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Monday, May 26, 2014

Southeast Asia economic growth model relevant for Africa

Nigeria rebased its national accounts and doubled the size if its economy. With a GDP of $510 billion Nigeria soared past South Africa, which has a per capita GDP that is nearly three times larger. Similarly, Ghana rebased its national accounts in 2010 and expanded its GDP by 60 percent.
But Boko Haram rained on Nigeria’s parade, bringing into sharp focus the paralyzing incapacity of the Nigerian state. Moreover, GDP size is just a meaningless statistic for a vast majority of Nigerians when the country ranks 153 out of 187 in the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Youth unemployment has reached crisis proportion. In March, a stampede among jobseekers taking recruitment test at a stadium in Abuja left many dead and scores injured.
Following the example Ghana and Nigeria, Kenya plans to rebase its national accounts. It is important to rebase national accounts regularly to reflect the evolving structure of the economy. Although rebasing Kenya’s accounts could make it a middle-income economy, life for ordinary Kenyans will not get better merely because ours is a $50 billion economy. Despite having much lower GDP, Tanzania and Uganda have a lower proportion of their citizens living below the poverty line.
Achieving durable and equitable economic growth is the most urgent social and political challenge facing Africa today. Sub Saharan Africa is consistently the least successful region of the developing world when it comes to harnessing economic growth for poverty reduction. In contrast, rapid aggregate GDP growth in Southeast Asian has been accompanied by impressive poverty reduction. For instance, according to data published by UNDP 60 percent of Indonesia’s population lived below the poverty line in 1970. Today, according to government statistics, only 12 percent of Indonesians live below the poverty line.
The development trajectory of many Asian countries is viewed as a success, whereas that of many sub-Saharan African countries is considered a failure. But Africans are becoming increasingly impatient with the fact while GDP growth is soaring poverty remains unyielding. I have argued in this column before that Africa’s economies are growing on quick sand because we have not laid the foundation for inclusive, transformational and durable economic growth.
In his opening remarks at the, 50th Annual General Meeting of the African Development Bank Donald Kebaruka observed that Africa must advance beyond preening itself on high GDP growth and focus on economic transformation. Speaking at the same meeting World Bank Vice President Makhtar Diop observed that such annual meetings should be used for reflection on what must be done for the continent’s true emergence, with Africa’s people benefiting from shared growth.
Like Africa, most of Southeast Asian countries have a colonial history, during which period subsistence agriculture and export of raw commodities were the mainstay of the economy. I think we have much to learn from Southeast Asian countries. We have much to learn not just from their recent economic growth buttressed by rapid industrialization but also from the policy choices that caused their economic growth trajectory to diverge radically from Africa’s starting from the late 1970s.
A recent policy brief, Policy for development in Africa: Learning from Southeast Asia, published by Africa Power and Politics in collaboration with Tracking Development argues that while immensely critical, sound macro-economic management is not sufficient to deliver inclusive and transformative economic growth. The authors of the policy brief observe that inclusive growth and poverty alleviation depends on adoption of pro-poor policies and public investment aimed at agriculture and rural development, which raise the productivity and profitability of smallholder agriculture.
Smallholder agriculture supports the livelihoods of 80 percent of the Africa’s population, provides employment for about 75 percent of Africa’s largely rural population. Africa’s economies are not firing on the vital cylinder, small-scale agriculture. Limited public investment exacerbates rural poverty, food insecurity and inequality. Africa’s ubiquitous poverty and the stagnation of rural economies are easily explicable when you take into account the dire state of agriculture.
Africa’s soaring growth failed to lift millions out of poverty. The economic growth trajectory of Southeast Asia offers vital lessons for Africa. To achieve economic growth that drives industrialization and massive poverty reduction Africa must build vibrant rural economies through large public investment in smallholder agriculture. A Vibrant agriculture-led rural economy will reduce rural poverty, undergird political stability, encourage private saving and investment, stimulate domestic markets, and provide cheap, reliable food supply for urban-based industrial workers. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is Kenya ready for a super El Nino?

Recent data collected by climate scientists shows that conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean at the beginning of May 2014 were similar to those observed in May 1997, which was the last time the world witnessed one of the strongest El-Nino episodes.

El Nino events occur every 2–7 years and usually last for 12 to 18 months. Since 1997, the climate science community has improved their understanding of the nature, impact and predictability of the El Nino phenomenon. The socio-economic and even ecological impacts on of El Nino induced climate anomalies, such as droughts, floods and infectious disease outbreaks, often linger for a long time.

A paper published in Nature Climate Change by Wenju Cai of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) show that the number of El Nino events will stay pretty much the same but will be more intense and become more extreme or “super” El Ninos. The scientists warn that we should expect a higher frequency of devastating weather events, with severe implications for 21st Century climate. The fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) has shown that warming of the climate system is unequivocal with many of the observed changes unprecedented over decades to millennia.

