Creative Commons

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Time is right for reform in our education system

Ambition is a universal feeling. To paraphrase French thinker Alex de Tocqueville, the idea of progress comes naturally into each man’s mind and the desire to rise burns in every heart. In a merit-based society, education and fair assessment and certification is by far the most credible means to achieve ones desire to rise.

The 2015 KCPE examinations results will be released this week. As always, it will be attended by a high fever of expectation by students, parents and schools. It will be about praise for students who score the highest marks. It will be a moment of supreme pride for the parents of the top students. It will be a supreme marketing moment for the schools that emerge in the top quartile. Examination results are serious business, literally and figuratively.

We could debate ad nauseam whether the last year’s KCPE and KCSE were a fair, unbiased, credible assessment. So much was said about the credibility of the 2015 national examinations. There is therefore little necessity at this point to write at length and critically about them.

I hold the view that examinations, to the extent that they demand regurgitation of content of the syllabus, are a shameful waste of pubic resources and an insult to the value of learning and knowledge application. Suffice it to say, Richard Siele, my headmaster at Maseno School always reminded us that examinations were a necessary evil.

Of the 1,463,269 students who took the national standardized tests in 2015, 937,467 students sat KCPE. A majority of these children are smart and ambitious. They dream of going into law, engineering, education, medicine and accounting. Some of them imagine building their own companies or going into politics or becoming religious leaders. These children imagined that the examinations were a fair, unbiased, right of passage through which their efforts would curve out their dreams in a merit-based, competitive society.

Yes, we must celebrate the amazing boys and girls who have done well. But the 2015 KCPE results must force a very different kind of conversation. This conversation must go beyond which student or school, public or private, is up or down and how many children will get into the so-called national schools and how many students will miss form one places. In my view we need a robust debate to help shape fundamentally, how we educate our children for a world that is radically different from what we inherited from our forebears.

I have said in this column many times, and I will say it again. In a competitive globalized knowledge economy, a high school education must be the birthright of every Kenyan child, not a privilege of the few. Hence a selective system for determining who proceeds into high school is both antiquated and unconscionable. All 937,467 who sate KCPE must enjoy the right to acquire a high school education.

KCPE should be abolished. The transition from primary to high school must not be through a national examination, it must be through ordinary grade progression just like moving from pre-school to primary school. Every child must have within their local neighborhood a public school with all the necessary resources, including teachers, to offer high quality education from pre-school to end of high school. We can argue on the margins about how they will be governed and so forth.

Our exam-centric education system, from pre-school to postgraduate level, produces unthinking; uncritical and robotic individuals unfit for the knowledge-based workplace. We are still educating for the Industrial Age.  What is the value of an education system predicated on a syllabus burdened with subject matter content and delivered through rote learning? We live in era where we have access to an entire universe of knowledge at our fingertips through cellphones, tablets and computers.

Moreover, the challenges we face in the 21st century demand a capacity for critical thinking, analytical reasoning, creativity and the ability to process and critically evaluate data and information. It is time to reform our education system, focusing on application of knowledge, mastery of relevant skills, while cultivating positive values, especially ethics and integrity.

Three factors converge to make fundamental reform in our education system feasible; a new Cabinet Secretary, progressive leadership at Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development and the demands of a competitive, globalized knowledge economy.  Our children deserve better.

I wish you good health and much happiness in 2016!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Involve youth in the fight against corruption

Kenya’s median age is estimated at 19 years. About 80 percent of Kenya’s population is below 35 years old. Hence, we are a very youthful society. The future of our country, and indeed its best years are in the years ahead and lie in the hands of our young men and women.

However, that future is not out there, to be designed, made and bestowed upon us. The future will be determined by how we bring up our children today. Fundamentally, the future will determined by how we educate our children; their values, ethics, what their understand to constitute success and the enterprise; how we nurture and harness their creative drive and orientation to innovation.

Besides the struggle for independence, the fight against corruption is perhaps the most consequential war of liberation of our time. This in my view is the definitive struggle to set free the body and soul of our country. Roaring corruption along with impunity and greed has held this country in bondage for over half a century. Corruption is pervasive and ruined our judicial system, the police, education, politics, business, public service and even churches.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has launched the most spirited and sustained campaign against corruption. While the focus on public servants and leaders of the private sector is both significant and necessary, the war against corruption must be broadened and deepened. We must take the anti-corruption crusade into our schools, colleges and universities. The youth of this country must be at the vanguard of this war.

The youth must be at the forefront of the anti-corruption effort because a survey commissioned by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University reveals a staggering deficit of integrity among Kenyan youth. For example, 50 percent believe it does not matter how one makes money as long as one does not go to jail. About 35 percent would take or give a bribe. Only 40 percent strongly believe it is important to pay taxes on earned income. Approximately half of the youth surveyed would vote for a candidate who paid them a bribe. More than 70 percent are afraid of standing up for what is right for fear of retribution.

