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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Good politics can halt tide of inequality

According to a recent report by Oxfam, the richest eighty-five people in the world, including Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and Aliko Dangote, own more wealth than the 3.5 billion people who constitute the poorest half of the world’s population.

I have argued here before that rising income and wealth inequality is the most urgent challenge of our time. In his Apostolic Exhortation 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”.

Karl Marx argued that the dynamics of private capital accumulation inevitably leads to the concentration of wealth in ever few hands. A century later, Simon Kuznets advanced the Kuznets curve, arguing that as countries developed incomes first increased, peaked and then decreased. These two polar opposite views demarcated the ideological fault line between socialism and capitalism, hence defining policy and political discourse on wealth distribution and inequality.

Here are some numbers to illustrate the dire and ever-growing gulf between the rich and the rest in Kenya. About 10 percent of Kenya’s wealthiest households control 42 percent of the total income, while the poorest 10 percent control just 1 percent. Over 64 percent of Kenya’s population lives on Ksh. 7200 or less per month. Moreover, about 80% of students in our public universities come from families of Kenya’s middle class; parents who own businesses or have a wage income, which constitutes less than 20 percent of the workforce or about 5 percent of the population. We know the achievement gap between rural and urban schools and between public and private schools. Could this be the beginning of an era where inheritance inevitably confers elite status?

The stock response we use in Kenya to blunt the inequality conversation is that raising national GDP is a higher order priority. In a sense the political class and the policy bureaucrats want us to believe that we are too engaged in the construction and production of the future to be bogged down with the untidy reality of how the gains from such growth is distributed. This is an exceedingly tenuous proposition.

In societies such as ours, wealth inequality at the levels we see today could have irreversible consequences on social cohesion, politics, security, justice, law and order. We know that unbridled wealth in few hands leads inevitably to concentration of power and the emergence of an oligarchy, which pauses a grave danger to state, political and civic institutions. We understand that unemployed youth are easy prey for networks of terrorism and organized crime such as poaching, narcotics and human trafficking.

Princeton professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has argued that intimidated by class warfare, politicians have avoided making a major issue of the expanding gap between the rich and the rest. The policy and growth models, as well as the toxic politics of the past half-century have created the present, with all its contradictions. And hence, we must be preoccupied with dealing with the inequality today.

Thomas Picketty, a French professor of economics, has written a book described as one of the watershed books in economic thinking and a magnificent, sweeping meditation on inequality. Some believe that the book, Capital in the twenty-first century, could change the way we think about the past two hundred year of economic history. Picketty shows that inequality rises during periods when the rate of return on capital is higher than the rate of economic growth, which he refers to as the “central contradiction of capitalism”.

The book offers what amounts to a unified theory of inequality, which can help redefine the terms of a debate paralyzed by ideology and constrain all positions to data driven, evidence-based scrutiny. This ultimately, is the role public intellectuals must play. As a young economist, untainted by the physics envy of the 20th century economists, Picketty could rescue his discipline from the aridity of mathematical abstraction and return it to the richer model of political economy pursued by the best economist of the 19th century.

Wealth equality is not the inescapable byproduct economic development. Wealth inequality is a result of broken politics. Politics matters because at its very core, it is tangible. Politics is about distribution; who gets what, where and when. Good politics can be an effective antidote for inequality. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Agriculture is Africa’s best bet for jobs and prosperity

Cereal yields in Africa are less than 50 percent of those in Asia or South America. FAO estimates that one in five Africans is undernourished. Malnutrition, as measured by stunting affects nearly 40 percent of children in Africa. Moreover, Africa will need to feed an additional 900 million people by 2050.

Agriculture supports the livelihoods of 80 percent of the African population, provides employment for about 75 percent but contributes less than 15 percent of GDP. For Africa, sustainable and equitable growth is inextricably bound to agriculture. Africa’s ubiquitous poverty and economic decline becomes easily explicable when you take into account the dire state of agriculture.

Hunger, malnutrition, disease and poverty present formidable barriers to Africa’s productivity, growth and prosperity. According to President Museveni, malnutrition impairs educational achievements, undermines economic productivity and places a huge burden on Uganda’s fragile public health system. The African Development Bank (AfDB) recognizes that Agriculture is vital to promoting growth and reducing poverty in Africa.

As an African scholar and public intellectual, I am scandalized and my pride is deeply wounded by the unending specter of hunger and malnutrition. It is shameful, beyond measure or pardon, that fifty years with Africans at the helm, little progress has been made to guarantee every African child sufficient and nutritious food. I am sure there is enough blame to go round; the UN system and the multi-billion dollar international aid honchos are not innocent.

