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Monday, February 27, 2017

Africa’s urban growth inefficient and unsustainable

The pace of urbanization in Africa is bewildering. In 1950, no city in sub-Saharan Africa had a population greater than one million. It is estimated that over 50 cities now have a resident population of over one million.

As a consequence of dizzying population growth, city and municipal authorities are overwhelmed. City leaders are unable to respond with sufficient planning and regulatory tools, as well as services to harness this phenomenal demographic change.

Our cities are drowning in municipal garbage. Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam are a gridlocked disaster. Commuting in our cities is miserable and expensive. Housing is scant and squalid. It is estimated that about two-thirds of Nairobi’s residents live in just 6 percent of the city’s land. These informal slum neighborhoods lack basic services such as water and sanitation, schools, health and education.

New urban growth is essentially unmanaged, disastrous sprawl. Owing to lack of planning and inefficient land markets, peri-urban neighborhoods have turned into bourgeois slum cities. In Kenya, Kitengela, Ongata Rongai, Ngong Syokimau and Ruiru are perfect examples of bourgeois shantytowns. They lack roads, public schools, open public spaces and sewerage services.

Many of Africa’s youthful urban workers are in the low wage service sector. You see them in food markets, on the street or traffic-choked highways where young men and women weave through dense traffic under the gray cloak of vehicular emission selling chewing gum, water, fruits, car accessories and pornographic videos.

Many young urbanites are low-skilled construction workers. A sizeable proportion of workers in our cities are in the semi-skilled low technology fabrication sector known a jua kali in Kenya. Africa’s urbanites work so hard and so long for so little. Hence, a defining characteristic of Africa’s urbanism is low productivity and low income. A majority of Africa’s urban workers live below the poverty line.

Rapid urbanization has not been accompanied by economic growth. African cities are largely metropolis of concentrated consumption. Our cities are the epicenter of non-tradable goods – public service, big hotels, plush suburbs and fancy retail shops with imported cloths and shoes, and fancy schools. Hence, it is easy to understand why rapid urbanization has not been associated with economic growth.

My sense is that Africa entangled in an unsustainable path of urban development. The cost of cleaning up the mess is in my view incalculable. A new report by the World Bank and UKaid, “African Cities: Opening Doors to the World”, concludes that African cities are crowded, disconnected and costly.

The report asks three questions, with which we must grapple: How can cities become economically dense, not crowded? ; How can cities be more connected? ; How can cities attract investors and skilled workers with a more affordable and livable urban environment?

Perhaps there is hope in emerging cities like Machakos, Arusha and Jinja. But these cities will not be nodes of equitable prosperity unless urban growth is led by planning. Only then can we build cities that are integrated, affordable, economically dense and prosperous.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Youth are our future, not pawns in political competition

Edmund Burke, 18th century political theorist and philosopher wrote; “Tell me what are the prevailing sentiments that occupy the minds of your young men,[and women] and I will tell you what is to be the character of the next generation”.

The future is not some indistinct unknowable property. We are all involved in the active construction of the future. Through policies or actions we enable or obstruct the thriving of our children and shape our destiny. What our children eat and how the learn determines our place in the global productivity league table.

Over 80 percent of Kenya’s population is aged below 35 years and the median age is just 19 years. If you doubt these statistics, take a close look at the faces of Kenyans who swarm political rallies. If you are still not convinced take a walk on the streets of the cities and towns of this great land.

Alvin Toffler, American futurist and author of Future Shock, argued persuasively about why youth must participate in the present moment. Toffler wrote; “The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they — at some distant point in the future — will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely… because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties”.

Politicians have exhorted the youth to register and vote in the 2017 elections. The imperative to register has been unanimous across the ethnic political divide – Kenya’s future is in the hands of the youth. The electoral power of the youth is consequential. For instance, about 55 percent of Nairobi’s population is between 18 and 35 years. But not to think of youth beyond voting would be tragic.

The problems that face Kenyan youth are complex and urgent. Our schools fail too many young people. Labor participation among youth is less than 40 percent. Majority of youth are unskilled, unemployed, underemployed and underpaid. The ranks of working poor youths are swelling rapidly.

Policy makers and donors, without shame or remorse, continue to promote wrongheaded interventions in the name of youth empowerment. For example, there is little evidence that youth funds are working. There is also a growing fantasy that somehow agriculture and entrepreneurship are the panacea for youth unemployment. Moreover, the current wave of TVET proliferation plans is not informed by skills gap or labor market needs.

According to Burke, “the arrogance of age must submit to be taught by youth.” Alvin Toffler’s warns that to imagine that we can run our society without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.

The youth have exemplary passion and creativity, and are enthusiastic about being part of the solution to the myriad problems we face as society. They are crying out for a chance to get involved, beyond voting.

