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Monday, September 28, 2015

Achieving the SDGs must be a collective oblgation

Last week the great and the good descended upon Manhattan in a rare show of solidarity for a common purpose. The common purpose is the global aspiration among all nations to achieve equitable prosperity for all mankind, and in our lifetime.

World leaders adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that seek to do two things: advance equitable prosperity and end extreme poverty; and, save the humankind and other forms of life from the peril of dangerous climate change.

The SDGs, unlike their predecessors, were framed on a broad consensus forged by wide grass-roots consultation and inter-governmental negotiations. The SDGs provide a broad platform for citizens, private sector and civil society to partner with government to provide services, create value, and promote accountability and equitable prosperity.

In the SDGs, cities matter because more than 50 percent of kind now lives in cities, and the pace of urbanization in Africa is unprecedented. The SDGs recognize that our patterns of consumption and production are unsustainable and that we must take urgent action to end our addiction to fossil fuels, which is causing dangerous climate change. The SDGs recognize that it is not enough to end poverty. All nations must promote inclusive economic growth and not just employment but decent work for all.

Overall, these goals are novel. These goals are non negotiable. These goals are inextricably bound with the basic human aspirations of wellbeing, justice liberty and equality. Framing the goals was the easy part. Even easier was gathering all the world leaders to pontificate about their endorsement and renewed commitment to deliver on the SDGs. But we all remember this time 15 years ago when world leaders gathered and endorsed the now defunct MDGs. Will this time be different?

Delivering SDGs will take more than pontificating at the UN General Assembly. Delivering the SDGs, especially for the countries in this part of the world, will require political commitment at the highest level. Delivering SDGs will demand re-framing national development priorities, combating corruption and upholding fundamental freedoms and liberties for all citizens. Delivering SDGs will require active, engaged citizens.

Delivering SDGs will require a fundamental shift in business-society relations. We must forge unconventional partnerships, and we must go beyond business as usual.  Business must go beyond corporate social responsibility, public relations and compunction. There must be a robust, compelling business case. I was a CEO I would just call the SDGs business development goals. Every SDG is a business proposition. Think about new investments in clean energy, new portable technology for delivering clean and safe water, new models for delivering education and health services to underserved populations. Think about deploying modern technology that combines satellite applications, cellphones and spectroscopy to deliver real-time agricultural advisory to smallholder farmers. How about a solar panel on the roofs of the billion households in Africa?

The SDGs also provide an opportunity to re-set the relationship between private sector and NGOs. For decades what we have seen is mistrust between these two communities. Private sector often have the money but they are motivated by the financial bottom-line, the shareholder value and hence short-term profit. NGOs especially those working in the developing world, have deep knowledge of the needs of local communities in the growth markets of the future. A new partnership between omnipresent NGOs and business could unlock tremendous value for business, delivering long-term profits for business and achieving sustainable development goals for hundreds of millions of families.

Moreover, delivering SDGs, especially in Africa, will require a new relationship between citizens and their elected leaders. States must be less extractive and more accountable. Power must be more distributed and less concentrated in the hands of the privileged elite, hence more accountable, servant leadership.

Delivering SDGs will require deep structural reform in most governments to encourage policy integration and cross-sectoral coordination. In Kenya, this will be especially complex, requiring political and managerial skills to achieve policy integration on one hand and inter-governmental coordination on the other.

Delivering SDGs will require knowledge institutions, including universities to build and deepen a new culture of, interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary thinking to support formulation, coordination and implementation of integrated policies.

The SDGs are ambitious and onerous but now we own them. Delivering SDGs will demand planetary stewardship and responsible consumption from all of us. We must never forget that we are not proprietors but trustees of mother earth, our common heritage.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Kenya must spend more on education

Starting yesterday about 14 million children will stay at home after the government ordered the closure of all public and private schools. The Ministry of Education has decided to review term dates following three weeks of teachers’ strike that has crippled learning, especially in public schools.

The argument by the government is that we can’t afford to pay teachers the 50-60 percent pay increase, which the government negotiated with the teachers’ unions. The decision to close public and private all schools makes the teachers’ strike a grave and urgent national crisis. It is difficult to guess where the government and the unions will go from here.

At the heart of the “can’t pay won’t pay” stance is the argument that a hefty pay award to teachers would kick the balance between recurrent and development expenditure off-kilter, and stifle economic growth. It is estimated the Kenya spends about 52 percent of all public revenue on salaries. Public finance aficionados consider this unsustainable. Treasury officials also argue that a large pay increase for teachers, who they argue are already better paid than civil servants, would trigger a tsunami of agitations for higher wages across the entire public sector.

