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Monday, August 29, 2016

The state of Kenya’s education is grave

That Kenya’s education system is on an inevitable path of calamitous ruin. Between 50-65 percent of teachers in both private and public schools don’t have the basic reading and math skills required to teach grade four pupils. Teachers are absent half of the time they are required to teach. Public universities are short of professors, woefully underfunded and staggered by the winds of mediocrity.

Successive reports by Uwezo, an education advocacy organization, have shown that our children are not learning. One in five children in primary seven do not have primary two competency levels in reading and numeracy.

Our universities lack an overarching purpose for undergraduate education and there is no vision of the attributes of a university graduate. Students have no capacity for critical thinking, analytical and moral reasoning, lack writing, speaking and quantitative skills. About 51 percent of students graduating from our universities lack basic and technical skills needed in the job market. Last year the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board fired nine magistrates who lacked mastery of basic skills in English language and could not write judgments supported by sound legal analysis and reasoning.

We have turned primary and secondary schools into grade factories. We have put a price on grades and national examinations are no longer reliable measures of students’ ability. A recent survey on ethics and integrity among high school students revealed that a majority of students would do anything, including cheating, to pass their KCSE examinations.

In our universities, grades can be negotiated and paid for in kind or in cash. Students enrolled in part-time postgraduate programs have help on tap to deal with the messy inconvenience of term papers, research, data analysis and dissertation writing. Prominent politicians are enrolled in undergraduate, masters and PhD programs and graduate in record time even without attending classes. Lecturers are indifferent to whether students learn anything. Unspeakable levels of tribalism undermine merit and integrity in hiring of faculty hence, there is a rising tide of mediocrity in our universities. The intellectual, ethical and moral collapse of our universities is nearly complete.

The most durable and dependable capital we have is not oil or gas or wildlife. Moreover, our capacity to compete in a knowledge based globalized economy does not depend solely on the density of paved roads or length of railway or coverage of electric power grid. The education, training and skills we offer our children – the quality of human capital – will determine our place in the league table of nations.

The silly season of politics is here because the general elections will be held next year. The deplorable state of our education will not be a hot button issue in 2017. The election will be fought on the calculus of ethnic alliances and promissory pork for ethnic head chefs.

Our education, the fountain of the inheritance for our children, is on a path of calamitous ruin, and we can only ignore it at our individual and collective peril. Do we have the courage to act?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Investing in smallholder agriculture critical to inclusive economic growth in Africa

Rapid urbanization, a youth bulge, an expanding middle class are the hallmarks of Africa’s unprecedented transformation. Some of the world’s fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. According to most western leaders and aid agencies the state of Africa is no longer “a scar on the conscience of the world”.

Africa’s unprecedented transformation is also spawning new and urgent challenges, many of which defy conventional approaches and solutions. Despite impressive average GDP growth performance Africa is stalked by hunger and malnutrition. It is estimated that the number of malnourished Africans will rise from 132 million to 220 million by 2050.

The scale of hunger and malnutrition could undermine human capital formation and economic growth prospects. The Cost of Hunger in Africa study of 12 countries estimates that Egypt has 1.9 percent cut from its GDP because not all of its children get enough to eat, while Uganda loses 5.6 percent, Ghana 6.5 per cent and Ethiopia a staggering 16.5 percent.

According to the latest Cost of Hunger report released in Accra early August 24 percent of child deaths in Ghana were associated with under nutrition, which had also reduced the country’s work force by 7.3 percent.  Moreover, it is estimated that under-nutrition causes 45% of all child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa – 3.1 million deaths annually.

At the heart of Africa’s hunger and under nutrition challenge is its dysfunctional food systems – the interdependent socio-economic and ecological factors that influence production, post-harvest handling, distribution, processing, marketing, access and consumption. Africa has the lowest per capita staple food production in the world. The use of modern inputs, including technology, irrigation, fertilizers, and improved seeds is uncommon.