Moreover, 48 percent are entrepreneurial and would like to own and run their own business, compared to only 26 percent who would settle for paid employment in the traditional professional fields of law medicine, teaching, accounting and engineering.

Furthermore, 77 percent of the youth believe Kenya will be richer materially, offering better access to quality education, healthcare, and more jobs for the youth. Another 67 percent believe our society will reward merit and hard work.

However, I find it hard to imagine that the entrepreneurial dreams of our children will flourish when they lack integrity, are willing to pay or receive a bribe, and will do anything to make money. I find it hard to believe that a future that is prosperous and offers more jobs, high quality education and improved access to health is even thinkable in a society drenched in impunity, greed and corruption.

The youth must support President Kenyatta in spearheading this novel effort. It is in the interest of the youth to join this fight because their dreams about a future that “offers better access to quality education, healthcare, and more jobs for the youth” will be undermined by a youthful population that gives or takes bribes, won’t pay taxes and is afraid to stand up for justice.

I believe that how we educate and mentor our children, from pre-school to university, must be a critical plank among other initiatives to: i) to prepare young people for the future, nurturing and channeling their creativity and innovation and supporting their desire to build and own their own enterprises; ii) inculcate the values of ethics and integrity, adherence to the rule of law and civic responsibility.

I believe there is a great opportunity now, as we think about education reforms to think creatively about how education can be vehicle for imparting sound moral and ethical values to the youth. But we must ensure that the issues of ethics and integrity, how to build and just and fair society are not just taught as subjects to be examined but are presented as imperatives for citizenship.

We must save this country for the future, its children. Happy holidays!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Agreement to curb global warming historic but weak

Last week was intense. The atmosphere of hope over COP21 meetings in Paris, a couple of days in Mombasa working with a supremely creative local performance group on our Young Cities initiative, and then a former British colony celebrated 52 years since independence.

Like many Kenyans celebrated Kenya@52. And how I wish we could all truly love our country, denounce greed and corruption and jettison from narrow ethnic calculus. This country can be great but such greatness must be built on the backs of selfless individuals who ask not what they can reap, but what they must sow.

Energy is at the heart of the global climate crisis. What is needed is a robust and binding commitment by all countries to shift from the use of oil, coal and gas, which supplies 80 percent of global energy needs, to the use of renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydro. However, such a transition would require huge breakthroughs in technology and major investments in infrastructure. Moreover, the expectation of developing countries is that developed countries pay for their energy transition through direct spending or through inexpensive transfer of technology. 

COP21 started on a promising note. The United States and 19 other countries pledged to double their spending over five years to support clean energy research. Led by Bill Gates, 28 private investors, including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, pledged money to help build private businesses based on publicly funded clean energy research.

The promising, cooperative start of COP21was short lived. It was depressing to see hubris and ego of nations on display in the final days of the COP21 meeting in Paris. China led the so-called developing world in pressing for the continuation of the current two tier system where obligations to cut back carbon emissions or a shift to clean energy must be shouldered by the so-called developed countries.

On December 12, 2015, after 13 days of negotiations, diplomats issued a final draft of a climate change agreement in Paris. If adopted, the agreement would set an ambitious goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.

However, the agreement does not mandate how much each country must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. But it establishes a bottom-up system in which each country sets its own goal, “intended nationally determined contributions”, (INDC) and communicates plans to achieve that objective. While it is commendable that many countries including Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania actually submitted their INDC before COP21, greater emission reduction pledges will be required hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

I think Article 4 paragraph 1 of the Paris Agreement is pretty tepid in mandating an end date to greenhouse emissions for developing countries, which include the world’s foremost polluters such as China and India. The agreement requires that “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties”. Such wording waters down, significantly, the stated goal to cut greenhouse emission and slow global warming. Moreover, it is hard to see how the requirement to update pledges made in nationally determined contributions every five years after 2020 will be enforced.

The scientific community is skeptical about how the Paris Agreement will achieve the goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research based in Britain believes that the Paris Agreement is not consistent with the science and is between dangerous and deadly for the most vulnerable nations of the world. Former NASA scientist James Hansen has described the agreement as a fraud.

It is shameful that world leaders have shown no interest in making hard choices to de-carbonize the global economy. The Paris Agreement was the easy thing to do because a legally binding agreement would pose international resistance from developing countries. Moreover a binding agreement would face stiff domestic political challenges in the United States.

Paris was a missed opportunity. The narrow imperatives of economic growth triumphed. As Naomi Klein said, the climate change movement has yet to find its moral voice on the world stage.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Perspectives of youth should inform urban development

Our transformation into an urban civilization is now more than halfway done, and irreversible. Globally, more than 3.5 billion people live in a city or a town. With an urban population of 26 percent Kenya is one of the least urbanized countries in the world.

