Creative Commons

Sunday, January 26, 2014

We Can Do Better When We Are Less Unequal

Over a decade ago I met a young man named Francis in a little village in Emuhaya, in what is now Vihiga County. Two things about his story struck me. Francis was eleven years old and in class three, with 85 other children about his age.

The world’s richest people, who share a combined wealth of about $1.7 trillion – nearly double Africa’s 2012 GDP estimate – could be crammed into Francis’ class. These 85 men and women, according to an Oxfam report released last week, control as much wealth as the combined wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion people in the world.

The Oxfam report, Working for the Few: Political capture and economic inequality, suggests that massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of a few is a critical threat to inclusive political and economic systems. The report warns that the inequality is impacting social stability and threatening security on a global scale.

Rising economic inequality is the most urgent challenge of our time. In reference to the immense inequality and the rich-poor divide in South Africa Arch Bishop Tutu said, “we have come a long way, but this will go up in flames”. President of African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, has argued that if we ignore the dangers of wealth disparities the consequences will be far more distressing than a few sleepless nights for the wealthy. I have argued in this column that the staggering income inequality in Kenya could append social upheaval, exacerbate violent crime, stymie economic growth, corrupt politics and undermine our fragile democracy.

In his Apostolic Exhortation released in November 2013, Pope Francis wrote; “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world”. Rising economic inequality, despite unprecedented growth, especially in the global south is the most urgent challenge of our time.

Achieving inclusive growth was one of the nine programme sub-pillars of the 2014 World Economic Forum. This year, in a message delivered to world’s business, political and civil society elite gathered in Davos, the Pope noted that while economic prosperity yielded remarkable poverty reduction, it often led to widespread social exclusion. Pope Francis urged the global elite to draw upon the great human and moral resources and to tackle inequality with determination and far-sightedness.

That inequality was high on the Davos 2014 agenda is heartening. However, Davos is an embodiment of a self-interested global oligarchy. They can achieve little beyond eloquent and impassioned appeals. Global advocacy is necessary but tackling inequality demands dogged local action. Kenya’s bewildering inequality must occupy the center of our social policy debate. This debate has failed to gain traction. The scale and depth of inequality in our society is an inconvenient truth, especially among the privileged middle class and the wealthy business, political and academic elite. But we can do better when we are less unequal.

Last year, Society for International Development released a report Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling apart or pooling together? This report provides a petrifying account of the anatomy of Kenya’s inequality, driven mainly by extractive political and economic institutions. After reading this report, I concluded that ours is a tale of three countries: the obscenely rich country; the gasping lower to middle-income country, teetering on the precipice; and, the miserably poor country.

I imagined that the report would generate a dispassionate debate, given that the evidence behind it was drawn from the 2009 population and housing census. But there was no debate. Instead we got a discordant quartet; an activist, gotcha civil society, self-interested academic mercenaries, a caustic governing elite beholden to their own facts and a befuddled public.

At the age of 17, before completing primary school, Francis dropped out of his class of 85. He is now employed as motorcycle taxi (bodaboda) rider in Luanda Market in Vihiga County. There are hundreds of thousands of children like Francis who belong to the “lost generation”, excluded from promise of Kenya’s growth and prosperity.

Investing in our children is our best chance to break the vicious cycle of poverty and inequality. We must prioritize investment in high quality education and good teachers, social protection through conditional cash transfers, equitable access to finance, vocational training and skills development, support for rural agriculture and infrastructure and provision of health services. We owe it to Francis and his children. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sound Education, Key to Building Democratic and Inclusive Society

Our exam-centric education system has turned our school into grade factories. The only thing we value is a grade. In the mindless pursuit of grades we have murdered the soul of education, defiled the wondrous creative instincts of our children. Our schools have become graveyards of creativity and innovation.

Reading to the nation the names of top KCPE candidates does not teach modesty. It reinforces an attitude of preening and self-idolatry among adolescents. Moreover, holding aloft top students in celebration is in my view absurd. Granted, we must honor stellar achievers, but hoisting them in front of television cameras is national veneration of grades. As I listened to one of the so-called top KCPE candidates talk about the “secrets” of their success, I wondered what we had turned our children into. The hubris was horrifying.

Passing through Kenya’s public school curriculum is a gruesome process of protracted death to the creative self. The national curriculum offers too little of playful curiosity and creative discovery, which is the nature of our species. In my experience schools that offer the national curriculum are a strange organism – one-third penitentiary, one-third military camp and one-third monastery. 

The red-hot currency of our education is rote learning and regurgitation of facts. It does not matter whether the student can argue a position or express their ignorance or skepticism through precise questions. Teachers regard students and parents as clients or consumers who demand value for money. And that value, sadly, is high grades.