Africa’s small rural farm units rely on family labor; have limited access to advisory services, technology or improved inputs. These remote small-scale production units are often isolated and poorly connected to supporting services, such as decent roads, healthcare and markets. According to FAO the average age of the African smallholder farmer is about 60 and mostly women, even though the median age of the population is about 19 years. Small-scale farm households in many parts of Africa are often food and nutrition insecure between 6-9 months a year.

Food security and good nutrition is the cornerstone of healthy communities and economies. Without adequate and nutritious food African children cannot live, learn, flourish and communities cannot achieve their aspirations of inclusive socio-economic prosperity.

Africa must begin to invest to revitalize smallholder agriculture and as foundation for durable and inclusive prosperity. Such investment must target and respond to critical constraints especially in production, post-harvest handling, value addition, use of technology, markets and equitable access to nutritious food.

African governments, the African Development Bank and the World Bank must lead this effort and appreciate that, structural transformation, sustainable economic growth and shared prosperity in Africa will not the delivered by multi-billion infrastructure projects alone.

Thriving smallholder agriculture can revitalize rural economies, provide stable income and secure livelihoods for women and youth, drive real economic transformation and deliver inclusive prosperity.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Is orderly urban growth possible?

Nothing is more certain and regular as change. It may tarry but it certainly will come to pass. Everything, everywhere is changing Look at you, look around you – your neighborhood and community; the country; Africa and the world. The only safe bet is on change.

We live in the epoch of great acceleration. What this implies is that in our time the pace of change has been greatly enhanced. Technology, human population, climate, urbanization, inequality are a few examples that might give you a sense of the sweep of change.

But the change that is on my mind is the pace at which human settlement is changing. Today Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing landmass on the planet. By 2025, Africa’s urban population will outstrip that of South America and Europe combined. In Kenya, the rate of urbanization outpaces the rate of annual population growth by 60 percent. This is simply breathtaking.

There are two sides to the urbanization saga. The first is the unprecedented growth and messy sprawl associated with existing urban areas such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru. The second is the haphazard eruption of small towns and market centres such as Kitengela, Rongai, Ahero, Luanda, Lessos, Mulot and Keroka.

That Kenya’s urban settlements are in a state of chaos is an understatement. In the cities and big towns we are confronted with intense squalor and poverty in informal settlements. A majority of children born in urban settlements live in insanitary neighborhoods, lack access to safe places to grow and play. Downtown Nairobi is drowning in garbage. Less than 10 percent of the residents in Kenya’s large urban settlements have access to running water on a regular basis.

Today, Kenya’s large metropolises like Nairobi are choked by slums and enfeebled by unplanned urban sprawl. Blinded by the grandeur of highways, we left behind common sense land use planning and refused to be persuaded that investment in public transit was critical to efficient mobility in large urban areas. Moreover, for some inexplicable reason policymakers are convinced that a social housing has no place in our society. Instead we believe that squalid unsafe housing by crooked private developers, which collapse every so often, is good enough.

Small towns and market centres are growing in a chaotic way. There is absolutely no planning. Residential and commercial buildings erupt randomly, without thoughtful consideration of enabling infrastructure and amenities, such as roads, street lighting, schools, hospitals and recreational spaces. Kenya’s small towns and markets are domains of unbridled private entrepreneurs, unbound by planning or building regulations. 

Urbanization is unstoppable, especially because about 80 percent of our population is aged below 35 years, relatively well educated and not enamored by rural life on a farm. Hence, we should accept that urban settlements large, medium and small are going to get very much larger in the decades to come. 

But urbanization, even though rapid and unprecedented must be orderly. We can manage urban growth and deliver equitable prosperity for all “cityzens”.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Kenya is bleeding, morally half dead, where is the Good Samaritan?

Kenyans of every creed assemble regularly in religious houses and with bended knees and in solemn supplication commune with their maker. And there could never be a more solemn petition than the opening words of Kenya’s national anthem.

The fabric of our society is dyed in faith and religion, a testament of unsullied ethical or moral tendency. At this point I am reminded of the story Jesus told about a man fell among thieves on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was beaten, stripped and left half dead. A priest and Levite happened to walk by and saw the man lying half dead but they did not stop to help him.