However, we all feel the pulsating surge of urbanization. Our cities and towns are bursting at the seams. Mobility is strangulated by traffic gridlock. The squalor and indignity of slums rob a majority of our children of the joy of urban nativity. Life on the streets for pedestrians and all those who would seek leisure and in the outdoors is made improbable by a lack of decent pedestrian walkways and poisoned air. Moreover, our cities don’t work for children, senior citizens and the disabled. Pedestrian walkways are riddled with open storm pits, and its tough to get into a Matatu if you are little, elderly or disabled.

In the soaring and dense tenement neighborhoods of Eastleigh, Zimmerman, Huruma, Rongai, Umoja, Parklands, Kawangware, Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Zimmerman, our children are denied open spaces and city authorities turn a blind eye to a lack of public services. Provision of water and sanitation services is ephemeral. As Pope Francis warned urbanization can be fraught with dreadful injustice. Dreadful injustice because the elite anaesthetized by hubris, greed and power inflict misery upon the majority and then device solutions that amount indifference and mere containment.

Everyday, I wonder if anybody cares whether our cities are livable for the majority of Kenyans. Every so often I ask myself if anybody is in charge or answerable. I think about what the so-called privileged think every time they cause fellow citizens to run perilously across the streets because the automobile has right of way. What do the few who drive think when they empty the filthy waters of road puddles onto unsuspecting pedestrians?

Urbanism can be beautiful. Urbanism can joyful and hopeful. Urbanization must be just and equitable. Urbanism must be joyous, extending hope and opportunity and a right to equal opportunity for girls and women. Urbanism must fulfill, for the majority the unyielding desire of all of mankind – decent lodging and dignified work.  

Last Saturday, through its Youthful Cities initiative the East African Institute in collaboration with K–Youth Media, which works with youth from the urban slums of Nairobi and Aga Khan Academy Nairobi, organized an immensely uplifting digital photo exhibition.

The exhibition was an invitation to Nairobi’s youth to take and submit photographs that represent their urban experience; living, working and leisure. The pictures ranged from the built environment (streets and residential spaces), sports and recreation, the environment, art and culture, education and opportunity.

The sobering convergence of two factors, rapid, unprecedented urbanization, and the fact that about 80 percent of our population is aged below 35 years motivated the exhibition. It is seldom that two consequential forces converge at the same epoch and at the same place.

At the exhibition, these young, amateur photographers were invited to say what the pictures meant to them. The narratives were impassioned, brilliant, insightful and packed with resolve and agency. I have never been more hopeful about our future and the promise of urbanism.

The winning photograph, out of 22 submissions, was by Lewis Muruiki from K-Youth Media. In this picture, taken against the backdrop of Korogocho slums, a handful of girls are playing soccer, some barefoot. The field is bare earth, fortunately not yet grabbed. Lewis’ picture was motivated by young women unbowed by the circumstance of birth demonstrating teamwork, respectful competition, and willingness to play by the rules. These are qualities that are an anathema in public life, especially among the privileged few.

The second best photograph was by Michelle Kamunyo from Aga Khan Academy Nairobi. Michelle’s was a provoking image of unspeakable filth, which chokes one of the tributaries of Nairobi River in the so-called upmarket neighborhood of Riverside. For Michelle, it was not about what the government can do, but what young people like her must do; from boycotting polythene, to mobilizing a clean up and having a dialogue on responsible stewardship among riverine communities.

The views and perspectives of the youth must inform the governance, management, planning of urban development. The historic opportunity is unprecedented. We can and must build cities the serve the needs of the majority of urban residents – the youth.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Let’s act on Pope Francis’ message

Seven years ago, President-elect Barack Obama proclaimed that a new dawn of American leadership was at hand. He promised to defeat those who would tear the world down, slow down the sea level rise and heal our planet.

But seven years later: the world is stunned by the sordid brutality of ISIS; our planet is on a firm path to a 2 degree Celsius temperature rise; unbridled materialism is on the march; amidst unprecedented global prosperity, inclusive and shared prosperity remains a mirage. Seven years later, individuals, societies and nations are adrift, from whence cometh leadership.

The convergence of grave global challenges and a dearth of leadership are both astounding and perilous. Against modern Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – global warming, material greed and corruption, poverty and inequality and prejudice – we are feeble.

Global leadership is both short and feeble. In my lifetime, albeit short, I have seen very few men and women on the global stage who speak with profound authority and moral clarity on the grave challenges that face our world, both now and in the long future. The Bishop of Rome is one such man.

Pope Francis was here last week. His moral clarity authority was awesome. In his Homily at University of Nairobi, he urged the youth to strive to build a society that is more just and inclusive, and to reject everything that leads to prejudice. When the Pope spoke with religious leaders, he was unequivocal about the place of interreligious dialogue as an essential antidote for a world wounded by prejudice, conflict and division.