Rote learning has crowded out space for fostering curiosity, discovery and collaborative co-creation of knowledge. Students enter university without a capacity for critical thinking and problem solving. They enter university as combatants, ready to fight another battle for grades.

I longed to go to university, in the illusion that professors were committed to nurturing an intellectual culture and a life of the mind. But the self-importance and arrogance of the professors was hugely disempowering. Most of my professors, just like my primary and high school teachers, were imperious. Once a professor asked me why I was not taking the notes he was dictating to the class. I looked up at him and said that I was waiting for him say something that he had not copied from the course textbook. He was unamused.  Like Shylock, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the professor demanded his pound of flesh – his notes – in the end of semester examination.

A majority of students graduating from Kenyan schools and colleges have a horrifying deficit in complex reasoning, framing questions and problem solving. Moreover, our education system leads us to believe that the best child or student or employee or citizen is the one who does not question but parrots back “widely accepted or politically correct feedback”. Our graduates lack the Knowledge, skills and attitudes to fill and create jobs in the new globalized knowledge based economy. As young citizens, they lack a sense of community, civic duty and public ethics.

Our curricular and pedagogical practices offer uncanny insights into the Kenyan character, and especially our disdain for debate, lack of respect for others and impunity. How we are educated explains our winner take-it-all attitude and the belief that our competitors are enemies to be vanquished and humiliated. It explains the pettiness of our politics and the zero-sum ethnic calculus underlies the contemptible ethnic divisions, which determine allocation of national resources.

A democratic and prosperous society depends on honest, if discomfiting debate. Fleeing from our inconvenient history under the cowardly guise of “moving on” in the interest of peace and development is like noticing a bottomless crater in your backyard and covering it with a fig leaf, hoping that your children will not disappear into it.

A culture of debate and constructive questioning is vital to building a democratic and inclusive society. Our liberty does not depend on the largesse of political leaders and appointed acolytes. It is inherent in constitutional rights and obligations bestowed on a vigilant citizenry who question and speak truth to power. How we educate our children is critical to preserving our liberty, fostering prosperity and equality.

Ms. Lydia Nzomo, the director of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development has outlined plans to overhaul the school curriculum. We must seize this opportunity to develop adaptive curricula and pedagogical practices that foster in our children play, problem solving, creativity, innovation, debate, civic duty and ethics. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Kenya needs an antipoverty policy

In 1963 Jomo Kenyatta set as national goals the eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease. But five decades later 46 percent of Kenyans live below the poverty line, most of them hungry, unemployed and often die from preventable diseases.

Wealth inequalities in Kenya are bewildering. The wealthiest urban households spend 691 times more than the poorest urban households. The gap in educational attainment between middle income and poor Kenyan children is at an all time high. 82 percent of the population in Turkana Country is illiterate, compared to just 11 percent in Nairobi County.

The poor are not just a statistic. They are fellow Kenyans: relatives, friends and neighbors.  The scale of poverty and the magnitude of inequality in Kenya is socially and politically unsustainable. Poverty in Kenya is a national disaster.

Poverty is defined in terms of assets or income or expenditure. But if you travel across this great country or walk our streets you quickly realize that poverty is far more complex. Poverty is a continuum of economic insecurity, a lack of opportunity, powerlessness and absence of choice. Poverty often undermines and chips away at the core of our humanity; hope and the dogged determination to strive and triumph.

In his book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits, C.K. Prahalad wondered why with all our managerial know-how and investment capacity we are unable to affect global poverty and disenfranchisement. But Jeff Sachs reassures us that a global movement to end poverty is taking shape.

There are two views about how poverty is created and transmitted. In the first view people are poor because of behavioral and cultural attributes. The poor are viewed as lazy, lacking in drive and focus, often unable to see and seize opportunities to advance. The poor lack education or skills and are held down bad choices. The poor are victims and perpetrators of poverty.

In the second view considers poverty as a structural phenomenon of a capitalist economy, which is rooted in the economic and political institutions of society. According to this view, the poor are the victims. How public resources for growth and productivity, such as schools, access to health care, water and sanitation, roads, credit, markets, skills and jobs are allocated determines the scale of poverty.

In their book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that extractive political and economic institutions lead to stagnation and poverty. Acemoglu and Robinson submit that extractive political and economic institutions concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a narrow elite, with no constraints on the exercise of this power, especially in the allocation of public resources for growth and productivity. Jeff Sachs was right when he observed that the ills the antipoverty movement must confront are powerful and deadly. 

Poverty is a syndrome characterized by a constellation of conditions that reinforce one another: not just failing schools, poor health, hunger and malnutrition, lack of clean water, poor housing or lack of personal drive but unemployment, low wages, poor roads, lack of markets, poor soils and degraded pasture resources. The conditions that create poverty transcend micro and macro levels. They are deep systemic problems in the structure and appropriation of political and economic power.

