Creative Commons

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Has a strong and free civil society outlived its usefulness?

The complex and often improbable task of national development must be a joint effort of public and private actors. In Africa civil society organizations (CSOs)– voluntary, not for profit organizations including foundations, trusts, development and rights based organizations – have played a key role in delivering fundamental improvements in human wellbeing.

CSOs have been reliable partners for Africa’s. But something strange is happening. Over the last decade, they have faced considerable risks and restrictions. New laws, which will constrain their programs and impact, are being enacted. And yes, some African governments have proposed to limit how much money CSOs can raise from foreign sources.

Has a strong and free civil society outlived its usefulness in Africa?

African leaders have characterized CSOs as unelected, unaccountable institutions beholden to elsewhere. Sections of Kenya’s media have warned that CSOs should not expect easy accommodation by governments if they act at the behest of foreigners. Robert Mugabe views civil society as the perpetrator in chief of a regime-change agenda. In Ethiopia, CSOs that receive more than 10 percent of operational revenue from foreign sources are barred from engaging in advocacy for human rights and civic education. At the African Union Assembly, African leaders have charged that before the International Criminal Court, resolutions by African sovereign nations are subservient to opinions of civil society activists.

The plight of Africa’s CSOs has striking similarities with China’s CSOs. In 2013 China’s Communist Party accused NGOs of cultivating “anti-China forces”. Fundraising activities for NGOs must go through Government Operated Non governmental Organizations. Hence government controls how much money NGOs receive. Moreover, control over foreign funding is very tight.

Four trends could explain why the relationship between CSOs and the African leaders is becoming complicated. One, Africa’s economic renaissance has bestowed upon its leaders a defiant “Africa can do” attitude. Africa’s pride and sovereignty assertions have become impudent. The late Meles Zenawi argued that Western societies evolved without external meddling and so should Ethiopia. President Kenyatta has cautioned that Africa must be vigilant against persistent machinations from outsiders who desire to control Africa’s destiny.

Second, the rise of China as a counterweight to the West and its economic influence in Africa has encouraged African leaders to characterize the West as an imperial exploiter crashing into pits of impoverishment, and as a world police crippled by shambolic domestic dysfunction. China has been very clear about not “meddling in” governance, stating that trade and commercial interests drive its foreign policy.

Third, strong civil society with a bottom up participatory, community driven, rights based development agenda is antithetical to big results, top down, mega infrastructure development ideology of most African countries.
Four, diminishing and undermining the legitimacy of civil society, viewed as a bastion of Western hegemony, is liberating and underlines Africa’s sovereignty. Civil society is easy prey for hawkish African leaders who thirst for affirmation.

However, clamp down on civic space is unhelpful. Moreover, it cannot be business as usual for CSOs. A more complex society; rapid urbanization, globalization, rising life expectancy, and the irrepressible rise of a new middle class means citizens will increasingly look beyond government and elected representatives to respond to social needs and influence policy-making. Government must realize that civil society possesses many qualities it lacks; innovative ideas, hard-won understanding of the challenges at the community level, and trust from the local community.

CSOs must win the hearts and minds of citizens. They must move beyond the petri dish model of development, which has no potential for scaling up or catalyzing large socio-economic transformation. Through their work in varied sectors and diverse communities, CSOs effort represents excellent “development experiments”, which could demonstrate evidence of what development interventions work, where and why. Such evidence would provide a reliable basis for fiscal or social policy framing and designing interventions.

Without a strong civil society: working in livelihood and social protection programs, levels of extreme poverty in Kenya could be higher than 40 percent; maternal and child mortality could be orders of magnitude higher; more children would be out of school; we would never have known the liberating power of village savings and loans on Africa’s women. CSOs must work together and share their story of transformation.

Civil society organizations must show impact, win the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens and to prove once again to government, that it is an invaluable partner in progress.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Africa will reap the future it sows for its children.

Is this Africa’s century? We are experiencing the most rapid economic expansion in more than half a century. But Africa’s future, its rise and sustained properity is inextricable bound to child-focused investment strategies.

The poorest 20 per cent of Africa’s children are twice as likely as the richest 20 per cent to be stunted due to poor nutrition and to die before their 5th birthday. This inequality extends beyond childhood. Those who survive will have have less years of schooling and earn signficantly less. It is unconsciuonable that in the 21st century the future of an African child is subject to the lottery of where she is born; whether her parents are educated, have a decent job and can afford nutritous food, provide decent shelter and pay for her health and education.

Today there are more stunted children in Africa than there were 20 years ago. Eradicating stunting in is a critical for equitable and inclusive development in Africa. Africa must harnes its demographic dividend –,enlist an army of healthy educated children; boys and girls; rich and poor, urban and rural, christian and muslim, disabled and not disabled – to deliver inclusive development and claim its place in the league table of middle income economies.  