Success of Kenya's new curriculum will depend on implementation

On January 30th 2017, Education Cabinet Secretary Dr. Fred Matiangi launched Kenya’s new basic education framework. The process to replace the current 8-4-4 system of education has now commenced. The current system has been criticized as overburdened with subjects, examination oriented and not capable of producing entrepreneurial graduates.

The new curriculum is competency-based and is undergirded by values. This new child-centered curriculum will nurture our children’s potential and produce engaged, empowered and ethical citizens. According to the framers of the new curriculum framework, education will not be about grades but about learning how to learn, critical thinking and problem solving. School will be a place where imagination and creativity will come alive. And most of all, our schools will inculcate in our children the most important obligation– citizenship.

In the new curriculum, basic education will be delivered in three stages: Early years (2 years in pre-primary and 3 years in lower primary); Middle school (3 years in upper primary and 3 years in lower secondary); Senior school, comprising three streams of specialization, i.e., science, arts and social sciences.

I am awed by what Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development (KICD) and the Ministry of Education have achieved. The curriculum framework is based on sound theoretical foundations. Moreover, the curriculum design has taken the bold step to diminish the primacy of standardized test scores. This new curriculum is focused on the learner and their intellectual and personal growth throughout the education experience. 

What is especially laudable in this new curriculum is that the role of the teacher is fundamentally changed. The teacher will be the sage on the stage no more. The teacher will be a friend, the guide on the side. The new curriculum re-casts the teacher as coach, facilitator and mentor. The new curriculum promises to make school about learning, not senseless memorization of irrelevant facts and standardized test scores. The new curriculum is about creativity, imagination and passion. And most of all, the new curriculum is about learning to learn, giving students the skills for life-long learning and building a solid foundation for self-efficacy.

Implementing such a bold and liberating curriculum will not be easy. A majority of teachers and parents will be lost and disillusioned. Many will wonder if this is even practical or realistic within our context.  For some, that citizens will be prepared to think, reason and challenge is a pretty revolutionary proposition.

We must think carefully about the implementation of this new curriculum. While it is bold and novel, it will not be self-executing. We must invest in teachers. Teachers currently in service must be re-tooled in pedagogical approaches that will support their new roles. Teacher training and certification must adhere to the highest standards.

Let us all support KICD and the Ministry Education to prepare our children for a truly brave and new world. We must not be discouraged or overwhelmed by those who want us to lower our ambition and scale down our investment in the children of this great land. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

TVET expansion should be guided by labor market needs

The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in technical vocational education and training (TVET) in the international policy community. Here in Kenya, the TVET Act of 2013 aims to strengthen quality and relevance of TVET to respond to the changing needs of the labor market.

Under the TVET Act, the Technical Vocational Education and Training Authority (TVETA) was created to deal with accreditation, registration and licensing of institutions and trainers. Currently Kenya has 10 national polytechnics. The goal is to establish one national polytechnic in each of the 47 counties. Furthermore, the government plans to build 290 technical training institutes (TTIs), one each constituency. Ministry of Education officials estimate the about 130 TTIs have been built so far.

Last week I attended the National TVET conference at KICC in Nairobi. This conference brought together a wide range of stakeholders, including government, industry, academia, donors, civil society, youth, students, educators and politicians. Various speakers emphasized the vital role of technical and vocational training. There was wide consensus among the participants that TVET was critical to addressing the urgent concerns around skills and unemployment among youth.

Here is the context in which we must understand the need for vocational education and training. According to the 2016 Economic Survey, 85 percent of the 841,000 jobs created in 2015 were in the informal sector. Unemployment among Kenyan youth aged 18-35 is estimated at about 55 percent. Every year about 800,000 young Kenyans – about 35 percent graduating from primary school and 75 percent graduating from secondary education – enter the labor market without any skills or training. Less than 10 percent of youth eligible for vocational education and training are enrolled in TTIs.

The massive expansion of TTIs is in many ways justifiable. But here are some questions we should grapple with in order to get value for our investment. What are the priority training needs for a market dominated by informal sector? In an economy characterized by a trend of de-industrialization what is the right balance between technical and other vocational skills? Is the massive expansion of TTIs merely a holding yard for youth or a truly viable path to the world of work? To what extent will national and county labor market needs inform the training programs offered by the 47 national polytechnics and the 290 TTIs?

We must pay attention to inconvenient details like qualified TVET teachers, equipment and other vital learning resources, and especially industry partners who will provide internship, service learning and employment opportunities for TVET graduates.

We have been everything but thoughtful in the expansion of university education. Expansion of TVET must not be driven by supply. What we need is a uniquely Kenyan TVET sector. TVET expansion but by careful assessment and targeted response to economic growth patterns, national and local development needs, and labor market demands.

And most of all, the TVET curriculum must responsive, constantly enriched by the changing dynamics of the market place, not by government bureaucrats sitting in a distant capital.


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