At the United Nations in Gigiri, Pope Francis was mindful that the world is converging in Paris to “rethink and correct the dysfunction and distortions of the current model of economic development”, occasioned by profligate consumption of fossil fuels. The Pope also drew attention to rapid urbanization characterized by “ disproportionate and unruly growth of cities”, which breeds  “increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, a lack of rootedness and social anonymity”.

While visiting the slum Parish of Kangemi, Pope Francis called for renewed attention to the dreadful injustice of urban exclusion and cautioned against solutions that amount to “indifference and mere containment”. In the Pope’s view, the social and environmental debt owed to the inhabitants of slums such as Kangemi can be paid by honoring their scared right to land, lodging and labor, not as a matter of charity or philanthropy but as a solemn duty.

The Pope characterized the squalid conditions of slums as “wounds” inflicted by minorities “anaesthetized by unbridled consumption”. Pope Francis also used the occasion of his visit at Kangemi to denounce faceless “private developers” who hoard areas of land and even attempt to appropriate the playgrounds of our children.

On the last day of his visit, the Pope likened corruption and bribery to sugar and urged the youth not to develop a taste for corruption. This was pertinent because a survey commissioned by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University, which will be released shortly revealed a worrying deficit of integrity among the youth: 35 percent of the youth would easily take or give a bribe; 47 percent admire those who get rich by hook or crook, (including hustling); 30 percent believe corruption is profitable; only 40 percent strongly believe it is important to pay taxes; 40 percent of likely youth voters would vote for the candidate who bribes them.

Ahead of the Pope’s visit President Kenyatta declared corruption a national security threat and laid a raft of legal and administrative measures to fight graft, which has become an acceptable way of life in our society. And President Kenyatta sought a new addition in his arsenal against corruption, divine power.

In his welcoming remarks, Mr. Kenyatta said to the Pope, “I ask you to pray for me so I can lead the war against corruption and other vices”. And I say this to President Kenyatta, with the Pope’s prayers and blessings, with the indomitable resolve and good will from your fellow citizens, and with the powers vested upon you by the constitution, you can make unbridled corruption history, yes you can.

Pope Francis embodies immense moral clarity and rectitude, at a time when our civilization is buffeted by materialism, prejudice and a clash of ignorance, corruption, poverty and inequality. We should emulate his leadership.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Africa Rising narrative is a shameful appeasement

Once upon a time, emaciated children, conflict, military coups, poverty and disease dominated the media image of Africa. Rapid GDP growth, expansion of infrastructure, bulging consumer class and a vault of opportunity for investors are the new accentuations in Africa’s meteoric makeover.

Africa has metamorphosed from a “scar on the conscience of the world”, in Tony Blair’s words, to a great vault of opportunity. This is Africa Rising. However, there has been very little critical reflection, especially among African scholars, on the Africa Rising saga. Similarly, in the desolate days of hopeless continent narrative, African scholars offered very little intellectual reflection.

Historically, Africa has been spectacularly at ease with outsiders defining and framing its problems and destiny. For example, there is a pervasive belief that in the 21st century, an Asian style Green Revolution might solve Africa’s chronic low farm productivity. Moreover, Africa is awash with development NGOs who believe that small, isolated short-term projects could make a dent on household poverty and put whole communities on a solid path of durable socio-economic transformation.

Africa Rising is inextricably linked to the sudden appearance of emerging economies, especially China, whose histrionic eruption of belated industrialization has fuelled an unprecedented surge in global demand for commodities. China’s appetite for Africa’s raw materials, as well as the dramatic surge of foreign direct investment in Africa has had the singular effect of orchestrating a new scramble for Africa among developed countries and corporate leaders. Essentially, China’s engagement with Africa affirms that the continent is a new and viable opportunity for global capital to invest and reap.

Africa Rising is a shameful reproduction of the old, problematic order; Africa’s lop-sided reliance on exporting raw commodities and importing manufactured products. This is the extraordinary tragedy of Africa Rising. And just like in the past, Africa’s political and business elite has a solemn obligation to preside over the production of a surplus to be appropriated voracious global capital.

Africa Rising is really about GDP growth that is overwhelmingly buoyed by expansionary fiscal policies, commodity booms, flow of foreign capital, and massive aid flows in the case of Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Moreover, while Africa’s GDP growth at 4.5 percent is impressive at face value, it is too feeble to produce durable and inclusive growth. The continent needs to grow at 7 percent for the next 20 to 30 years to register meaningful wellbeing improvements.

Alongside with the Africa Rising narrative, there has been a mistaken belief that China and the emergence of BRICS would somehow challenge free market ideology, and hopefully usher the redistribution of economic power. On the contrary, China is instituting neoliberal economic policies to re-balance its economy and stimulate domestic rather than export driven growth. I think the entry of the BRICS merely serves to diversify dependency.

