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Thursday, May 28, 2015

The true measure of Africa’s rise is the quality and capacity of its human resources

Few individuals, especially the so-called experts, really understand Africa. This is partly because there is not single comprehensible thing called Africa. Africa and the countries that comprise it is a colonial invention.

Africa is an immensely vast continent, historically and culturally complex. Africa is larger than the United States, China and Europe put together. Africa is about the same size as South America, Australia and India put together. Africa is truly confounding.

On May 11, 2000, a bunch of editors in sitting in London wrote off a continent. They wrote, “No one can blame Africans for the weather, but most of the continent's shortcomings owe less to acts of God than to acts of man. These acts are not exclusively African—brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere—but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them”. The Economist declared Africa “The Hopeless Continent”.

In the run-up to the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, this club of wealthy and powerful nations advocated for increased aid to Africa to catalyze growth. Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa report declared that Africa was a “scar on the conscience of the world”.

On March 2, 2013 The Economist wrote, “This special report will paint a picture at odds with Western images of Africa. War, famine and dictators have become rarer. People still struggle to make ends meet, just as they do in China and India”. The Economist editors picked up, dusted up Africa and proclaimed “Africa Rising”. And yes, African people were just like Chinese and Indians, normal.  And experts just don't get it.

What changed in just 12 years? How did Africa suddenly rise? Something just did not happen overnight or in one decade. The Economist was wrong in 2000. They did not understand Africa then, and they certainly don't understand Africa today. And the G8 was wrong too. Africa does not need simple solutions like aid.

Africa rose when it was written off, and the global agenda shifted to America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Africa rose because of the neglect and apathy of the international community. According to the World Bank growth in sub-Saharan Africa rose from 4.7 percent in 2013 to circa 5.2 percent in 2014.  Africa’s economic growth surged largely because of rising investments in natural resources, infrastructure and strong household spending; not foreign aid.

However, even after more than a decade of strong economic growth real and urgent challenges persist. Africa remains one of the most food-insecure parts of the world. More than 40 percent of Africa’s children are stunted. 30 million children in sub-Sharan Africa are out of school. Unemployment among Africa’s youth is over 50 percent and most of them lack employable skills. Women participation in paid labour remains low. Agricultural production is now just one-third of Asia's levels. Over 70 percent of Africa’s growing urban population do not have access to water and sanitation.

So who’s Africa is rising? The perpetual traffic gridlock in Africa’s major cities is evidence of a bulgding middle class, even though the definition of Africa’s middle class is not settled. The structure of Africa’s growth are revealing, and explain why there is no trickle down.

Agriculture and Africa’s rural economy are comatose yet over 75 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population are employed directly in this sector. Climate change and especially drought, poor soils, rising cost of inputs, lack of appropriate technology have contributed to the stagnation of Africa’s agricultural sector. The majority of Africa’s agricultural workers are women, who lack prperty rights, have no access to financial and extension services. Africa’s agriculture is yet to benefit from the demographid dividend because a majority of the unemployed and unskilled youth are attracted to off-farm opportunities.

To deepen the impressive GDP growth of the past decade, Africa must double its investment in  human capital, especially women and youth, and harness the vast potential of its agriculture. Africa can lead the world by leveraging its hugely successful ICT revolution to power a truly 21st century, smart African Green Revolution.

According to Obiageli Ezekwesili, Africa’s untapped potential is not its oil or gas or minreals or timber or soils. Africa’s untapped potential is its people. The true meausure of Africa’s rise is not GDP growth. The true measure of Africa’s rise is its human capacity and the opportunities it creates for women and youth.

Our universities must change to meet the needs of society

Hundreds of thousdands of young men and women graduate from our universities every year with a bachelor’s degree. To have made it this far in the education system, these young men are women are clearly the fittest of their peers. And they are the pride of their families, who also have great expectations of them.

However, these young men and women are often not so lucky. A vast majority of them end up, just like their friends who did not graduate from college, trying without much luck to find their place in the economy. Finding a job is even harder because according to a study conducted by the Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA) in collaboration with East Africa Business Council (EABC) about 56 percent of students graduating from East African universities lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market.

It would seem that this is not the right time to graduate from university. Many in our society now wonder if a university degree is even worth the paper it is printed on. Many recent graduate drift off and are underemployed, performing low-level tasks, which do not require a university degree. So is a bachelor’s degree worthless?  Absolutely not!           
I suggest that given the levels of unemployment among recent graduates, there is a wide and unconscionable gap between the skills the work place demands and the calibre of graduates we are churning out. Or are we expecting too much out of a bachelor’s degree? It seems to me that we demand both skills training and an academic specialization to be accomplished in three or four yearundergrauate program.

