other questions will serve as indicators of your feelings, such as, "What makes our position attractive?" You need pithy and plausible answers. And if you're not asked such questions, bring them up. Repeat them in several different places and venues. For example, explaining how you fit the job is a sine qua non for the opening paragraphs of your cover letter. Make similar points in your job talk and bring them up again in small group meetings.
Why so much repetition? Over the course of a campus interview, you may meet key faculty members or administrators, like a dean, only once. The question, "Why do you want to join us?," has to be answered for each of them in turn.

In forming your answers, make sure they make sense. If you are a candidate for a research post at a major research university, maintaining that you are attracted to the opening because you want to work in a "relaxed, intimate" atmosphere is not credible.

The order in which you rank the attractive features of a job should correspond roughly with what the institution is seeking from you. In the employment workshop I held recently, students assessed various ads for assistant professorships to see what would be a good fit for them. When you see certain key words and themes that are important to you repeated in a job ad—as many as four or five times—that's a heavy hint that the department considers them vital. In your application materials, make sure you clearly express how you fit a department's needs.

Avoid irrelevancies. It is fine to joke at dinner with a search committee in Portland, Ore., about how your love of salmon is one of the reasons for your interest in the position. But do not repeat it in the real interview.

Tailor, tailor, tailor. The most common advice for candidates lately is to tailor an application to the position and the institution. If that task becomes overly burdensome, you may be applying for too many jobs. But custom-fitting your application is among the strongest indicators that you really want the job.

Years ago, I served on a hiring committee where I met the world champion of tailored applications. She had studied our department, our mission, our strategic plan, our faculty bios and publications, even our graduate-student profiles and aspirations. She knew us all by face and name. We were so impressed that anyone would go to all that trouble that there was little chance we would not hire her.

The more professional details you show you know about people—as opposed to mentioning personal information that makes you seem like a stalker—the more credible you are as a potential colleague.
Fit the future. As chair of a department at a professional school, I engage in a considerable amount of outreach to alumni and industry. Over and over again, employers contend that they are looking for young people who will "add value" to their companies or institutions. They do not want someone who will just fill a position and clock time. They want creative, entrepreneurial, "think different" young people to help them pathfind an increasingly indeterminate future, especially in the media world.
Academic hiring seems to be going in that same direction. As the relative number of tenure-track faculty positions decreases, more importance is attached to each one. I have actually put it this way to all the candidates in the six hires that have occurred during my tenure as chair: "We want someone who will help lead us into the future." In other words, we don't want someone who will just comfortably fit into a slot, but rather someone who will challenge us with new ideas.

Obviously, this is an area that requires balance. Don't tell the search committee you want the job because you hope to reform the entire curriculum to your liking. Do tell them that you are looking for a position in which you can join with a department to achieve its mission and goals. Radiate excitement about the possibilities.

Say you want it—and why. It is not enough to exclaim, "What a great position, faculty, department, and town. Sign me up!" Don't be generic. Give details that show you have thought through the why of the want: "I see a strong fit with my teaching experience and the new expansion of your program into the same area. I think I could teach these classes and develop new ones." Or, "I would love to work with Professors Tinker, Evers, and Chance. I can also expand your area in X." Or, "I like the team approach you have to service projects. I work well in that kind of system. Or, "I grew up in a town like this. I always saw myself settling in the same kind of place." And so on—with greater detail. In a sense, you are providing the talking points for their "permission to hire" letter. As always, though, be truthful. Be prepared to back up your case.

Getting a job on the tenure track today involves a combination of luck, talent, skills, accomplishments, and strength of degree and references. But one intangible over which you can exert some level of control is making sure in your own mind that a job you apply for is a job you actually want. Then you can effectively persuade your future colleagues of the same”.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Magnifying Social Inequality

This is very interesting!
In many African societies access to higher education is widely seen as fundamental instrument of "social engineering". One that enables students from less privileged classes to get a chance to close bridge the social divide. This is especially because the higher education sector in sub-Saharan Africa is currently dominated by public rather private universities. The domination is not just in terms of student enrollment but also diversity of programs and in most cases public universities attracted high quality teachers and hence offer better education. Presently, private universities are poorly resourced and lack academic (research and teaching) distinction.

What I  think is already starting to happen in Africa is that students from more affluent backgrounds tend to tap easily into their parents networks to secure prestigious internship placements, which could translate into great jobs upon graduation.

 I love this perspective and its specific relevance to the American society at this point in time.

Published in The Chronicle July 2, 2012

By Richard D. Kahlenber

Higher-education officials are right when they inevitably point out that inequalities in student performance stem from socioeconomic inequities in society and the failure of our elementary and secondary schools to remedy them. Less acknowledged: Instead of counteracting the inequalities they inherit, colleges and universities magnify them.

