In February 2015, residents of Gilgil, a small town halfway between Naivasha and Nakuru in Kenya’s scenic Rift Valley – which was once known for its “Happy Valley” set – were stunned to learn that Simon Harris, a respected middle-aged British charity worker who had been living in the town since the 1990s, had been sentenced to jail for sexually abusing street children. A court in Birmingham in the UK had sentenced Harris to 17 years in prison for indecent sexual assault and for possessing indecent images of children.
According to an article by Nation reporter Pauline Kairu, few people in Gilgil suspected Harris of being a paedophile because he had gained a reputation as “the kind mzungu social worker who crusaded for the education of the less privileged”. This is also probably why the townspeople did not question his motives when he took street children to his house for “a warm bath” and a “hot meal”.
Two of the street children interviewed by the Nation reporter said that nights in Harris’ house “usually featured naked boys wrapped in towels, smoking bhang, cigarettes and binging on alcoholic beverages.” These binges almost always ended with Harris sexually abusing the boys. “After the bath, he would smell you and tell you ever so cheerfully, ‘You smell so good, I could eat you,” recalled Dom (not his real name). Many of the boys endured the abuse because “not coming to his house meant sleeping in town on a veranda, cold and hungry”. The judge who presided over Harris’ case stated that his victims had been degraded and used and that “the mental scars will almost certainly never heal”.
This shocking case forced the UK government to screen British nationals seeking to work in Kenya and elsewhere, especially in fields that give them easy access to children (such as teaching and charity work), and to prevent those who have been implicated in the sexual abuse of children in the UK from obtaining jobs abroad. (The UK is one of the few governments that has taken active steps to prevent child sexual abuse and exploitation by its nationals living outside the country.)
According to an article by Nation reporter Pauline Kairu, few people in Gilgil suspected Harris of being a paedophile because he had gained a reputation as “the kind mzungu social worker who crusaded for the education of the less privileged”. This is also probably why the townspeople did not question his motives when he took street children to his house for “a warm bath” and a “hot meal”.
Until the rise of the #MeToo movement – spurred by sexual harassment charges against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein – and revelations this year that senior Oxfam staff based in Haiti had sexually exploited local women and girls, the issue of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation was not taken seriously by the humanitarian/aid industry. Now that the Oxfam scandal has become so huge, other aid organisations have also been forced to address the issue.
However, while international humanitarian NGOs, such as Oxfam, have been forced to examine practices that allow sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation to flourish within their organisations, the United Nations has been reluctant to even admit to such practices. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has reiterated the world body’s “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse, but has not ordered any of the UN’s agencies to conduct reviews on how they handle such cases, nor has he promised to bring the culprits to book.
“Boys will be boys”
The sexual abuse of children and women by UN peacekeepers has been reported in several countries recovering from civil war or natural disaster but hardly any of the perpetrators have been brought to justice either by their own countries or by the UN. Andrew MacLeod, a former UN official who now advocates for stiff penalties for aid workers implicated in the rape of women and children through his organisation Hear Their Cries, estimates that there have been over 60,000 rapes committed by UN personnel, including peacekeepers, in the last decade and that the organisation harbours some 3,000 paedophiles. (These numbers, however, are hard to verify as the UN does not compile such statistics, and even if does come across such cases, it is not likely to make them public.)
A report published by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2007 admitted that “the dangerous combination of thousands of relatively well-paid young men posted overseas in environments where the rule of law and other societal constraints are often absent…has allowed the sexual abuse and/or exploitation of local populations”. Tina Tinde, an international aid worker from Norway, told France 24 recently that often cases of rape or sexual exploitation by peacekeepers are overlooked on the pretext that “boys will be boys”.
The UN says it does not have the mandate to arrest or prosecute errant peacekeepers and that such cases should be referred to the countries that provide the peacekeepers. But even this principle is not adhered to. One of the most disturbing cases to emerge recently was that of Anders Kompass, the director of field operations at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who in 2014 was suspended after he informed the French government about the sexual abuse of children by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Kompass endured months of frustration and eventually resigned from the UN, “disappointed and full of sadness” as the UN’s senior managers continued to blame him for tarnishing the organisation’s reputation, instead of addressing the issue and providing the victims with assistance. Narrating his experience to IRIN News, Kompass said that he had seen a lot of horror and brutality during his career at the UN but reading about “an eight-year-old boy describing in detail his sexual abuse by the peacekeepers meant to protect him is the kind of account I wish I’d never had to read.” He said that his experience had strengthened his conviction that UN staffers who act ethically will inevitably suffer negative consequences.
Andrew MacLeod, a former UN official who now advocates for stiff penalties for aid workers implicated in the rape of women and children, estimates that there have been over 60,000 rapes committed by UN personnel in the last decade and that the organisation harbours some 3,000 paedophiles.
Lori Handrahan, who once served as a gender expert at the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says that when she reported a “food-for-sex” scandal at a refugee camp on the Chad-Darfur border, she was told by a senior UNHCR official to shut up. When she refused to do so, and especially after her story about how female refugees in the camp were being sexually exploited was published, she was warned that she would never work for UNHCR again.