Observed warming conditions have persuaded scientists to project almost a 70 percent chance that an El Nino will form in the next three months. Since the planet has warmed considerably since the last strong El Nino 17 years ago, it is highly likely that the 2014/2015 El Nino could be of the monster variety, with record shattering extreme rainfall in our part of the world.

To get a sense of the potential impact of the imminent 2014/2015 El Nino, it might help to remind us of the impacts of the 1997/1998 El Nino. Globally, the 1997/1998 El Nino claimed over 20,000 lives and caused damage to property and infrastructure estimated at $100 billion.

In Kenya, rainfall was 60 to 100-times heavier than normal. There was a large outbreak of the Rift Valley Fever (RVF) in northeastern Kenya. RVF is a viral disease transmitted by mosquitos, which affects humans and livestock. Pastoralists reported losing up to 70 percent of their livestock. Moreover, about 89,000 people were infected and 500 deaths were caused by hemorrhagic fever. The 1997/1998 El Nino also triggered an outbreak of malaria. Highland malaria was reported in West Pokot, Uasin Gishu, Kericho, Kisii, Nandi, Nyamira and Bomet. Unlike the coastal counties and the Lake Victoria basin, the populations who live in highlands generally lack immunity.

According newspaper reports, 2 million Kenyans were in need of emergency food aid by December 1997.  Across the country, 300,000 households were displaced due to flooding. Most of the victims were in Tana River, Nyakach, Nyando, Budalangi, Garissa and Mandera. Cholera outbreaks were reported in the Lake Victoria region, Mombasa and Nairobi. Professor Shem Wandiga of University of Nairobi and his colleagues have shown that El Nino events tiger aquatic conditions, which allow proliferation of Vibrio cholera, the bacterium that causes cholera.

El Nino rains of 1997/1998 gutted Kenya’s transport sector. It estimated that about 100,000 kilometers of rural and urban roads were destroyed, paralyzing transport and communication in many parts of the country. In January 1998, the Nairobi-Mombasa highway was closed indefinitely after a 30-kilometer stretch was damaged by flash floods. The cost of infrastructure damage was estimated at about $ 670 million.

Kenya’s maize production dropped from average of 2.2 million metric tons in to 1.83 million, a 20 percent reduction, tons following the 1997/1998 El Nino rains. Researchers have shown that the El Nino events can reduce maize yields by more than 4 percent. However, the worst effect of the El Nino was on the second season crops, grown in the bi-modal rainfall areas of western, central and eastern parts of Kenya.

The forecast for the 1997/1998 El Nino was received by June 1997 but the government, civil society and local communities failed to act. We can find perfectly legitimate reasons for failure. But we cannot afford to bungle the 2014/12015 El Nino, especially when we know that its impacts will make the last El Nino look like a cakewalk.  We must take immediate measures to manage its potential direct and indirect impacts.

Once bitten, twice shy. El Nino is a predictable natural disaster. It must not become a humanitarian disaster. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Kenya must address root cause of illicit alcohol

“She said she had lost her eyesight and then asked me whether I was truly her husband”. This is Mr. Muriithi’s account of his last moments with his wife Ann. Ann, a mother of two, is one of approximately 100 people who died after drinking a toxic batch of illicit moonshine thought to be laced with methanol, a neurotoxic.

Hundreds of people, including Muriithi, a potato trader in Embu, are still hospitalized and with various complications, and scores have been left blind. Silas who was offered a drink worth Sh25 by a friend is now blind. His wife Julia is praying that his eyesight is restored. She does not want to raise their two children by herself. At the Embu Provincial General Hospital, Susan, 26 walked from her bed in the women’s ward across to the men’s ward to console her husband Gachie, 33 who had lost his eyesight. In Kiambu, Wairimu is grieving the death of her husband and two sons, all of them construction workers.

People read different things from the killer brew tragedy. I see a government that failed to protect its citizens. I feel the pain and personal tragedy of the families and friends who have lost their loved ones. It is always a moment of deep national shame when television cameras follow victims to their hospital beds and expose the shambolic state of public health services. Tragedies such as this are a stark reminder of widening inequality and how unbridled greed by a few undermines the effectiveness of public institutions.

But two things worry me to the core. A majority of those killed, blinded or fighting for their lives are aged below 35, most of them raising families of their own. This speaks volumes about the state of our youth and the future of our country. Then there is the story of Kinyua, who earns Sh300 a day from his shoe care business and says he cannot afford any form of entertainment exceeding Sh80 a day. The social and economic circumstances of people like Kinyua, Muriithi, the potato trader and Wiarimu’s husband and two sons, underscore the plight of millions of Kenyans who are employed in the informal sector, which created over 80 percent of jobs in 2013.

Action has been decisive. Fifty-two public officials, including the head of the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) and the Anti-Counterfeit Agency have been interdicted. Furthermore, the government will charge manufactures and sellers of the illicit moonshine with murder. While this is unprecedented and laudable, it is inadequate. In my view such drastic administrative action detracts from the urgent systemic problems, both socio-economic and institutional, which privilege incompetence, reward corruption and widen inequality. Is there a credible strategy to institutionalize accountability in public service and create quality jobs that pay decent wages in the formal sector?