Higher education in the United States is highly stratified, showering the most resources on the most-advantaged students. Low-income and minority students are concentrated in community colleges, which spent an average of $12,957 per full-time-equivalent student in 2009, while higher-income and white students are disproportionately educated at private four-year research institutions, which spent an average of $66,744 per student.

Our system of college admissions exacerbates inequalities. Colleges pride themselves on defending race-based affirmative-action programs, but their policies tend to benefit the most economically advantaged students of color. Most colleges do little to provide affirmative action for low-income students, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Research published by the Century Foundation has found that while affirmative action triples the percentage of black and Latino students compared with the share who would be admitted based on grades and test scores, the lower socioeconomic half of applicants receives no break in admissions. Meanwhile, legacy preferences for the children of alumni increase one's chance of admissions by 45 percentage points, aiding an already highly privileged group.

Similarly, colleges have tilted away from economic need to merit aid. At the same time, the federal government gives tax breaks to wealthy students. Less than one-third of the American population has bachelor's degrees—the rationale for using public money to support a fairly small group at the top is that we all benefit when more students are educated. The corollary is that we should focus aid on those students who would not attend and complete college but for public aid—a notion we've lost sight of when we subsidize those who would attend anyway.

Higher education could reduce inequality by eliminating tax breaks for non-needy students and increasing need-based aid; by providing better financing of community colleges and allowing them to offer bachelor's degrees, which would attract more of an economic mix (something, new research suggests, that improves the performance of low-income students); and by employing class-based affirmative action and eliminating legacy preferences in elite-college admissions.

Timothy Noah's new book, The Great Divergence, notes that in the United States today, "parentage is a greater determinant of a man's future earnings than it is of his height and weight." Steps such as the ones I've outlined would move us toward a fairer society in which children of short parents might still grow up to be short, but children of low-income parents would be less likely to end up poor adults.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Building an Equitable Society is Kenya’s Grand Challenge

A few kilometers from Muthaiga, the uber affluent residential neighborhood of Kenya’s business and political elite, five-year-old Anita is being treated with Plumpynut. Plumpynut is a high-energy therapeutic food for starving children.  

Anita’s father, Hiram, is a security guard in an upmarket city neighborhood. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of Nairobi’s residents who walk to work. But a swanky and dangerous highway has recently complicated Hiram’s daily commute between Mathare Valley and Parklands.

To appreciate the place Anita calls home you have to traipse down convoluted, narrow corridors, vault over open sewers and suck in the stench of putrefied garbage in the slum of Mathare Valley.  Anita’s mother is a stay-at-home mom. Her vegetable business collapsed after 20 years. I asked why. The answer was succinct. “I was running huge losses because people were not buying anymore”.

The retail prices for staple foods have increased by over 150% in Nairobi slum markets in the past year. Average daily household income in Nairobi’s slums is about KES 200 KES. Besides food and shelter, families like Anita’s must also pay for daily use of latrines, water, or wood for cooking, kerosene for lighting, school fees and health care.

International and local humanitarian agencies are feeding millions of people, especially pastoralists in the Rift Valley, northeast and northern Kenya, where malnutrition rates often range between 20 to 40%. In 2011, the worst drought in six decades in the Horn of Africa led to the worst food crisis of our time. I recall the heart-rending story of a woman who lost all her livestock and was mourning the death of her three children.

A couple of months ago I wrote about my encounter with a feisty grandmother. At the age of 75, her one-hectare farm cannot produce enough food for herself and the eight grandchildren who depend on her. Ann relies on the largesse of the local Chief who distributes food aid. Ann’s eight undernourished grandchildren attend a dilapidated and crowded public primary school where teachers seldom show up.

In 2011, all the top 10 positions in the school rankings in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations were taken by private schools. Public schools, the kind Ann’s grandchildren attend, did not rank anywhere near the best private primary schools.
The wide socio-economic disparities in our society stem from a combination wrong headed policies and bad governance over the last half-century. Consumed by self-aggrandizement, successive governments have diverted vast national resources into patrimonial power structures. Mainstream political discourse and policy making has failed to address the worrying gulf between the rich and the less fortunate in our society. As a public intellectual I admit that our national conversation has failed to create a shared narrative and vision capable of inspiring a yearning for a balanced society.

The citizenry, especially the middle class is not blameless. The middle class has lost sight of any collective belief that society could be better – inclusive and equitable. Instead of a better society the middle class strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within a dysfunctional society. 

The middle class resorts to private solutions to address big structural problems. Their children go to private schools because public schools are failing. They go to private hospitals because our public health care system is broken. They hire private guards because our neighborhoods are unsafe. They drive personal cars to work because public transport is in shambles. The middle class eschews politics and civic engagement because the world outside their living room is rough and chaotic.

The contrast between the odious material wealth of the few and grinding poverty among the majority in our society is disconcerting and perilous. Building an equitable society, not advancing economic growth is the grand and urgent challenge facing Kenya today.

