Creative Commons

Monday, October 31, 2016

We can build the SGR and conserve nature

Last Wednesday, October 19 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the second phase of the SGR (Standard Gauge Railway). Speaking at Em-bulbul in Kajiado County, the President took the opportunity to speak out on the SGR and Nairobi National Park (NNP).

According to President Kenyatta, “the construction of the SGR will not cause any disruption to NNP”. Moreover, the President added, “every care has been taken to ensure that there is no environmental degradation and the animals will be taken care of”. In the governments view, the construction of the 18 meter high 6.4-kilometer single line elevated bridge will not disrupt wildlife or compromise the ecological integrity of Kenya’s oldest national park.

President Kenyatta’s remarks were directed to the conservation community and some politicians who in the President’s view are “inciting people against the project passing through NNP”.  According to conservation groups, building the single line bridge across NNP will destroy the park’s ecosystem and displace wildlife from their natural habitat.

The President’s remarks are especially weighty especially after the National Environment Tribunal ordered China Road and Bridge Corporation (Kenya) to stop construction of SGR Phase 2A until the appeal filed by Mr. Okiya Okoiti and Kenya Coalition of Conservation and Management against NEMA is heard and determined.

In the President’s view, “we have a big opportunity to grow our economy”. President Kenyatta’s view is perhaps informed by some experts who claim that the completion of the SGR will add 1.5 percent to Kenya’s GDP while boosting trade by – surprise, surprise – supporting the tourism industry. But according to conservation groups, hiving off sections of NNP erode wilderness quality and attractiveness of the park, hence affect tourism.

Conservationists and the government are digging in for battle. What do ecologists know about conservation and infrastructure? The impact of Infrastructure on biodiversity has spawned a new and active field of study known as “road ecology”.

Known impacts of roads, railways and pipeline include effects on species diversity, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. For these impacts there are standard pre-construction mitigation measures including enhancement and creation of replacement habitats and management of pests and weeds.

What ecologists do not know is how infrastructure corridors (on the surface or elevated) reduce habitat permeability or the ease with which wildlife moves through the landscape. Moreover, ecologist knowledge about how transportation infrastructure affects behavioral responses and hence, within or between species interactions. Such interactions could have huge consequences on mortality – through predation – or breeding success among major groups of wildlife.

Acting in combination with the increasing isolation and reduction in size of NNP, the impact of infrastructure on wildlife could touch off an inexorable and catastrophic extinction of significant biodiversity in NNP. In my view NNP is the quintessential fragile wilderness on the precipice. We must not push it.

Now is the time to heed the words of Prophet Isaiah;  “Come now let us reason together” for the sake of posterity. We can preserve the riches of nature and grow our economy.

Monday, October 17, 2016

What is the purpose of university education?

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) global youth unemployment rate is on the rise. The deterioration of employment prospects for youth is expected to be worse in developing countries where official unemployment figures understate the severity of youth labor market challenges. Moreover, the informal sector, which creates about 90% of new jobs, does not pay young people enough to lift themselves out of poverty.

A survey commissioned by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University in 2014/15 revealed that 1 in 2 students who graduated from East African universities were unemployed. This is hardly surprising. A survey commissioned by the East Africa Business Council and the Inter-University Council of East Africa showed that about 53 percent of East Africa’s graduates were not employable. Moreover, Africa’s stellar GDP growth has not produced commensurate jobs for the youth.

It is understandable that universities are under pressure to prove their relevance by producing graduates who are work ready. Similarly governments are under pressure to provide the right incentives to address the structural imbalances in the economy, which stifle equitable growth and job creation.  This blistering summer of Africa’s jobless growth must come to an end.

On the role of universities, to what extent should curricular be aligned to industry needs? Is it the role of university just produce to work-ready graduates? What really is the public purpose of higher education? What should be the attributes or unique qualities of a university-educated individual?

There must be a higher public purpose for investing in higher education. That purpose is certainly more than training technically competent automatons. Non-degree granting institutions such as polytechnics should produce all kinds of technicians; accountants, plumbers, chefs, pilots and masons.