Executive outrage cannot tackle what looks like the norm in our society. In 2010 fourteen people died in Nairobi’s Kibera slum after drinking alcohol adulterated with methanol. In  2005, about 45 people died from drinking illegal alcohol. In 2000 137 people died in Nairobi after drinking alcohol laced with methanol. A further 500 people were hospitalized across the city, with some in a serious condition, and 20 people went blind. In 1998, Eighty-five people died after drinking liquor laced with methanol.

The World Health Organization estimates that about half of all the alcohol drunk in sub-Saharan Africa is produced illegally, with 85 percent of consumption in Kenya coming from the "unrecorded" market. Moreover, Kenya has more than 2,000 brands of illicit moonshine on the market. This is a staggering variance from the 38 alcoholic beverage manufacturers licensed by KRA in 2012.

Clearly, the production and consumption of hooch is pervasive. Moreover, we will never have sufficient law enforcement capacity to control Kenya’s thriving multimillion illicit moonshine industry, especially given the appetite for corruption in the police, provincial administration and the courts. Moreover, the popularity poisonous liquor has everything to do with low quality informal sector jobs.

Unless affordable and safe alcohol is available, the human catastrophe from the lucrative poisonous moonshine industry can only get worse. The government and alcoholic beverage companies must negotiate tax and other incentives to encourage the production of inexpensive and safe alcohol. More importantly, we must tighten regulation and intensify campaigns to encourage responsible consumption of alcohol. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Educational technology is great but good teachers are critical to effective learning

The idea that technology can revolutionize education is not new. A century ago American inventor and businessman, Thomas Edison, predicted that with the invention of the motion picture books would become obsolete in the classroom. However, the form and function of the classroom has been immutable in incredible ways. 
Is education yielding to technology? Schools around the world are gearing up in technology; computers, laptops, tablets, television, video games and cellphones. Kenya will not be left behind. The government has allocated Ksh17 billion in the 2014/2015 budget estimates to purchase laptops, train teachers, develop digital content and build computer labs. This is an incredible commitment, especially when more urgent challenges bedevil the education sector. The ministry of education argues that laptops in the classroom will address equity and education quality problems, and must be implemented at all costs.
Like with many of our social policy propositions, it is not clear to what extent Kenya’s laptop policy is based on research evidence, taking into account our context, curriculum content, the child and the teacher. Initial formulations of the laptop policy envisaged that laptops would be introduced in standard one. In the current budget laptops will be introduced in standard four. It is not clear how such determinations were made.
Experts have argued against introduction of computers into the classroom for children below the age of thirteen. Experts believe that in the early formative years – most of primary school – the goal is to foster social skills, creativity and problem solving that come with traditional peer interaction and play. In these formative years you do not want to stuff children with information. You want to light fires of curiosity, help children ask questions, understand and think about the world in the own way. 
Asked if and when a computer becomes useful in the classroom Lisa Guernsey, author of “Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child”, said it depends on how the teacher uses it. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, believes that old classroom model is outmoded and technology offers hope for more effective ways of teaching and learning.
A global consensus on the age at which technology is appropriate for learning is improbable. Such decisions will depend on national or subnational context, content, the child and the teacher. At the very least, the teacher must determine the answer to this question: how will technology help me engage with my students, or help them engage with each other and the subject matter more effectively?
With technology, education can be tailored to the learner’s needs. The revolutionary power of technology in education is the opportunity to move to a more adaptive learner-centered approach to education, a radical departure from a one-pace-fits-all, allowing each child to be taught at a different pace.
Technology also permits a flipped classroom, a pedagogical model where the typical teaching and student homework elements of a course are reversed. In the flipped classroom tasks are created and delivered to the learner through video, podcast, text and slides made available online or via tablet/laptop so the student or student groups can work on them on their own. Classroom sessions become transformed into spaces for active learning and student engagement, encouraging problem solving and collaboration. The teacher moves up the value chain, providing personalized attention, as a coach or guide on the side, to students who require remedial help.
Kenya’s narrow obsession with the laptop is worrying because we risk missing out on integrated technology options. Such integration would include high-speed 4G mobile networks, tablets, smartphones, capacity to handle big data, gaming and adaptive-learning software. Moreover, innovations like Khan Academy are going global with robust tools for students and teachers. For instance, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim has signed an agreement of cooperation to allow students, teachers, and scholars in Mexico to get access to education and training courses by translating them into Spanish. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation education arm, Amplify, demonstrates that game-based learning using video games can improve learning within instructional settings.
No amount of technology can replace teachers. Technology will not improve learning if we do not invest in good teachers. Technology can only enhance instructional effectiveness, deepening the exploration and discovery among learners. However, enhancement of pedagogy by technology can only occur through excellent teachers who are motivated to use and explore educational technology on their own. 


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