Africa Rising has not been accompanied with requisite structural transformation, which I characterize as an expansion of industrial activity, diversification and value addition of export products, and shift of labor from low productivity to high productivity sectors. Moreover, the dominance of cheap manufactured imports from places like China and India will entrench Africa on an irredeemable path of de-industrialization. But there is no doubt that the exuberant eruption of China has given Africa’s political elite some space for manoeuvre.

For example, Kenya has advanced a Look East policy as an attempt to cultivate deep economic and strategic relations with China and checkmate the West.  Let me make this very clear. Africa must be very clear-eyed when dealing with China. China and the so-called BRICS, just like everybody else are self-interested and exploitative. Our engagement with the West and China is within the old logic of division of labor, production or supply of primary commodities and import of cheap manufactured products.

Africa’s progress must not be measured by rising GDP growth or exports or higher level GDP per capita owing to expansionary fiscal policies. Africa’s progress must not be fuelled by a whimsical mood swing by outside pundits. Africa’s progress must be built, brick by brick, by raising industrial output, sophisticated exports, and deployment of Africa’s huge reservoir of young people in high labor productivity sectors, away from street vending, operating motorcycle taxis and manual farm labor.

Given the scale of development changes the continent faces, the Africa Rising narrative is an appeasement that serves the interests of the global political economy and Africa’s extractive political elite.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

We must act with fierce urgency to halt global warming

Global terrorism remains one of the foremost challenges of our time. In an evil, barbaric attack last Friday, Islamic State militants struck a concert hall, a stadium, restaurants and bars in Paris. One hundred and twenty-nine people died, and about 350 were wounded, some critically. The world is united in grief. Our hearts bleed with the French.

In two weeks, Paris will be the focus of another urgent global challenge. The world will descend upon Paris to talk about climate change. The conference of parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change is the largest ritual of global waffle. This 21st conference is unlikely to be different. This is despite the fact that dangerous warming is on the march and time is running out.

Dangerous global warming, owing to the rapid accumulation of greenhouses gases, is linked to our dependence and addiction to fossil fuels. Moreover, carbon emissions are strongly correlated with economic growth. The worlds most advanced economies are also the worst polluters. China and the United States of America lead the pack of the countries that foul our atmosphere the most.

The positive association between economic output and greenhouse gas emissions has caused governments in the developing world to argue that aggressive measures to curb emissions would undermine growth and prosperity targets. In a sense, every nation feels entitled to pollute its way to prosperity. Here in Africa, we imagine that our share of carbon emissions is negligible. Hence, the burden of responsibility for action to curb emissions and slow down global warming lies with the industrial West and the advanced economies of Asia.

At every successive conference of parties, Africans have argued that they are the victims of the adverse impacts of global warming caused mostly by developed and middle-income economies. Africans have argued that they are inordinately exposed and hence significantly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

For nearly 25 years, we have known that urgent action was needed to forestall green house gas emissions and prevent damaging and irreversible impacts on ecosystems, economies and societies. But we have failed to take any urgent measures to enable a global shift to a low carbon economy. Governments and dominant policy makers are not convinced that there is such a thing as a low carbon, green growth pathway.

Policy wonks and politicians in developed and developing countries often argue that aggressive action to curb greenhouse gases will have devastating consequences on economic growth, jobs, and poverty alleviation. This in my view is bunk; grade “A” idiocy. On the contrary, if we don’t act now the full and complex impact of climate change could wipe out up to 20 percent of global GDP annually.

Experts have warned that we are firmly on the path to a 40 C warmer planet characterized by extreme weather, unprecedented sea level rise, disease, declining global food stocks, unprecedented extinctions and loss of biodiversity and associated ecosystem services. As we go to Paris, we must remind ourselves that even though the possibility of a globally binding agreement is remote, the stakes are high and time is running out.

It is hard to imagine an orderly, peaceful world that is 40 C warmer. In Africa, hungry and infirm citizens pouring out on the streets, starving refugees waiting cross borders and raging conflicts over resources, especially water and pasture will push the world into irredeemable turmoil. Major cities like New York, Vancouver, Hong Kong, and Dar es Salaam could be washed off the face of the earth. Brutal summer heat waves will kill hundreds of millions especially in Europe, North America and Asia. Moreover, the complex feedback effects of a warmer planet are unthinkable.

We are on the precipice of Armageddon. We must give up our addiction to carbon. This 21st Conference of Parties must be different. We all must act, individually and collectively to restore our planet on path of sustainable growth. Our addiction to carbon has pushed the planet to a calamitous tipping point.