Yes, it is important and desirable that young people graduating from our universities have skills and able to find or create work and earn and income, live fulfilling lives and contribute to their societies. And there is no doubt that Africa needs more university-educated citizens, especially given the current unemployment crisis and the myriad challenges we face now and in the future.

It is difficult to contemplate the role of university in this century without thinking about leadership – visionary and ethical leadership. There is no doubt that the next generation will face challenges far more complex and dire than those we are grappling with today. Leadership in the 21st century and beyond will require complex, convergent thinking that transcends disciplines, analytical and moral reasoning and cultural intelligence.

African universities must educate a generation of citizens that can think, create, innovate and solve problems. While there is no universal agreement on what a university graduate should look like, there is emerging consensus that the supreme purpose of universities is to raise a generation of T-type individuals, who have unassailable cross-disciplinary depth crowned by expansive, connective and integrative breadth. 

We must resist the temptation to proliferate universities and flood labor markets with half-decent graduates. Universities must not be vocational factories, which produce unthinking automatons. East Africa deserves better.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Is the stage set for an Africa Spring?

According to the international Monetary Fund the working age population in sub Saharan Africa will reach about 1.25 billion by 2050. Moreover, Africa’s median age is projected to rise modestly from about 18 to just 25 by 2050. And thanks to expanded access to education this is the best-educated generation. 

The size of Africa’s working population is increasing the continents productivity potential at a time when advanced economies in North America and Europe have to grapple with a declining and aging population. Similarly, emerging economies like China is already experiencing decline in its workforce. Hence, Africa is really the future.

From Abuja to Dar es Salaam, from Addis Ababa to Maputo, you can feel the burst of enterprise and a surge of human endeavor. Our streets are vibrant alleys of exchange. Young school leavers and university graduates are pounding the tarmac, ever hopeful that some day they will find a job. A burgeoning population of relatively well-educated potential consumers has ignited the belief that Africa is on the cusp of prosperity. 

As I said last week, the proponents of the Africa Rising saga are neither naïve nor reckless. This belief is buoyed the undeniable progress that is visible across the continent. But progress exists side by side with great suffering among Africa’s youth who live in the direst consequences. 

While Africa’s youth make up between 70 and 80 percent of the population today, they make up 100 percent of Africa’s future. Today Africa’s endure poverty, unemployment, poor access to health and education services with remarkable dignity and extraordinary resilience. Certainly, such dignity and resilience cannot be guaranteed over the next 5-10 years. 

The unprecedented youth bulge demands that sub Saharan Africa must create at least 18 million jobs a year for the next 20 years. Failure to create sufficient jobs could result in grave economic, social, political and environmental problems. Hence, responsive policies, including investments in early childhood development, adolescent health, education, technical and vocational training and structural transformation are needed to take advantage of the youth bulge. 

The proportion of Africa’s youth who are not in education, employment or training has reached alarming proportions. The problem is that African governments think it is somehow normal or acceptable. Large masses of youth who think they are sufficiently educated but excluded from participating in the economy constitute a tinderbox for social upheaval. Is the stage set for an Africa Spring

It is important to understand that Africa’s youth are more than just a potential workforce. While Africa Rising is undeniable, the continent will not reach for the stars until the youth bulge is transformed into a veritable engine of innovation, enterprise and creative growth. Africa sorely needs its youth. 

Certainly governments alone cannot solve the youth crisis. We need a real coalition here, bringing together business and civil society along with government to grapple design policies and actions to unshackle and emancipate Africa’s youth to participate and own a piece of the Africa Rising dream.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Africa has made progress but there is more work to do

That Africa has changed is not debatable. We have made strong and in some instances, irreversible progress. However, we must debate the quality and distribution of the benefits of Africa’s progress.  

Africa is urbanizing and motorizing faster than any region in the world. African cities, from Accra to Nairobi are choked with traffic. The air is foul. Streets are consumed in garbage. Housing is short and squalid in African cities. Chaotic sprawl has become the defining characteristic of Africa’s urban development. National and municipal authorities are overwhelmed. Essential services such as water and sanitation are lacking. There is a severe shortage of public schools and health facilities.