But, ultimately, the burden of responsibility must rest with people like me, Africa’s intellectual elite. Stagnation of agriculture has been the defining feature of Africa’s economic policy over the last four decades. Spending in agricultural research and development by African countries declined by 27 percent between 1981 and 2000. Conversely, spending in agricultural research and development rose by 30 percent in rest of the developing world; Asia and Latin America.

Egged by experts the African Union, through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), has set a growth target of 6% per annum for agriculture and encourages every country to allocate 10 percent of the national budget to agriculture. CAADP called for $251 billion to fund investments in irrigation, infrastructure, education and markets. Today, less than handful countries allocate 10 percent of their national budget to agriculture and critical investments in agricultural research and development lag behind other developing regions.

Like all areas, which are critical to Africa’s development such as education, energy, biodiversity conservation and the extractive sector, experts have besieged agriculture. Africa is drowning in advisors. Invariably, the overabundance of external advisors diminishes the cachet of local experts. As Bill Easterly argues in his new book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economist, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, the appeal of technocratic ideas persists beyond overt racism and colonialism.

Africa has been through a multitude of expert-led technical solutions but hunger still persists. Evidently, agriculture is not a vaccine. You cannot have a breakthrough in Boston and roll it out in Vihiga. Ultimately, African universities and national research systems must engage, define the problems and offer appropriate solutions. But one fundamental question remains, can African scholars or their institutions deliver the research and development breakthroughs that have eluded agriculture for more than half a century? And is government and private sector ready to put their money where their mouth is?

Africa has a large and growing population of young people. Where will young Africans currently entering the labor force find employment? Africa has the lion’s share of the world’s arable land. Agriculture is uniquely positioned to absorb this young and dynamic workforce. Africa’s youth dividend will not be credited automatically into the national treasury. We can harness the youth dividend by accelerating the transformative change in agriculture.

African governments and their expert advisors must wake up. There is no such thing as a dual economy in which agriculture is a passive actor – a low productivity supplier of food and a subordinate driver of national growth and economic transformation. Agriculture is the real driver of Africa’s economic growth. There will be no transition to China-style labor-intensive manufacturing until agriculture is productive, efficient and profitable.

Our path to middle income and economic prosperity must be different. Africa must shun technical advisors  beholden to the antiquated linear growth models – from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to industrial to service and knowledge. Our research and academic community must re-imagine our unique path to prosperity. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lay foundation now for youth employment

Those aged below thirty years today have the highest levels of education of any generation in Kenya’s history. However, less than 7 percent of nearly one million young adults who enter the job market can find work in the formal economy.

Unemployment, especially among our young compatriots, is the defining socio-economic and political challenge of time. It is ironic that we are confronted with unprecedented levels of unemployment despite impressive GDP growth over the last decade. We are witnessing a steep rise in long-term unemployment among young adults. Moreover, a growing number of young college leavers are dropping off the job market to start off on their own, as entrepreneurs.

Two weeks ago Industrialization Secretary Adan Mohamed said the government had no record of new jobs created. He observed that 8 out 10 jobs were created by small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and that the government was working to provide an enabling environment for SMEs to create jobs. Mr. Mohamed recognizes that the government has not created jobs and it is not the purpose of government to create jobs.

Our education system does very little to prepare graduates for the work place. Our exam centric education is obsessed with curriculum and pays little attention to the attributes employers care about, such as critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, creativity, communication and teamwork.

We must review our curriculum, from Kindergarten to graduate programs, to respond to the needs of the 21st century. In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink imagines a post knowledge-based economy where the economy demands workers who are adept in the attributes associated with the right brain: design; story; symphony, empathy, play and meaning.

The fitness of our education system must be judged by its capacity educate for an unknown future. Hence, we must pay more attention to helping students learn how to learn and critically engage with data and knowledge. This implies a radical departure from our didactic approach to education, which privileges learning by rote and mindless regurgitation. Such an approach would challenge the professors’ hubris of omniscience and ignite stiff resistance from the professoriate.

Basic education must focus on numeracy and literacy as well as nurturing creativity, teamwork, ethics, pluralism and citizenship. While the university must not be degraded to a vocational facility, it must pay attention to the vocational needs of graduates. It is possible to produce work-ready graduates with sufficient intellectual depth and inclination to a life of the mind.

There is need for partnership between tertiary institutions and industry to enhance skill formation and employability of graduates. Co-operative education programs can help achieve this. Co-operative education is a structured way of learning, which combines in-class learning with periods of work. Students gain work experience in their field of study, while earning credits that count toward their graduation. Such programs could also foster closer collaboration between industry and the academy, ensuring that degree programs are relevant to the labor market.

Agriculture can create millions of jobs. We need a movement for farmers of the future to interest and attract youth across the country to farming. Working with tertiary education, banks, agribusiness and institutions like Amiran Kenya to provide credit, know-how, modern technology and markets we can make agriculture profitable, sustainable and attractive to the youth.

