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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

We face a catastrophic crisis of leadership

The 2015 Survey on the Global Agenda revealed that 86 percent of the respondents strongly agree the world is facing a ‘leadership crisis’. In the top worrying global trends survey respondents cite ‘deepening income inequality’, ‘persistent jobless growth’, ‘lack of leadership’ and ‘the weakening of representative democracy’. 

It is eminently clear that we are living in an epoch of unprecedented global peril. Violent extremism is on the rise. Poverty, inequality and haplessness are ubiquitous. Infectious diseases are re-emerging and non-infectious diseases are surging. The catastrophe associated our addiction to carbon looms large. The universal march of freedom and civil liberties is halting. 

Unequivocally, we are seeing a catastrophic failure of leadership from the family to the global stage. The calamitous dearth of leadership is reflected in the pitiful state of the human condition everywhere. The youth are staggered by the gusts of jobless growth. The old live in despair overwhelmed by the pace of change in world that is changing at a dizzying pace. 

In Africa, we occupy the front row seat of dysfunctional political leadership exemplified by runaway official graft and state incapability. Citizens are either delusional or indifferent. Power hungry politicians lie, cheat and use violence to cling to power. Citizens have decomposed into subjects and leaders have metamorphosed into monarchs. 

I challenge anyone to name an individual or society who can rise to grapple with the common tribulations that confront our civilization today. We are long on egotistic bluster and geo-political power games but woefully short on global consensus and leadership. 

That notion that the principles of leadership are immutable and based on timeless truths is fundamentally questionable and specious. Talk to the leaders of the cold war era or the ship builders of Glasgow and they will tell that this epoch is a bewildering in its volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Leadership in this moment is in every sense unlike models of leadership in the eras past. 

The perils and opportunities that define this age – volatile, globalized hyper connected epoch – demand that we question the foundational notions of existing models of leadership. Look at our pitiful galaxy of so-called leaders today, these men and women deserve nothing but derision and infamy. They souls are darkened by greed and self-idolatry. The unprecedented global peril underlines the catastrophic crisis of leadership at multiple scales – from the self to the global stage. 

Leadership today must be about collaboration and consensus building. Leadership is about collective creation, rather dominant inspired individual visions. Leadership in our time is about generative listening, tuning into the future seeking to emerge. 

The leader in this age is not the omniscient alpha male with a baritone standing at the head of following humans.  The leader in this age is the person who in collaboration and through consensus guides from the side and inspires all of us to dream, learn and become our best selves. 

We can only hope that such leaders will emerge to answer the call of history.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A thriving African agriculture is neitther easy nor inevitable

More than half a century of research and development work in Africa’s has failed to produce sufficient productivity gains necessary to achieve food and nutritional security. FAO estimates that over 220 million Africans are undernourished.

The typical reaction to statistics of starving or undernourished Africans is outrage. News of hungry Africans in southern Africa and Ethiopia invigorate frustration among many Africans. Many believe that the continent is endowed with boundless land and water resources to produce sufficient food for all Africans. This is a myth.

It is estimated that 55 percent of Africa’s land is unsuitable for any kind of agriculture except nomadic pastoralism. Only 29% of Africa’s soils is of medium to high potential and supports nearly half of the continents 1 billion population. Moreover, Africa’s soils are highly weathered and often require huge additions of mineral fertilizer. But fertilizer use in Africa is the lowest in the world. It is estimated that on average, African farmers apply about 10 kg of fertilizer per hectare of arable land compared to 117 kg per hectare applied by farmers in North America.

Africa’s most arable land is densely populated, with small land holdings, making them unsuitable for mechanization. Africa also has the lowest density of surface water compared to any land mass. Africa also lacks the large alluvial flood plains in large river deltas, which made the Asian Green Revolution very easy.

The dizzying variety of agro-ecologies makes it difficult to promote high yielding monocultures such as rice and wheat. Recent estimates show that less than 30 percent of Africa’s agricultural land is planted with improved seeds, mostly maize. Traditional African food crops such as millet, cassava, sorghum and yams – on which a majority of Africans depend – are unimproved by scientific breeding.

Small-scale farmers who don’t have access to appropriate mechanization, extension services, modern inputs, irrigation and financial services, produce a large proportion of sub Saharan Africa’s food. The typical African small-scale farmer is a woman. She provides 60-80 percent of farm labor, including tending livestock and raising children, in addition to fetching water and firewood.

Agricultural production is not merely managing the natural resources such as soil, water and nutrients. Agriculture is also strongly controlled by the socio-economic and political milieu. Some of Africa’s medium and high potential areas are not well served with prerequisite services, especially water and sanitation, healthcare, schools, markets, financial services and roads. It is not surprising that 80 percent of Africa’s poorest are farmers.

Africa’s farmers labor in isolation in their remote villages, unconnected to advances research and development in crop and animal production. In 2011, Africa invested just 0.5 percent of agricultural output on agricultural research and development, way below the recommended one percent set by NEPAD and the United Nations.