African economies are charging ahead despite headwinds from low commodity prices and uncertain domestic policies. Public spending is on the rise and so is official corruption.  A survey conducted by Transparency International in 2014 revealed that 58 percent of Africans felt corruption had got worse in their country in the past year. There are bright spots. In Botswana and Mauritius only one percent of the respondents said they was corruption in the public sector.

Regular cycles of elections have not yielded stellar governance. According to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), the average score for overall governance, which improved between 2000 and 2008, has stalled since 2011. Governance is defined here as the capacity of the state to: uphold rule of law; provide economic opportunity; protect human and civic rights; advance human development.

Africa’s progress on human development is slow but steady. More children, especially girls, are enrolled in public schools. However, the quality of learning remains deplorable because teachers are ill prepared and schools lack basic teaching and learning resources. Public spending on education remains low. Moreover, graduates at every level of education do not possess the skills needed for the work place. In East Africa, unemployment among youth without college education is about 80 percent and 1 in 2 college graduates cannot find work.

Maternal mortality rates fell by nearly 44 percent globally. However, sub Saharan Africa recorded the highest maternal mortality rate (546 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015), accounting for about 66 percent of global maternal deaths. Similarly, while we have seen the most rapid decline in under five mortality between 1990 and 2014 the risk of a child dying before their first birthday was highest in Africa.

Africa holds about half of the world’s arable land. Our farmers are the least productive in the world and Africa spends $25 billion annually on food imports. It is estimated that nearly 1 in 5 Africans lacks adequate nutrition. But Africa’s agriculture remains a long tale of potential. According to the World Bank, Africa’s agriculture and agribusiness is a $1 trillion industry.

Has the rosy Africa Rising saga run its course? In the years ahead progress will neither be easy nor inevitable. Africans must rise, demand and lead durable and, inclusive prosperity if Africa is to take its rightful place among other civilizations.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Africa’s youthful bulge a double edged sword

Africa will have the largest workforce – 1.1 billion people – on the planet by 2040. Can Africa harness this unprecedented demographic advantage to drive productivity and shared prosperity?

A survey conducted by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University reveled that about 55 percent of East Africa’s youth aged between 18 and 35 years were unemployed. The survey revealed that unemployment among youth aged between 18 and 20 years was a staggering 80 percent. About 50 percent of youth graduating from East Africa’s universities cannot find work.

A majority of young and relatively well-educated youth in East Africa is employed in the informal sector. In Kenya for example, 80 percent of jobs created in 2014 were in the informal sector. Informal sector jobs are invariably ephemeral and low paying. Data from the International Labor Organization shows that Africa has the world’s largest rate of working poverty – people who are employed but earning less than $2 a day. Creating productive jobs is Africa’s existential challenge.

While the current crop of Africa’s youth is the best educated compared to previous generations, employers are for the most part dissatisfied with the quality of graduates entering the job market. Potential employers say graduates lack capacity for critical and analytical reasoning, cannot communicate and lack basic work place discipline. Education experts have faulted the education system which privileges and promotes rote learning and represses thinking.

With a median age of about 19, Africa’s youthful moment presents opportunity and risk. Opportunity because providing quality education and skills to a majority of Africa’s youth puts in their hands the tools and capability they need to make real the promise of the youth dividend. Conversely, denying Africa’s youth quality education and a chance to participate effectively in the labor market makes youth a tinderbox for social upheaval.

Youth have a positive outlook about themselves and this is reflected in how they think about the future. The East Africa youth survey revealed that, 75 percent of the youth believed their countries would be richer materially, 66 percent believe there will be more opportunities for youth – better access to quality education, healthcare, and more jobs for youth. Moreover, 62 percent believed society would reward merit or hard work.

In their thoughts and views about the future, East Africa’s youth are sending a not so subtle message to their governments. They expect a future better than the present conditions. They are demanding access to quality education and healthcare and well-paying jobs. In their belief that society will judge them on the merit, they are signaling that the culture of patronage must end.  

Its large youthful population, not trinkets or hydrocarbons will deliver meaningful, durable and shared prosperity for Africa. Lets fix education by training the best teachers and providing a curriculum that liberates our children to think and innovate.

It is time to fix the structural flaws in Africa’s growth story, revitalize rural economies, leverage urbanization, and create jobs in agriculture and manufacturing for our youth.


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