The prevalence of stunting is Africa is estimated at about 36 per cent. Under-nutrition causes 45% of all child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa – 3.1 million deaths annually. Compared with normal children, stunted children: score 7 percent lower on math tests; are 19 percent less likely to read a simple sentence at age 8, and 12 percent less likely to write a simple sentence; and, are 13 percent less likely to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school.

The cost of Hunger study a joint initiative by the African Union Commission, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and World Food Program shows that stunted children achieve up to 1.2 years less in school education. Moreover, 7-16 per cent of grade repetitions are associated with stunting.

In a survey of 350,000 children in Kenya Uganda and Tanzania, Uwezo found that 2 out of every 3 children in grade 3 failed to pass basic tests in English, Kiswahili or numeracy set at the level of grade 2. More importantly, the study revealed that children from poor households perform worse at all ages. And, remember that children born in poor households are twice as likely as the richest 20 percent to be stunted. Circumstances of birth matter, and yes poor health outcomes and socio-economic wellbeing can be handed down from parent to progeny.

A majority of Africa’s children are raised in rural households, where livelihood is derived from subsistence agriculture or pastoralism, which are vulnerable to climate change. It is projected the impacts of climate change on agriculture and pastoral systems could cause the number of malnourished Africans to rise to from 132 million to 220 million by 2050.

Given the prevalence of stunting owing to poverty and malnutrition, millions of children are out of school and a majority of children entering pre-school and primary school have critical early-life growth failure, with adverse consequences on cognitive capacity.  Malnutrition, stunting and poor learning outcomes have far reaching consequences. According to the Cost of Hunger in Africa study, 40-67 per cent of the working population was stunted as children. Moreover, the annual cost associated with under nutrition ranges between 1.9 and 16.5 per cent of GDP in Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and Swaziland.

HIV/AIDS has a disproportionate impact on Africa. However, little attention has been paid to the psychosocial and economic effects of HIV/AIDS on Africa’s children. Half of the world’s population living with HIV/AIDS lives in Eastern and Southern Africa. The region has 48 per cent of the world’s new infections among adults and 55 per cent among children.  In 2011, 90 per cent of pregnant women with HIV/AIDS resided in Eastern and Southern Africa. Moreover, the region has 10.5 million children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

 The African Development Banks estimates the cost of closing Africa’s infrastructure gap at USD 360 billion, with significant investments required by 2020. But nobody knows the cost of closing the opportunity and flourishing gap for the African child. Stalked by hunger, malnutrition and disease, and staggered by poverty and lack of opportunity, the future of the Africa’s children is dire. 

Africa will reap the future it sows for its children.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nairobi traffic is tragedy of the commons

Where grazing is open, one would expect that every herder would strive to bring as many livestock as they can to the pastures. But this would only be possible, indefinitely if the number of herders and beast stay below the carrying capacity of the pasture resources.

As a rational, self-interested individual, each herder seeks to maximize their gain, adding livestock, hoping to maximize utility. At a certain herd density, livestock exceeds the carrying capacity of the commons. This is how American ecologist Garret Hardin described the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

About a month ago, pump prices of petroleum dropped. Today driving in Nairobi is an experience from hell. The traffic situation in Nairobi is a veritable tragedy of the commons. The automobile population has exceeded the carrying capacity of existing road infrastructure.

As a rational being, each car owner sought to take advantage of low gas prices, and to maximize their gain. But the use of a personal car has a positive and a negative consequence. On the positive side, the car owner enjoys the comfort and convenience of a personal car. The downside is the paralyzing immobility created by one more car on the road; a shared nightmare by all car owners.

If there is anyone out there, who still doubts that Nairobi needs an efficient mass transit system, the awful traffic gridlock and revolting immobility is your answer. Breathing nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile compounds and particulate matter is your is your answer. The needs of the commuting public can no longer be left in the hands of a band of ragtag mini van operators. Neither can it be left in the hands of self-interested, not so rational car owners. Moreover, the Nairobi County does not have the capacity to build and manage a mass transit system.

One thing is clear from the traffic fiasco. You cannot build enough roads to accommodate the whims of private car owners. Metropolitan roads must serve public, not private interests of suburban middle and wealthy classes. I have always argued that the more roads you build the more vehicle traffic you get. We must not invest more taxpayers’ money on road expansion if they don't expand mass transit capacity.

 In a sense the logic of the road as open commons has generated an unrelenting tragedy of gridlock and immobility. What shall we do? Here are some policy suggestions.

The first suggestion is to create express matatu lanes, recognize and privilege public transit, giving priority to matatus. The expectation here is that commuting time will be shorter on these express matatu lanes. The second suggestions is to introduce parking meters paid on the hour and convert 40 percent of public parking to recreational spaces and pedestrian walkways. This would be complemented by creating park and ride facilities within 10 kilometers from the CBD.  Nairobi county government could structure the park and ride facilities as public–private partnerships to make up for the 40 percent loss of parking revenues in the CBD. It would also make sense to introduce a congestion task for private cars transiting through the CBD.