A Samaritan came by on his animal. He stopped and poured oil and wine and dressed the man’s wounds. He put the man on his animal and took him to an inn. He paid for his upkeep and asked the innkeeper to look after the man and he would settle accounts on his return.

Jesus told this parable in response to a teacher of the Law who asked him “who is my neighbor?” I would like us to consider a different question; who is a Kenyan citizen? To respond to this question, I would like to share a story with you.

In 2014/15 the Aga Khan University conducted a surveyed about 1900 Kenyans aged between 18 and 35 years. Fifty percent believed it doesn’t matter how one makes money as long as one does not end up in jail. About 73 were afraid to stand up for what is right for fear retribution. Another 47 percent admired those who make money by hook or crook.

About 30 percent believed corruption was profitable and another 35 percent said they would take or give a bribe. Only 40 percent thought it was important to pay taxes. On political participation, 40 percent said they would only vote for a candidate who bribed them. About the future, 40 percent believed our society will be more corrupt, and 30 percent believed the country would be poorer in ethics and we would see a surge in substance abuse.

If this is how the youth of this country think and would act, the future is in peril. I don’t know about you but these statistics paint in my mind a picture of a society that has been assaulted, stripped, bleeding and left morally half dead.

In response to the state of our country many of us have chosen to act like the priest and the Levite. Consumed by our own busy lives and a lack of courage to stand up for what is right, we choose to walk by on the other side.

This dark moment of grave ethical and moral crisis summons all of us to stand up and live up the true meaning of citizenship. Citizenship is like being the Good Samaritan. We must get engaged in the inconvenient task of attending to the urgent issues that confront our society.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Stop the blame game on school fires, the buck stops with you

Related to the Greek notion of educere, education is to bring forth or cultivate potential. Education is a process of inviting truth and possibility. Schools are therefore an embodiment of our singular and collective commitment to the ideal of education.

Although not optimal, schools provide a social and physical environment in which hopeful and respectful nurturing of human potential can happen. Schools have a unique, and unequaled capacity to enable formation that comes through knowledge, ideas, beliefs, concepts and visions of society, culture and civilization.

I like to think about schools as hallowed places. But the recent epidemic of school fires in Kenya is perhaps an emphatic demonstration that my view is not shared, especially, by the students who have set ablaze over 100 schools in 2016.  Learning for thousands of students is now disrupted. The loss in property and damage to school infrastructure runs into billions of shillings. How did we get here?

Just like any society, we have faced our dark moments. In December 2007 we pushed our country to the precipice of Armageddon. The social and political foundations of this country were shattered, the country nearly fell apart and we lost our innocence. Since the post-election violence, our aspiration for national unity and common purpose has never been more hollow and doubtful.

But I think this epidemic of school infernos is our darkest hour. These fires implicate two things that are at the core, the essence of the present and future of our society; education and youth. In my view no amount of provocation can justify reckless evil at such a scale. Maybe I am wrong because as Phillip Zimbardo in his seminal book, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, demonstrates that it is possible, given under certain situational factors for good people to become perpetrators of evil.

I believe that our children are not innately evil or nihilist. According to Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi, the high priests of the lucrative exam cheating business are fighting back and inciting students and teachers to burn schools. Former President Mwai Kibaki and President Kenyatta have suggested that pressure to excel in national examination could explain unrest and arson in public schools.

That young people aged 13-17years would resort to such evil and lethal violence is deeply disconcerting. Something is gravely wrong with how we have socialized our children. As was shown by the survey conducted by the Aga Khan University, the youth of this country are really like the adults. Over 30 percent would take or give a bribe. About 47 percent admire those who make money through hook or crook.

As Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said,  Tell me what are the prevailing sentiments that occupy the minds of your young men, and I will tell you what is to be the character of the next generation”.

To redeem the future we must look no further than the person in the mirror in front of us. Change starts with you, and in your household.


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