We must align education and skills to the needs of the economy. The boom in construction sector will be hampered by the chronic shortage of technicians and craftsmen. The unprecedented expansion of higher education is constrained by inadequate supply of academics. The public sector faces an acute shortage of doctors nurses, teachers and policemen. Moreover, we do not have enough qualified engineers and technicians to drive our ambitious industrialization goals.

We can take immediate measures to get young people into employment. Here is where we could to start:
1.     Provide subsidies or tax incentives, tied to training and skill formation, to companies that hire young job seekers;
2.     National and county governments should create temporary positions for young job seekers with little or no work market experience in those sectors to provide unemployed youth with some initial job experience.

Even under optimistic growth scenarios it will take many years to provide large numbers of high quality jobs for the youth. Ultimately, we must to make less protracted the transition from school to work and accelerate job creation. The time to begin is now. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Innovations that will truly transform education

“Flipping It” and Changing Classrooms
Who would’ve thought that a short video of a high school teacher giving a lecture on subject-verb agreements could get 60,000 hits?
Yet, it’s entirely conceivable that this statistic signals the first in an educational revolution that will change the standard classroom forever. An increasing number of teachers are tapping into online videos of standard classroom lectures and “flipping it” for their students.
“Flipping it” has become the popular term to describe a new teaching technique in which students watch a lecture at home and do what is generally considered homework while in the classroom. A few schools around the country have begun experimenting with this method. They are singing the results.
Students say that they prefer watching lectures on their own time, and in their own way—a phone, a laptop on the bus, at home with their parents. While the use of classroom time to collaborate and engage with teachers or other students is getting rave results.
Teachers are either making their own videos, or tapping into a growing number of online lectures that other teachers have posted. It’s not hard to imagine how this idea could really take off. Not only would it free teachers from repeating the same lecture year after year, but it would also give students access to instruction from the top teachers around the world.
While colleges of education don’t yet seem to be training teachers on how to produce their own home-video lectures, many have become familiar with massive online open courses, or MOOCS, like those debuted by Harvard and MIT earlier this year. Several years ago, one school just north of Detroit, Clintondale High School, became the first school in the country to “flip” its entire curriculum. Others are following, and school principals at these schools say that they are hosting hundreds of visits a year by interested leaders in education. 
See original article

Monday, April 7, 2014

Views and hopes of youth must drive the futures agenda

The youth, persons aged between 18 and 35 years are now recognized as a category of human existence. Adults, politicians and policy wonks caricature the youth as heirs to the future.  

A dominant construct of the future is that it is unknown and out there. The future is not out there. Neither is it an unknowable, which unfolds inevitably. Every generation undertakes the active and deliberate vocation of constructing the future. The recipe for the future is often contained in the tangible and present moment, here and now.

Every generation, by its intentions, deeds or misdeeds, determine in the present the depth of squalor or opulence of those born or unborn. In the active and deliberate assembly of futures, the choices adults make matter. But the proclivities and acquiescence of those currently youthful are profoundly consequential, for they are custodians of a much longer part of the future.

Through the ages, adults have agonized about youth, characterizing them as a boon or curse. Moreover, experts believe that if young people have no stakes their society they may turn violent. At the launch of the Decade of Youth Action Plan at the 17th Africa Union Summit in 2011, African heads of state declared that unemployed youth are a threat to stability in Africa.

Youth is more complex than the limited adult characterizations as capital windfall or socio-political risk. Youth is new beginnings. Youth is self-reliance, hedonism and individual liberty. Youth is juice.

Youth is nimble and full of sport. Youth is about potential, promise and renewal Youth is about frontiers, novelty, challenging dogma and advancing the untested. Youth is about identity exploration, self-focus and self-reliance. Youth is about infinite possibilities and yet great uncertainty. Youth is unfazed, finds change exhilarating, not daunting. Youth is rash, unknowable.

Youth is experimenting, boundary testing, risk-taking. Youth is on the bleeding edge of popular culture, music, dance and fashion. Youth is on the vanguard of technology, enterprise, creativity and innovation. Youth is the voice of the future. Youth is about service, patriotism, peace and hope and compassion, our highest aspirations. But Youth is also delinquency, apathy, desperation and violence, the latent evil in all of us. End of youth is the eternal fear of the older generation.

Three portraits emerge from this characterization: resilience and adaptability; traditional aspirations of career, family and fulfillment; and angst and pessimism about the future. The portraits suggest the youth are acquiring values and attitudes they believe are demanded by society today, rather than what is necessary to thrive in the future they want. This makes more urgent the need to have the youth more actively engaged and participating in the present, defining and articulating their visions of preferred futures.


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