What is wrong with us? Perhaps the threat of catastrophic climate change is not immediate or concrete. I think The Day After Tomorrow is here! What is stopping individuals, nations and the global community from acting with fierce urgency to redeem the world from a path of imminent peril? A green growth path, with low to zero carbon emission, is no longer an option.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Its time to make real "Africa Rising"

“After decades of slow growth, Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia”. With these bold words in 2011, the influential Economist Magazine declared that Africa was rising, surging under its own wings.

In the decade before 2011, six of the world’s ten most vibrant economies were from the continent. In the same decade, African economies grew more rapidly than Asian economies, especially those in East Asia. A band of Afro-optimists, hugely evangelical about the fact this was Africa’s century, burst forth on the global discourse square.

African leaders acquired a swagger. A continent once blighted by poverty and disease was now home to hundreds of millions of consumers. Africa was the new frontier. Everyone, nations like China, India as well globally significant corporations were falling over themselves in the new scramble for the wallets and resources of Africans.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) would not be left behind in the race to hype Africa’s new growth and optimism narrative. In a study conducted in 20011, the AfDB proclaimed that Africa’s middle class was a whooping 350 million (or 34 percent of Africa’s population), nearly the size of the US population. This was of course incredibly overstated and grossly misleading. In 2014, the Standard Bank Group provided a more realistic estimate, of just 15 million middle-income households in 11 African countries.

A handful of African scholars and public intellectuals cautioned that the foundation of Africa’s growth was too feeble to support strong, inclusive and enduring growth. But as always, the voices of African intellectuals is often ignored, drowned or scorned by African governments or dominant establishment Western knowledge brokers. We all drank the Africa Rising Kool-Aid.

Despite a decade long economic boom, the structural transformation of African economies is yet to get off the block. The rural economy, which supports a vast majority of the population, is on its knees; starved of knowledge, technology, inputs, markets, and infrastructure.

The tailwind of commodity price boom and a benign global financial environment (global liquidity), which fueled huge public spending on infrastructure and consumer spending, is weakening. A gale-force headwind has begun to pummel a majority of African economies.

Africa’s expansionary policy has not been a tool for managing business-cycle contraction. On the contrary, ballooning public debt and profligate public spending, especially on infrastructure, has been a growth strategy. It is no wonder that debt continues to mount in countries like Ghana, Malawi, Zambia and Kenya. The list of countries, which face the risk of debt distress, is growing furiously.

Moreover, Africa has failed to harness the demographic dividend. Africa’s large youth population is malnourished, poorly educated and lack skills. In many African countries, youth unemployment is about 55 percent. With unemployment rate of about 62 percent among women, Africa’s labor markets are unfavorable for young women. If Africa’s slips into a sustained stagnation the implications on social and political stability, in a continent where the youth comprise nearly 70 percent of the population could be dreadfully dire.
Weak labor participation by women undermines the hope for demographic transition. Investments in human capital, including health care, education, and especially the integration of women in labor market, are fundamental at the initial stage to speed up the transition, improve the productivity of the workforce, and increase the magnitude of the potential of a veritable dividend.

The Africa rising narrative reminds me of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. As the story goes, excited by freedom young Icarus flew high to salute the sun. He forgot that his gigantic wings were held by wax. His wings melted and he fell into the sea and drowned.

There is some growth. But poverty endures for the vast majority of Africans. Launching on a firm path of growth and following in the footsteps of Asia will not happen just because of exuberant endorsement by Western journalists. Nor will it happen just because of flattering, cherry picked growth statistics by the Bretton Woods Institutions.

I believe in Africa and its people. Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia. Africa has a real chance to harness the demographic dividend, achieve a demographic transition and launch on a firm path of strong, enduring, inclusive and transformative economic growth. But Africa’s rise must be built from the bottom up, by the people and for the people of Africa.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Africa must lead effort on Climate Change at CoP 21

Climate change describes larger than normal variability in weather and climate parameters, especially rainfall and temperature. Global warming is a feature of climate change around which much debate and controversy has been generated by critics and cynics.

For some in the west, the existence of winters, some blistering, is sufficient evidence that climate change and global warming is ridiculous. But here in out part of the world, as in most of the global south, there is no room for debate. We know from the projections of climate change impacts as well as from everyday experience that Africa will bear the brunt of climate change.

Here in Africa, climate change will reduce yields of most staple foods, especially grains and tuber crops. Lower grain yields and food price spikes could lead to a 20 per cent rise in malnutrition among African children. Variable rainfall patterns are likely to constrain fresh water supply, compromising hygiene and increasing the risk of water-borne diseases, which kill over one  million children under five years of age. Climate change is creating the perfect storm, with pandemics invigorated by warmer climate, water scarcity, hunger and malnutrition, poverty and changes in disease vector ecology.