The teachers’ strike invites a broader conversation about public education and the future of Kenya’s children in a competitive globalized knowledge economy. Here are some sobering facts about the state of human capital in Kenya: about 2 million children of primary school age are out of school; learning outcomes in public schools are deplorable, with 2 out 3 children in standard 3 unable to pass reading and numeracy test for standard 2; average teacher-pupil ratio in primary school is 1:50; the transition rate into secondary school is about 60 percent, with a net enrollment ratio of about 40 percent; about 87 percent of Kenyans aged between 18 and 35 don’t have post secondary qualifications; and, about 45 percent of students graduating from our universities are unemployable and many of those that are employed, including lawyers, teachers, doctors, civil servants,  politicians and journalists, are mediocre.

These facts worry me sick. Given that more than 65 percent of Kenyans are aged below 25 and the median age is just 19 years we must pause and make hard decisions about the scale of public spending in education. We must re-evaluate our priorities. The future of this country is really about the quality of its citizens – the quality of education, the training and skills of its youth.

To compete in a globalized 21st century knowledge economy, we need a student-centered curriculum, which enables students to think, play, collaborate, co-create knowledge, innovate and solve problems. Hence, we need more and better-trained teachers. We need more schools with better infrastructure. We need more and better learning resources, including technology, in our classrooms. Quality public education must be the birthright of every Kenyan child, not a privilege for the few children whose parents can afford expensive private schools.

About 85 percent of the cost of education is teachers’ salaries. I believe that a well-educated workforce is critical to building equitable prosperity. Every thing we care about as a country; economic prosperity, national cohesion, political stability and democracy are inextricable bound to a well-educated and highly skilled workforce. Hence, spending on education, including teachers’ salaries, must be seen more broadly as spending on development.
Whatever the outcome of the feud between teachers’ unions and the government, we must re-examine our development priorities, and rationalize the structure and function of government at all levels. An unwieldy, outsized government will surely crowd out resources for development, especially education, and devour our future.

How much we spend on education must not be predicated on some arbitrary formulaic percentage or fears of fiscal catastrophe, hinged on economic superstition. How much we spend on educating our children must be based on sound evaluation, which matches our current and projected development needs with the requisite quality of education and skills for our workforce.

What will earn Kenya respect and global competitiveness is not the height of our skyscrapers or the number of lanes on our highways or the width of our railway or how much land we have under irrigation. What will earn us respect is how well we educate our youth for a competitive globalized knowledge economy. The future of this country ­– the youth – must become our most urgent national priority.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Kenya must deal with this epidemic of mediocrity and incmpetence

In March this year the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board fired nine magistrates. These magistrates were not under investigation for allegations of corruption or professional malpractice. This is unprecedented, especially in a criminal justice environment that is infested with corruption and other vices.

Why were the magistrates fired? The Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board found that the magistrates had no mastery of basic skills in English language and could not write judgments that were based on sound legal analysis and reasoning. This is simply mind-blowing.

According to Senior Counsel Paul Muite, the problem with writing and competent legal reasoning is understated. Law Society chairman Eric Mutua believes that incompetence among judicial officers is at the heart of the problem. According to Ahmednasir Abdullahi, a prominent lawyer, to say that lawyers are half-baked would be a compliment. In his view most lawyers cannot answer the one-plus-one of law.

Mr. Abdullahi argues that the problem of poor writing and the lack of intelligent legal discourse has its origin in law school. According to Mr. Abdullahi our so learned friends are rather incurious and do not read widely after they start professional practice. Personally, I find the shelves in the offices of lawyers and doctors rather barren. But I always assume they keep their books in their home libraries.

Mr. Muite believes that the problem with language competency is not unique to lawyers. In his view it is not uncommon to find a university graduate who is challenged in basic use of English language. I would also add that the problem of professional competence is not unique to the legal profession.

Every one has a physician story; ranging from unnecessary tests to wrong diagnosis and wrong course of treatment or horrible execution of an intrusive procedure. Look around your house or office building; more often than not the quality of construction is appalling. If you own a car you must have a mechanic story. You all must have incompetent teacher and professor stories. There are countless shocking examples of incompetence across a wide range of professional fields.

Think about the quality of leadership in public service, in the private sector and in civil society. Our schools and universities are badly managed. Our political parties are shambolic. The quality of debate in parliament is wanting. Tune into local television and radio stations or follow social media conversation on national issues; the quality of public discourse is abominable.

The high levels of incompetence across a wide range of professions do not bode well for our society. I think the chickens have come home to roost. This is the bounty harvest of years of neglect and underinvestment in public education. The obsession with an exam-centric curriculum, which is driven by rote learning is now coming back to bite us. 