In most countries where there are UN peacekeeping missions, the vast majority of the refugee or internally displaced populations comprise women and children – the most vulnerable group in any society. These are the people who are most likely to be sexually abused or exploited. The internally displaced boys in the Central African Republic who were sexually abused by the French peacekeepers were often given food or money in exchange for sexual favours. These kinds of “transactional” sexual relationships thrive in impoverished or war-torn regions. A Save the Children report on Liberia, for instance, showed that many Liberian girls believed that they had to have sex with UN or NGO staff before they could be given food. Naomi Tulay-Solanke, who runs an NGO in Liberia called Community Healthcare Initiative, says she is not surprised by revelations of sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers. “Aid workers have been in my country for decades. This kind of thing happens everyday,” she told Bright magazine.
People working for aid/humanitarian organisations sexually exploit people because they can. The Oxfam director in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, used his privileged position to procure sex from women whose lives had been devastated by the January 2010 earthquake. Women and children in poor countries destroyed by war or other disasters are vulnerable to sexual abuse or exploitation because they are more likely than men to have direct contact with humanitarian organisations – they are usually the ones who stand in line for rations and other types of aid during a crisis and who are often targeted for medical and other interventions aimed at women and children. For this reason, as Macleod points out, humanitarian organisations attract a disproportionate number of “predatory paedophiles” or opportunistic rapists.
A culture of misogyny and racism
In an email interview, Handrahan, who is also the author of Epidemic: America’s Trade in Child Rape, a book that looks at the impact of child abuse and pornography, told me that sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable populations by UN officials and aid workers continues because “the humanitarian sector, as whole, has cultivated a culture of misogyny and racism against employees and beneficiary populations” and “is still, largely, about white men enjoying power”. She says that white men in powerful positions within humanitarian organisations view sexual exploitation as their “right” or a “perk” that comes with working in hardship areas. She believes that this culture will only change if more women are hired in senior positions within these organisations.
Of course, not all aid workers implicated in sexual abuse or exploitation have been white men; an Associated Press investigation in Haiti found that the majority of UN peacekeepers involved in a child sex ring were from Sri Lanka. And many of the perpetrators of rape and child abuse in other troubled parts of the world have been from the so-called developing world. The thing to remember is who holds the power in the donor-recipient or peacekeeper-affected population relationship – and who holds the guns.
In an email interview, Handrahan, who is also the author of Epidemic: America’s Trade in Child Rape, told me that sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable populations by UN officials and aid workers continues because “the humanitarian sector, as whole, has cultivated a culture of misogyny and racism against employees and beneficiary populations” and “is still, largely, about white men enjoying power”.
We must also accept that the aid creates dependency, which distorts the donor-recipient or saviour-victim relationship. As Firoze Manji wrote in the January 2015 edition of the New African, “for saviours to exist, there must be those in need of saving – saviours require victims – and turning other humans into victims is therefore a fundamental requirement of the saviour complex.” Saviours, he says, “cannot thrive where people retake control of their destinies, assert their dignity and humanity, create the structures for self-determination, organise to make collective decisions, take pride in their own countries, and seek neither aid nor charity.”
Many proponents of aid argue that by highlighting cases of sexual exploitation and abuse within the aid industry, it becomes much more difficult for humanitarian organisations to carry out their work because these revelations undermine the important work they do in alleviating human suffering.
On the other hand, those who question the benefits of aid argue that it is just another form of colonialism that is instrumental in perpetuating poverty and underdevelopment, especially in Africa. As Maina Mwangi, a Kenyan investment banker put it, aid, by its very nature, is a “blunt instrument” as it removes responsibility for wealth creation and development from Africa’s leadership to donors, which enables the African political class to “eat” with impunity. Similarly, the Tanzanian scholar Issa Shivji has referred to aid a form of neocolonialism that wrests power and responsibility from African states and their leaders and into the hands of NGOs and foreign donors. Indeed, even the British diplomat Robert Cooper admitted once that Western aid is “soft power” – an essential component of extending Europe’s influence in countries it once colonised, or “a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values”. Donor agencies and the charities and humanitarian organisations that they fund are the instruments through which such “soft power” is exerted.
Like colonialism, foreign aid has the net effect of disempowering and infantilising “the natives” and their leaders. Nowhere is this more evident than in the international emergency relief and humanitarian sectors, which usually gain prominence during famines and other disasters. When an international humanitarian organisation flies in to distribute food to starving people or to provide tents to people fleeing a civil war, it allows these people’s governments to abdicate their responsibility towards their own citizens. As Alex de Waal notes, “The process of internationalisation is the key to the appropriation of power by international institutions and the retreat from domestic accountability.”