The cost of responding to climate change impacts will be steep. According to WHO, the direct cost to health, excluding costs in agriculture, water and sanitation, is projected to reach $2-4 billion annually by 2030. The World Bank estimates that $75 billion will be needed annually to deal with the impacts of climate change such as tropical diseases, decline in agricultural productivity and damage to infrastructure owing to sea-level rise.

Evidently, the cost adaptation or mitigation, are well beyond the budgetary capacity of most African governments. It is easy to say we did not foul the atmosphere and argue that responsibility must be common but differentiated to account for the fact that the industrial west and China must cut emissions and meet the cost of adaptation and mitigation.

Such arguments are sensible and compelling but also simplistic and irresponsible. Here is a simple illustration to make the point. Your kids are asleep in the house. Your neighbor deliberately or inadvertently starts a fire in his compound and all you do is yell out at him from your backyard to come into your house, which smoldering, and put off the fire. It is because of such arguments that we have been stuck with the Kyoto Protocol for over 20 years, as the planet got warmer.

Climate change is an existential threat to “Our Common Future”, which requires much greater responsibility at individual, community, national and global levels to return our planet on a path of equitable and sustainable development. This is not the time to engage in philosophical or moral debates about who is the greater or lesser polluter. This moment calls for urgent and aggressive action by not just individuals or nations but by all citizens of the world and all nations.

Africa has a choice. Do we yell from our backyard, haranguing the west and China, as hundreds of millions of Africans face misery and death from more severe and frequent drought, floods, hunger, disease and war over dwindling farmland, pasture and water?

Africa must go to CoP21 with a set of realistic and actionable proposals or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), which underscore a sense of duty to the fierce urgency of now. We cannot afford to wait on the west or China to finance the cost of mitigation or adaptation for us.

Africa must show through its development policy priorities that we are committed to achieving a low carbon and climate resilient development. Kenya’s Climate Change Bill 2014 provides a legal and institutional framework for mitigation and adaption to the effects of climate change; coordination mechanism for formulation of programs and plans to enhance the resilience of human and ecological systems against the impacts of climate change.

Moreover, Kenya’s green growth plans are exemplified by investments in in geothermal energy generation, promotion of solar lanterns and establishment of a sub-national adaptation fund (County Climate Change Fund). Adequate and sustained budgetary and institutional resources must be made available to support these plans.

Most importantly,  we all have a moral obligation as citizens of the world to act responsibly and preserve the planet for posterity. CoP21 must be about what you and I can do curb global warming.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Now is the time to scrap KCPE and KCSE

Kenya is facing a veritable crisis of integrity. Not one facet of our lives is untouched; the police, the courts, the civil society, the executive and legislative bodies. Even private business, including banks have not been spared.

That the public institutions named above are mired in varying levels of sleaze, some unspeakable is not divine revelation. What in my view is disconcerting is that the decay of morality and integrity has spread to what I think are hallowed places; faith based organizations and the education system.

Fundamental values that define functional and progressive societies are often instilled through public education. These include, honesty, generosity, reciprocity, self-reflection, dignity, honor and patriotism. Through education we learn the value of service to others. Through education we learn to sacrifice to achieve cherished goals. Through education we encounter first hand the association between honest hard work and success.

Assessments, diagnostic, formative and summative, have served the noble purpose of providing both the learner and the teacher with a fairly objective basis for evaluating progress in mastery of requisite knowledge, skills and attitudes. The essential logic of assessments is that in the end, teaching and learning must produce proficiency or mastery. Failure is not a permissible outcome.

Today the noble aims of assessments or examinations have been subverted. Education is now just about examinations. What happens in our schools is not education. Our schools are obsessed with examination grades. Parents demand high grades. Teachers crave high mean grades. Headteachers derive prestige, high enrollment and revenue from high grades.

A high-stakes exam-centric education has turned schools into grade factories. Our school buildings, in my view are mausoleums, containing the remains of education. We have defiled the creative proclivity of our children and murdered the soul of education. Parents and teachers want high grades from students by hook or by crook.

This year we have witnessed leakage and cheating in the KCSE examinations on an unprecedented scale. The government has labored to provide assurances and defend the credibility of examinations. Public confidence in the 2015 KCSE is irredeemable lost. I am sure the students and teachers who gave their all, through sacrifice and honest hard work, feel deceived. 

An exam-centric education system is at the heart of the leakage, cheating and the corruption in public education. Grades are king. Grades are up for sale. There is lots of money to be made. In a society where ethics and morals and integrity are threadbare, we have no trepidation about how we make money. Money to “feed their children” is an offer most public officials find impossible to refuse. For up to Ksh. 2000 for a paper, a lot of public officials could feed their children. And many teachers and parents will have their dancing shoes on when the results are announced early 2016.