But university eduacation does not come cheap. A vast majority of parents across the EAC region spend a considerable proportion of their income and assets to send a daughter or a son to univeristy. Moreover, with meagre allowances, which is what students have, life is pretty tough on campus for undergraduates.
Universities must therefore be held accountable for quality or value for money, given the huge amount of tax payer dollars and family resources that go into educating our children. Why should unieverities continue to exist even when more than half of the the graduates they produce lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market?

Consider this, if a commercial airline company said to you that that their flight safety record was 40 percent or that their fatal crash record was 60 percent would you or your family fly with the airline? Or would the aviation authorities allow them to keep their license? It pretty simple. No one would need to fly with this airline because they would be out of business and have a battery of lawsuits against them and victims to compensate.

I have said here before that 19th century model model of higher education we are promoting today is outdated and out of sync with 21st century needs of both the student and the economy. Our university education model sets up a majority of our students to fail. How we teach, along  neat disciplinary fault lines, with an inordinate empahsis facts and content does not promote meaningful learning.

Our undergraduates have to read huge amounts of material memorise and regurgutate mountains of facts to pass exams. We demand nothing of their critical thinking or analytical or research or synthesis skills. And it gets worse in this day and age when there is too much information. Its no wonder that students often copy, plagiarise, huge amounts of undigested mnaterial from internet sources and paste on to their essays.

What is the future of university education in East Africa? I think it is pretty dreadful. The challenge of poor funding is understandable but not sufficient as an excuse for such deplorable quality. Our universities must change to meet the needs of our society.

Here are some questions to consider. Do we still need to invest scarce resources on content heavy curricular, which is delivered by a professor? What do students want to learn and how do they want to learn? What relationship can we build with potential employers to graduate work ready students? How can technology improve the qulity of learning while keeping the cost of highe reudcation low?

I don't have answers. But we change we must. Business as usual is not an option and universities must not be allowed to be self serving.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Achieving sustainable development must go beyond setting goals.

For more than 40 years we have talked about the sustainability of our life choices as a species. From 1972 in Stockholm to 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, we are yet to reach a consensus on concrete action to put our civilization on an even keel with our planet

In 1972 Donella Meadows and colleagues in their seminal book, The Limits to Growth, pleaded for profound technological, cultural and institutional change to avoid the increase of our ecological footprint beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity. Evidently we have not paid attention. Collectively, we have been long on rhetoric and short on concrete action to steer our planet and our civilization on a sustainable path.

The world’s population has grown from 3.84 billion in 1972 to 7.3 billion today. Globally, we lose about 23 hectares of arable land per minute. In 30 years we have seen the unraveling of the Green Revolution as soils turned saline, ground water has been depleted. As we opened up land for cities, farms and pastures we destroyed habitats and exterminated biodiversity and vital biodiversity collapsed. As we powered our homes and factories and moved goods and services we cast a cocktail of foul gases into the atmosphere our planet warmed and the oceans acidified.

In 1987 we formalized the definition of sustainable development, awakening the conscious of politicians and development aficionados to an evolving global crisis. But the world barely stirred in its slumber. The notion of sustainability became instantly divisive in an ideological sense; largely perceived as an assault on the broad and noble goals of accumulation for socio-economic development.

In 2002, Nobel Laureate and Chemist described our age as the Anthropocene; the age in which mankind posses a capacity to alter Earth processes on a scale hitherto assumed possible by earthquakes, volcanoes and glaciers. In 2009, a group of scientist warned that were pushing hard beyond the safe operating zone on vital life support systems. Johan Rockstrom and his colleagues added the notion of planetary boundaries to the global discourse on sustainability. For over decade before 2009, a group of interdisciplinary scholars under the auspices of the Resilience Alliance had argued for inclusion of transformation and renewal when talking about sustainable development.

The rise of China, economically, seems to have complicated the path to a global agreement on curbing green house gas emissions. China believes that it too, just like Europe, Japan and North America must burn dirty hydrocarbon fuels on its way to economic and social advancement. The US believes that cutting back emissions and leading the scientific and technological innovation to transition to green economy will somehow diminish its global power status. How ludicrous!

On global warming Africa is the victim here. Africa believes it is owed technology and loads of cash to adapt to climate change. What about Africa’s own budgetary resources? We know that grand theft and corruption has created thousands of odiously wealthy politicians and public servants. Do African universities have any role in driving innovations to cope and adapt to the local effects of climate change?