 The third suggestion is to convert all major roads into Nairobi into toll or turnpike roads. These would include Thika super highway, Waiyaki road, Mombasa road, Langata road Ngong road, and Jogoo road. A 10-kilometer distance threshold from the CBD would be perfect. In future, toll roads should be part of agreements for build operate and transfer that could help mobilize private money for road infrastructure.

The fourth suggestion is to re-think urban planning and land use. The sprawling of Nairobi is unsustainable. We must encourage mixed residential and commercial use with the core of the city. City neighborhoods outside a radius of 10 kilometers from the CBD must be designated low density. This would reduce, significantly, the population of commuters into the city.

The fifth suggestion is do nothing and hope for two things; that something appeals to the conscience of the car owner to desist from driving to work, or that gas prices will rise again and make driving to work too costly for most car owners.

I am mindful that these policy suggestions are objectionable. But we must act. We cannot afford the senseless inefficiency wrought by partially rational self-interested car owners. And we cannot acquiesce in the abuse the commons that we call public roads.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Time to re-imagine the role of civil society

Africa’s civil society has a crisis of legitimacy. They are perceived as “unelected, unaccountable institutions that answer to elswhere”. In an editorial published Novermber 26, 2013, the Daily Nation observerd that “if some NGOs behave as if they are acting at the behest of foreigners, then they cannot expect easy accommodation by governments”.

However, the emergence of fundemental freedoms, especially the expansion of democratic space in post colonial Africa, is largely attributed to strong civil society organizations. Twenty five years later, civil society groups are linked to terror, radicalization of the youth and schemes to destabalize the state. Moreover, there is a growing trend among African states to constrain the ability of civil society organizations to access foreign funding.

The idea of civil society emerged in the eighteenth century Europe as philosophers and historians sought to come to terms with the capitalist modernity. The emerging market economy was perceived to be bursting the state’s integument of unbridled capitalist accumulation. Enlightenment thinkers believed that it was civil society, the pressure of its public opinion, which determined how free, efficient and honest a market would emerge.

Scottish thinker, Adam Fergerson, thought of civil society as an alternative both to the state of nature and the heightened individulism of capitalism. German philosopher Friedrich Hagel, argued that civil society needed to be balanced and ordered by the state, otherwise it be consumed by self interest and would not contribute to the common good. French political thinker Alexis De Tocqueville argued that volunteerism, a sense of community spirit and independent associational life as protections against the domination of society by state, was a counterbalance to keep the state effective and accountable.

The idea of civil society, rooted in the Elightenment, was forgotten and re-emerged in the 1980s, given contemporary relevance by Czech teachers, writers, and journalist, shipyard workers and the intellectuals of Poland’s Solidarity. Inside these covert institutions blossomed the liberating energies that led to fall of the Berlin Wall and fueled revolutions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania in 1989.

Inspired by De Tocqueville’s idea of civil society and emboldened by the triumph of civil rights moverments in Eastern Europe and the end of the cold war, Africa’s nascent civil society organizations enabled the emergence of democracy in the 1990s. However, it is now widely perceived that the civil society is in trouble with Africa’s political class. Prescriptive universalism, the idea that civil society in Africa is a good thing and must be nurtured is becoming increasingly doubtful.  

Is there a place for civil society in 21st Century Africa? If there is, what kind of civil society and for what purpose?
Africa in the 21st century is different, it is a new Africa: buoyed by the Africa rising narrative; entranced by sovereignty and a spirit of Africa can do; inspired by China’s economic model and its growing influence in Africa; a self-possessed African Union, exasperated by perceived selective persecution of Africa’s leaders by institutions like the International Criminal Court. Moreover, we must deal with the fact that civil society in Africa is dominated by a legion of development NGOs funded by foreign donors. These NGO are large transnational organizations, which are seen as institutions of transnational governmentality, and are capable of challenging state legitimacy and undermining national sovereignty.

A new Africa defines the perfect condition for the emergence of a new, uniquely African civil society. Strong African economies, with vehement sovereignty claims could enable the emergence of strong and legitimate states. This will cause expectations of the state to rise, with citizens demanding better health and education, economic equality, more accountable political leadership and transparent governance. Capable, homegrown civil society organizations must emerge as a counterbalance to keep the state effective and accountable.

A uniquely African civil society space must be a platform for mobilizing voluntary associations for public purpose. A uniquely African civil society space could be the guardian of the ‘national development ideology’. State capitalism or private sector driven models currently favored by African leaders could degenerate into autocratic populism unless Africa’s civil society is vigilant and engaged to entrench fundamental freedoms and rights, while ensuring equitable distribution of economic growth. Civil society must re-invent itself. It can’t be business as usual.    

Kenya’s Public Benefit Organizations Act recognizes the role of civil society in supporting socio-economic development, building social cohesion and promoting democracy. These must not be empty words.  


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