I think the rampant and shameless leakage and cheating in the national examinations offers an new impetus for urgent reform in our education. An essential part of the reform must include abolishing high-stakes standardized national examinations; KCPE and KCSE. What we need is a system of seamless transition from primary to secondary schools. A high school education must be a birth right of every Kenyan child, unconstrained by a terminal examination.

Similarly, transition to post-secondary institutions – polytechnic, college or univiersity­­­ – should be determined by an admission process designed by such institutions. Continuous assessment records over four years in secondary school could in my view, provide a more reliable measure of a students ability, compared  to the current standardized test that is riddled with malfeasance. 

I offer some ideas to motivate debate: i) replace current content heavy curriculum with a problem-based approach to learning to encourage critical thinking, analytical reasoning and discovery; ii) assess learning through multiple ways, including school-based formative assessments and student portfolios; iii) promote knowledge application and reflective practice at all levels through service learning.  

I believe now is the time to abandon high-stakes standardized examinations, which are evidently corrupt and questionable. I believe the time is right to broaden the methods of assessing learning to evaluate more comprehensively, the multiple purposes of education.

Calling for the resignation or sacking of KNEC officials or the CS for Education misses the point. We must have the courage to scrap national standardized examinations, re-claim the soul of education and emancipate our children to learn. It is the right thing to do.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Strong institutions key to avoiding the resource curse

Prominent development theorists of the 1960s believed that abundance of natural resources would lead inevitably to industrial “takeoff” in developing countries, just as they had done for countries like Australia, Botswana and Canada.

However, the co-occurrence of deplorable human development outcomes and poor governance among resource rich countries has undermined the earlier conclusions about the positive association between resource abundance and economic growth. The experience from countries like Nigeria, South Sudan and DR Congo suggest that natural wealth increases the likelihood of negative economic, social and political performance. 

Africa’s experience with extractive resources, hydrocarbons, timber and mineral ore is mixed. Abundant resource wealth has existed side by side with grotesque poverty and squalor in countries like Angola, DR Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Zambia. It is estimated that about 70 percent of people living in extreme poverty are in resource-driven economies, with a significant number in Africa. Furthermore, almost 80 percent of countries whose economies driven by extractive resources have per capita income levels below the global average and nearly half of these countries are not catching up.

The co-existence of odious poverty and immense natural resource wealth, also known as the “resource curse”, is well documented by leading economists. For example Jeffery Sachs and colleagues examined a diverse set of resource rich economies between 1970 and 1989 and showed that there was a negative correlation between resource abundance and economic growth. Other studies have also shown that per capita incomes of resource-poor countries grew three times faster than resource rich countries. Today, Africa’s fastest growing economies e.g., Rwanda and Ethiopia are not resource dependent.

Several explanations have been advanced to explain the resource curse. Receipts from resources often cause significant rise in the value of local currency, crowding out other export activities or making them uncompetitive. Moreover, volatile revenues from the extractive resources are difficult to manage. Public spending is often increased on a whim, and rational fiscal policies and public investment thrown out the window.

Invariably, in periods of resource booms, governments borrow with abandon, spending money on obscenely wasteful projects, often drenched with corruption. This was the story of Nigeria until the gravy train crashed to a halt at the end of the oil boom of 1986. Moreover, resource wealth creates political incentives by raising the value of acquiring and retaining power.

With the exception of Botswana and South Africa Africa’s has not reaped the full benefits of its vast resources. Africa’s dismal record with extractives is especially disconcerting when you consider that vast resources, especially oil and gas have been discovered in Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania.

According to McKinsey Global Institute, a cumulative investment flow between $1.2 trillion and $3 trillion in the extractive sector is possible in low-income and lower-middle-income countries by 2030. This is equivalent to about $170 billion a year, more than three times development aid flows to these countries in 2011. Such levels of investment flows could potentially lift 540 million people out of poverty as well as financing the delivery of a host of SDGs by 2030.

There is credible evidence to show that countries with institutions that promote good governance and accountability tend to draw equitable economic dividends. It is certainly not the case that politicians and their constituencies don’t know that resource wealth can be harnessed to drive equitable and durable economic prosperity.

Can the hydrocarbon bonanza in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania yield a curse or generate socio-economic bliss? In their book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power and Prosperity, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson demonstrate that political institutions and incentives they create determine whether nations prosper or remain poverty traps.

We are still a long way from pulling oil or gas out of the ground here in East Africa. However, the policy, legal and institutional mechanisms that have been created or are under discussion inspire little confidence that we will escape the resource curse.

Africa is on the cusp of what must be a new and prosperous age of extractives. Africa must turn the page on the resource curse and open a new chapter, defined by an era of resource-driven equitable economic prosperity.

Without downplaying the contribution of resource booms and bursts, political institutions contribute hugely to the resource curse phenomenon. Hence, whether extractive resources drive equitable socio-economic development depends entirely on Africa’s people and the quality of institutions they build.


Free sudoku by SudokuPuzz