Moreover, Africa is to too poor to preserve its forests, wetlands, lakes and farmlands. The excuse usually is that we must destroy these resources just to eke out a living. We would like to believe that there is some kind of Environmental Kuznets Curve; that we must destroy and profit from nature, and create the wealth to then preserve nature. We are saying to nature there is no such thing as free lunch. This is Grade B tripe!

In the foreword to Jeffery Sachs’ new book, The Age of Sustainable Development, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon notes that poverty plagues mankind, climate change threatens livelihoods, conflicts are raging and inequality is widening. The Age of Sustainable Development is beckoning. Do we have the courage to hearken to the call?

We must do more that converge in New York in September 2015 to register commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We committed to the MDGs and 15 years down the road there is so little to show, except the need to agree on another set of global development goals. Can this time be different?

Sustainability must be more than goals nations commit to. It must reflect individual and collective understanding and respect for the inextricable connections between humans and nature and about equitable and inclusive socio-economic prosperity for all of mankind.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Youth bulge and urbanization key to Africa’s future

Urbanization and the unprecedented surge of a youthful population are re-defining Africa in irreversible ways. Hence, Africa’s future is inextricable bound to its youth and cities. The unresolved question however, is what kind of cities is Africa building and what does the future hold for Africa’s youth?

Africa’s youth are in the vanguard of what many economists and Afro-optimists have described as Africa Rising. In many ways what has characterized Africa rising is the surge of demand for goods and services and the inevitable spending by a youthful urban population.

Nairobi’s emergence as the IT innovation central and Africa’s most intelligent city is courtesy to Kenya’s indomitable youth. The youth have quickened the pace of Dar-es-Salaam, a city once characterized as laid back and easy.

 Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world. However, Africa’s urban age is characterized by uncontrolled sprawl; expansion of slum settlements; lack of water and poor sanitation; hunger and malnutrition; gridlock and inadequate investment in public transportation an; weak institutions for urban governance. The World Bank cautions that Kampala could become a mega slum in the next 10 years if no action is taken to improve the quality of infrastructure and commercial investment. Can Africa harness the urban age and drive rapid and equitable economic transformation?

According to IMF, Africa’s working age population will reach 1.25 billion by 2050. Furthermore, this rapid growth in Africa’s potential labor force means that it must create 450 million new jobs for new workers projected to join the workforce between by 2035. Potentially, the rising share of Africa’s working-age population could put its competitive advantage beyond the reach of any other continent or sub-region.

How well are we preparing young people for a competitive globalized knowledge economy where basic literacy and numeracy alone just won’t do? Honestly, not very well.

Over 38% of Africa’s children aged below 5 years are stunted. Research shows that compared with normal children, stunted children: score 7 percent lower on math tests; are 19 percent less likely to be able to read a simple sentence at age 8, and 12 percent less likely able to write a simple sentence; and, are 13 percent less likely to be able to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school. Moreover, 7-16 per cent of grade repetitions are associated with stunting.

Here are some worrying observations from Kenya. About 1.3 million children enrolled in primary school in 2007. Only 880,486 completed primary 8. A staggering 417,483 children dropped before end of primary school. In the 2014 KCPE examinations, only 432,000 or 34 percent of 1.3 million children enrolled in primary one in 2007 scored above the average 250 marks, good enough to join high school. Such a low level of transition to high school is unconscionable. Moreover, according to Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi confirmed that 2 million children are out of school.

But it gets worse. There is a mismatch between the skills that young people offer and the ones that employees need. Employers are flooded with applications but complain that they cannot find candidates with the right abilities. And here is the evidence. On average 56 percent of students graduating from East African universities lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market. In short, 56 percent of our graduates are half-baked. This sobering finding was revealed in May 2014 in a study conducted by the Inter-University for East Africa (IUCEA) and the East African Business Council (EABC) to establish employers’ perceptions of graduates.

In South Africa, uneducated youth are unemployable and enthralled in an orgy xenophobic violence against fellow Africans. Jobless rates among young black South Africans is probably 55 percent. In Nigeria, staggered by the winds of unemployment and discontent young Africans are vulnerable to the virulent ideology of hatred served by homegrown terror cells like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. Millions of Africans, mainly from West Africa, the Sahel and Eritrea either perish in the desert or drown in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to migrate for Europe for work and a chance to live their dreams. 

Africa’s transition to the urban age and the youth bulge, in combination, could ignite an unprecedented African renaissance and socio-economic transformation. How we leverage the capacity of Africa’s youth and harness the opportunities of urban transition will determine whether the 21st century belongs to Africa. 


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