Farming in Africa is not easy or inevitable. Significant investment and innovation will be necessary to modernize farming, respond to natural resource degradation and the climate crisis, tap into a youthful population and leverage urbanization and the rise of supermarkets. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Lack of data invogorates Africa's material poverty

That Africa’s GDP growth has been both unprecedented and impressive is unequivocal.  However, the impact of growth on the livelihoods of majority of Africans is anything but unequivocal. Are Africa’s children better fed, healthier and in school?

Africa’s growth in the past two decades has not been translated into tangible or measurable wellbeing gains by ordinary folk. Growth remains stuck at the top. Moreover, the sectors that have contributed significantly to Africa’s soaring GDP – telecommunications, insurance, banking, transportation, insurance, services, extractives ­– demand the least of the abundance of semi-skilled labor on the continent.

Africa’s agriculture and its rural economy, which could provide jobs to hundreds of millions is in precipitous decline along with the rural economy that has been deprived of investments in vital social infrastructure; especially water, health and education. Furthermore, China’s stranglehold on manufacturing has precipitated an inexorable trend of de-industrialization.

It is hardly surprising that unemployment, especially among Africa’s youth is over 50 percent. The gains on maternal and infant survival are miniscule. Millions of African children who survive beyond their fifth birthday are stunted and have to live with the lifetime consequences of cognitive impairment. 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.

A report just released by the World Bank, Poverty in Rising Africa, shows that the rate of poverty reduction in Africa is significantly slower compared to other developing regions. According to the report the number of Africa’s poor people increased from 288 million in 1990 to 389 million in 2012. This is despite the fact that the proportion of the population living below the poverty line has declined from 57 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 2012.

But the report is not just about Africa’s material poverty. The report reveals a worrying poverty of reliable data to track Africa’s economic progress. Africa’s poverty rates are derived from surveys that use old, unreliable measures of production and consumption. An average of 4 consumption surveys per country were conducted in Africa between 1990 and 2012. About one survey was conducted every 3 years in the rest of the world between 1990 and 2012.

In his book, Poor Numbers: How we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it, Morten Jerven offers an assessment of the inaccuracy of development statistics and the policy implications of data problems. Understanding and addressing poverty on the continent is more complicated because country level statistics are limited and of poor quality.

However, the solution to Africa’s poor numbers is not simply more funding for data collection. There is need to enhance the legitimacy of wide range data providers, acknowledging their roles and enabling them to collect reliable data for planning and tracking of development progress.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Let’s make our cities safe and fun for children

We often imagine the future as some misty, remote untouchable horizon. We imagine the future as an eon constructed by agents unborn or presently inactive in the extant moment. Nothing could be more delusional. The future is the collective creation by acts of genius or blunder those alive today. 

There are myriad inescapable extant realities that fundamentally define the future. However, I would like to focus on two; the youth bulge and urbanization. In particular, the convergence of the two has consequential implications. 

Our part of the world is the least urbanized sub region of Africa. But today, the pace of urbanization is fast and unprecedented. The rate of urbanization in Kenya is estimated at about 4.4 percent, which 62 percent higher than the annual rate of Kenya’s population growth. Moreover, we are a very youthful country, with a median age of about 19 years. Some estimates show that even by 2050, the median age will be only 25 years.

In a few years a majority of Kenyans will be urban dwellers. Consequently, a majority of Kenyan children will be born and raised in an urban environment. However, a majority of residential neighborhoods in urban areas are informal and squalid. Poor water and sanitation, slum-like housing, and a lack of open spaces for recreation and play often characterize urban neighborhoods where a majority of Kenyans live.

The urban spaces in which our children play and live are insanitary and unsafe. Hence, children are prone to infectious diseases, physical injury and cognitive impairment. A study reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Spanish researchers in Barcelona showed that green spaces improved development of short-term memory and reduced inattentiveness in children.

The East African Institute of Aga Khan University in partnership with Korogocho-based and youth-led K-Youth Media are deploying video and photography in a social purpose storytelling campaign to raise awareness and motivate public dialogue, consensus and action on open, child-friendly spaces in densely populated neighborhoods of Nairobi’s Eastlands. Although these neighborhoods are bustling with enterprise and ingenuity we could do better for our children.

These neighborhoods are home to the majority of Kenya’s urban children. Hence, the long-term implication for our society is grave especially because our urban population is growing rapidly. We say the children are the future. Because we have them here now we must act decisively to provide spaces that will enable their development and flourishing. 

Last week we had a great meeting with senior officers from Nairobi County. The government of Nairobi through its Safer Nairobi Initiative is supportive of a focus on making Nairobi the children’s capital. Learning from successful community-led initiatives like Dandora Transformation League and Place Makers we can drive meaningful participation and consensus for urban transformation.

The task of making cities must be by consultation and consensus to, identify, protect and improve child-friendly spaces in every city neighborhood. But most of all, we must see our cities through the eyes of children, and we must involve them.


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