Talk of equality unsettles the business and political elite. I am no wealth re-distribution crusader. Kenya does not need a revolution to achieve equality. We need good teachers and good public schools to close the achievement gap between private and public schools. We need to develop technical skills and harness the entrepreneurial capacity of our youth. We need agricultural and climate advisory services, fertilizers, mechanization, irrigation, veterinary services, and markets to increase crop and livestock productivity.

We need high quality and affordable health care for all. We need a stable stock of affordable housing for all. We need affordable public transport in all our cities. We need a competent police force to uphold the law and keep our neighborhoods safe.

In their book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that societies with huge socio-economic disparities are bad for everyone, including the middle class.  We must see societal problems as needing collective and not private or individual solutions.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

African Economies Growing on Wobbly Foundation

It is inconceivable that 10 short years ago Africa was the focus of the architects of the Millennium Development Goals, an effort to eradicate poverty. In 2001 Tony Blair described the state of Africa’s poverty as “a scar on our consciences”. Today the dominant narrative is that Africa will be for the first half of this century what Asia was for the second half of the last century.

In spite of the global economic downturn, Africa’s income is projected to increase by 4.5% in 2012. A recent World Bank report shows that poverty is declining at about 1% a year. Child mortality, a critical human development indicator, is falling sharply. Countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia, Gambia and Malawi have reported declines of 25-40% in under-five mortality over the last decade.

Parts of Africa are enjoying economic growth inconceivable just a decade ago. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) seven of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies will be Africa. Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria are expected to expand by more than 6% a year until 2015. According to African Development Bank Chief Economist Mthuli Ncube, Africa's middle class is about 300 million and growing at 3.1% per year.

It is no secret that the demand for commodities such as oil, iron, gold and copper are driving growth. For example, in 2008, the Democratic Republic of Congo took $6 billion of Chinese money to build 3,840 kilometers of road, 3,200 kilometers of railway, two universities, 32 hospitals and 145 health stations. China got access 10 million tons of copper and 400,000 tons of cobalt.

Africa’s growth gathered pace with the commodity of the 1970s but plummeted when commodity prices collapsed during the subsequent two decades. I submit that the fundamentals necessary for stable and sustained growth are weak or totally absent in some countries. Celebrating Africa’s growth is therefore both premature and mischievous.
It is premature because the magnitude of need is daunting. Africa is yet to make a dent on hunger and poverty. One person in four suffers from malnutrition and Africa remains the region hardest hit by food insecurity. It is mischievous because almost half of Africa’s 1 billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day. Moreover, Africa contributes a paltry 2.6% ($1.7 trillion; GDP of Britain is $2.26 trillion) of global GDP.

Africa’s historic stagnation amidst a vast ocean of material wealth is ironic and unconscionable. I offer three examples to illustrate my point.

First, with a per capita income of $300, the DR Congo posted a GDP of $25 billion in 2011. The untapped mineral resources – cobalt, diamond, copper and gold – of the DR Congo are estimated at 38% of global GDP ($24 trillion), equivalent to the combined GDP of Europe and the United States of America.

Second, Africa has 25 percent of the world’s arable land but remains hungry and malnourished, often needing food aid. Currently, nearly 15 million across the Sahel face severe food shortages. More than one million children in the Sahel region are at risk of severe malnutrition. In 2011, the Horn of Africa faced what has been called the worst drought in 60, leaving 12.4 million people in an acute food and livelihood crisis.

Third, Africa has 10 % of the world’s oil resources, 8 % of the world’s gas resources and 60 % of the world’s diamonds. Africa’s remains engulfed in eternal darkness, reeling from the economic burden of thermal fuel sources while the Hydroelectric power potential of the DR Congo alone is estimated at 100,000 MW.

The staying power of Africa’s growth is weak. Dependence on the global hunger for Africa’s raw materials as a basis for growth is akin to building a foundation on quicksand. Moreover economic growth alone is not sufficient to solve the complex and multiple dimensions of Africa’s socio-economic and environmental challenges.

The staying power of Africa’s growth must derive from investing in the education and training of its bludgeoning and youthful population. Africa must increase secondary and tertiary enrollments and improve the overall quality of their education systems. An educated workforce could become a significant source of domestic consumption, innovation and production.

The staying power of Africa’s growth must derive from strengthening the administrative capability of the state and public institutions to implement, policies, provide of basic services and uphold the rule of law.

The staying power of Africa’s growth must derive from economic diversification to reduce dependence on commodity exports. African economies must prioritize domestic service sectors. Research shows that internal services account for virtually all-net job creation in high-income countries and for 85 percent of net new jobs in middle-income ones.

Socio-economic progress is modest and but foundation is wobbly. Africa cannot afford to rest on its laurels. There is more work to do!


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