I argue that the levels of incompetence we are seeing among professionals is what you reap from an education system that demands nothing of the playful curiosity of learners and fails to build and nurture critical thinking meaningful learning. An exam-centric system, which privileges mindless regurgitation in high-stakes standardized tests stifles curiosity, kills imagination, trashes analytical reasoning, and pulverizes lifelong learning.

Professional incompetence and mediocrity are creatures of a flawed and antiquated education model. What we have done over the last half century is train incompetent individuals who go off to breed even more incompetent individuals. A study by the African Population and Health Research Centre revealed that 30 percent of Kenyan children are taught math by teachers who can hardly score 40 percent in a math knowledge assessment.

It is therefore hardly surprising that successive reports by the education advocacy organization UWEZO have shown that despite a huge surge in primary school enrollment, our children are not learning. Moreover, study conducted by the Inter University Council of East Africa and in partnership with the East African Business Council revealed that more than 45 percent of our university graduates are not employable.

Kenyans have an insatiable hunger for paper credentials. We are falling over ourselves in colleges taking evening classes for one more certificate or diploma or degree. But these have little bearing on competence or productivity. This epidemic of incompetence undermines our economy, chokes future prosperity. And it must end.

This next round of education reform must ensure that teaching and learning translates into relevant and useable competences, not just qualifications on paper.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Data and evidence should inform education reforms

Imagine that the airline whose flight you just took has a crash record of 6 out of 10 scheduled flights. So your flight was one of the four that stayed in the sky and did not return to terra firma as debris.

Despite this horrific safety record, you open your newspaper and learn that the airline is expanding its fleet, recruiting more pilots and aggressively marketing to grow its customer base. And what is most bizarre is that nobody seems to be concerned that the airline is essentially seeking to kill more people.

The deplorable rates of numeracy and literacy and drop out rates among our children are in my view analogous to airplanes dropping from the skies, with irreversible fatal consequences. I am mindful that the analogy is morbid.

As a student of systems ecology and complexity, I have always argued that understanding what determines learning outcomes and student achievement is a wicked challenge. Wicked problems do not have simple cause-effect explanations. Wicked problems often have non-linear causal pathways. They are characterized by complex interactions among myriad interacting variables. Such interactions produce complex feedback, which in turn re-define how the original factors interact and the outcomes they produce. Hence, when we frame interventions for wicked problems around a linear input – output paradigm we often get frustrated when the outcomes are vastly different from what we envisioned.

Although primary education is free, more than two million Kenyan children of school going age are out of school. We also know that retention rates are deplorable, especially among children in upper primary school, from grade six and above. Many studies have shown that competence in reading, writing and math for a many children leaves a lot to be desired. Nearly 30 percent of children who complete grade eight cannot read or write or do math at the level of a child in grade four.

Why are our children not learning? For many years we have tried to fix what we believe is the problem with education by throwing simplistic solutions at it. Like the fable of the elephant and experts, we have an expert holding the tail and swearing by their children that it is the whole elephant. Other equally cleaver experts are hanging on the trunk and would bet their last shilling that it is the whole elephant. Those holding the tusk could never be more confident about how wholesome their elephant is.

What this fable of the experts and the elephant illustrates is the limits to specialized expertise and what can go wrong if we don’t collaborate across sectors, integrate data or information and elevate the framing of intervention hypotheses to a higher systems level. What I mean here is that the reason our children are not learning goes beyond teachers or desks and books or technology. We must look at the child and his environment; the nutrition and nurturing in the first 1000 days of the child’s life, the socio-economic factors at home, the dominant livelihood of the family and the community.

Integrating multiple variables to model, predict or detect patterns has become nearly trivial in this era of open data, big data and data analytics. We don’t have an excuse for tolerating the elephant and the expert conundrum. It is possible to combine data and information on nutrition, socio-economic status of the child, education level of the mother, teachers, school infrastructure and the curriculum to understand what factors or combination of factors explain why our children are not learning. Using big data we can generate deeper insights into children’s learning and improve classroom teaching as a comprehensive picture of their capabilities and needs are developed earlier.

Open data, big data and data analytics permits sense making, understanding why our children are not learning. With big data we can predict which child is likely to have learning difficulties or is at risk of dropping out of school. Big data could make it possible to understand why retention or completion rates are low and what remedial action would be needed. Big data could ensure rationalization of investment and coordination across multiple public and private agencies. With big data we can deliver education for all, which is also tailored to the learners context and needs.

As we contemplate education reforms we must leverage open data and big data to inform our policy choices and actions.


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