Speeches, party manifestos, vision statements and uncoordinated sectoral policies will not reduce poverty. Kenya needs an integrated antipoverty public policy.

The national government and the county governments, along with parliament, senate and the county assemblies must prioritize antipoverty policies. We must invest in the mechanisms that deliver equitable growth and high productivity. Targeted conditional cash transfers to poor mothers can improve child survival and educational achievement. We need growth models that create jobs, an education system, which prepares citizens, at all levels, for a competitive knowledge-based globalized economy.

Over 95 percent of poor Kenyans depend on smallholder agriculture. The best poverty and hunger antidote are policies that provide incentives for resource efficient climate and smart smallholder agricultural production linked to innovations for sustainable intensification, extension services, input credit, reliable public-private partnerships for value addition through agribusiness and marketing.  Not mega irrigation projects.

Moreover, policies to improve training and skill formation for youth, raising the minimum wage and employee benefits are more likely to be designed and implemented if professional associations and labor unions expend their immense political capital and agitate for enabling social protection legislation. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Africa's Youth and Rural Farmers Key to Inclusive Growth

Sub-Saharan Africa’s economies are growing at more than twice the pace of economies of any other region, except China. But Africa’s growth has produced less than a trickle of good fortune for hundreds of millions of Africans who cannot find work.

One in four Africans are hungry. Recent estimates show that the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased. Despite high GDP growth, hundreds of millions of Africans are hungry and malnourished. Between 2010 and 2012, the number of hungry Africans grew from 175 million to 239 million, with nearly 20 million added in the last few years.

In Kenya, it is estimated that less than 7 percent of the nearly 800,000 young people entering the job market annually can find decent wage paying jobs. Moreover, less than 15 percent of Kenya’s 14.3 million people in some form of employment are engaged in the modern, formal sector of the economy, i.e., agribusiness, services and industry.

In 2014, Kenya’s policymakers should make equitable economic growth and creation of high quality jobs for a major priority. To be successful, economic growth strategies and employment opportunities must be designed and calibrated to respond to Kenya’s unique circumstances; a youthful and a predominantly rural population.

Creating opportunity for the youth must begin with how we educate our children. Education in this country is a protracted process of university entrance. This is wrong. Our school system designates as failures too many creative and talented kids who do not enter university. But the irony is that college degrees are not worth much, especially in this economy. A majority of fresh graduates are “hustlers”. Moreover, potential employers think most of our college graduates are not work ready. 

We must re-think our education system and invest in high quality early childhood education, a primary school system that encourages and nurtures the creative instincts of children. We must discard the current system, which privileges memorization and regurgitation. Our secondary school system must lay the foundation for learning to learn. Vocational and tertiary education must produce problem solvers who are capable of complex reasoning, life long learners and creative innovators.

About 70 percent of Kenya’s population lives in rural areas. A majority of this population is self-employed smallholders engaged in subsistence crop production, fishing or pastoralism. Decades of underinvestment in research, extension, rural infrastructure, financial services, and weather information have led to inexorable decline in productivity and left a majority of Kenya’s rural population outside the mainstream economy. Consequently, agriculture’s share of GDP has declined from 88 percent in 1960 to 25 percent in 2012.

The minders of our economy are under the illusion that investing in legacy mega projects like massive irrigation, highways and railway lines alone will deliver sustainable and shared economic growth. Among policy makers in this government, just like the previous three the role of smallholder agriculture is nebulous and often misunderstood.

Agriculture is more than just crops and food. A one-dollar increase in exports of green coffee from Costa Rica generates an increase of USD1.18 in family income. In comparison, each dollar transferred to Costa Rican households produced only USD 0.99 of value added. Agriculture has considerable multiplier effect in the wider economy. A multiplier is a measure of the relationship between an initial increase in spending in one sector of the economy and the total increase in spending in all sectors of the economy, owing to the initial increase.

Recent studies cited by UNEP and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) show that a 1 percent increase in agricultural per-capita GDP has five times the impact on the poverty gap than the same increase in GDP in other sectors. Other studies have shown that for every 10 percent increase in farm yields, there was 7 percent reduction in poverty in Africa.

Studies have shown that agriculture promotes the inclusion of rural communities, especially the poorest. Agriculture has been identified as an important supplier of inputs and a generator of value added that plays a key role in the distribution of the income between urban and rural regions.

Youth unemployment and grinding rural poverty are the defining challenges of our time. Investing in the youth and rural farmers offers the best pathway to achieving inclusive and socially sustainable economic growth. Investing in our youth and rural development is smart economics. It is also a moral imperative.


Free sudoku by SudokuPuzz