The “internationalisation” of famine relief started in earnest during the Biafran famine in Nigeria in 1968. International relief agencies began mushrooming then and by 1984, when the musician Bob Geldof initiated his Band Aid, famine relief had virtually become an industry. Today famine relief is a big industry. The UN’s appeal for donations during the 2011 famine in Somalia, for example, managed to raise $1.4 billion within just one month of the appeal. A lot of this money went right back to where it came from. Much of the food aid for Somalia was purchased from the United States and was transported on US-flagged ships. (A large proportion of this food was alleged to have been stolen by local militias, a claim that was refuted the UN’s World Food Programme, but which suggested that there was a thriving aid-based black market economy in Somalia.)
What needs to be done
Thanks to the #MeToo movement and the Times newspaper’s revelations about Oxfam staff members’ peccadillos in Haiti, there is now greater interest in addressing the issues of sexual harassment within aid organisations and sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers. The UK’s international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has threatened to withdraw funding from aid organisations that do not take sexual harassment or abuse seriously. The UK is also among those countries whose police and anti-crime authorities actively pursue and prosecute UK citizens who sexually abuse children abroad, as was in the Harris case.
Like colonialism, foreign aid has the net effect of disempowering and infantilising “the natives” and their leaders. Nowhere is this more evident than in the international emergency relief and humanitarian sectors, which usually gain prominence during famines and other disasters.
However, such harassment, exploitation and abuse is likely to continue at that bastion of impunity, the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has promised to look into the matter and has even instituted a “confidential helpline” for victims of sexual harassment. However, I can confidently say from personal experience that this policy is unlikely to yield results, especially if the person being accused of harassment or other types of wrongdoing is a senior UN official. Any UN staff member who reports the misconduct of a senior UN official usually faces swift retaliation.
More importantly, as long as UN officials enjoy immunity from prosecution and as long as the UN’s internal justice system continues to fail whistleblowers, such abuse is likely to continue. (The UN Charter accords UN officials immunity from prosecution – a privilege that is not even accorded to ambassadors, who can be tried in their own countries, if not in the country where they are stationed, if they are implicated in illegal or criminal activities. Guterres’ office recently tweeted that UN staff members’ immunity would be waived in child abuse cases, but we are yet to see if this will materialise.)
The UN has to overhaul its internal justice system and put in place external, independent mechanisms that are more transparent and accountable – and which do not victimise whistleblowers. As Peter Gallo, a former investigator at the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, says, nothing will change until there is real accountability at the UN “and that will never happen unless and until there is a truly independent and separate agency established that is not part of the UN secretariat but reports directly – and separately – to member states.”
Current and former female UN employees have reported a flawed internal justice and grievance system that is stacked against the victims. One of these women told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that she was raped by a senior UN staff member while working in a remote location but did not obtain justice despite medical evidence and witness testimonies.
More importantly, as long as UN officials enjoy immunity from prosecution and as long as the UN’s internal justice system continues to fail whistleblowers, such abuse is likely to continue.
When in 2005 the UN established an Ethics Office, UN staff members believed that they could report criminal or unethical behaviour confidentially without being punished. However, the UN Ethics Office has proved to be a channel through which wrongdoing is covered up. Very few UN staff members who have approached this office for help have obtained justice; on the contrary, many have been forced to resign or have been fired.
Meanwhile, the perpetrators are given unlimited freedom to do as they please. In 2015, a UN official who was accused of sexual harassment was even allowed to interview the woman who made the compliant against him. (This happened to me as well when I worked at the UN’s city agency, UN-Habitat. The panel selected to interview me consisted almost entirely of proxies of people I had accused of wrongdoing. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.) As Handrahan asks: “How can the UN end suffering of vulnerable populations when female employees navigate hostile environments just by showing up for work, let alone when they attempt to raise issues of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN staff?”
The UN’s highly hierarchical, male-dominated and secretive environment also makes it difficult for women to report sexual harassment or other kinds of wrongdoing. One internal survey at UNAIDS found that about 40 women had experienced sexual harassment but only two had reported it. The fear of losing their jobs or enduring other forms of retaliation prevent women from coming forward, especially if the accused is a senior official, and particularly if he has the authority to renew – or not renew – their contracts. Meanwhile, few, if any, of these sexual predators lose their jobs or are demoted or reprimanded for their actions.
Furthermore, those who are tasked with reporting sexual abuse and other kinds of wrongdoing do not do so because they believe that their reports will reflect badly on their careers and impact their upward mobility within the organisation. Craig Sanders, the UNHCR official who told Handrahan to keep quiet, feared that exposure of the “food-for-sex” scandal could “ruin his career”. (It didn’t; Sanders is now the Deputy Director in the Division of Programme Support and Management at UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva.)
A disgruntled American aid worker in Kosovo told David Reiff, the author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, that UN officials believe that a critical report on the UN or on its activities will jeopardise their careers. “And that’s much more unlikely if your reports to UN headquarters say everything is fine than if they are critical. It may not be fine; in fact, it may all be going to hell in a handbasket. But if you value your career chances, you’d better have an awfully good reason to ring the alarm, and above all be damn sure the bad news isn’t going to piss off…major donors, and in turn make your bosses furious with you,” she explained.
The UN’s highly hierarchical, male-dominated and secretive environment also makes it difficult for women to report sexual harassment or other kinds of wrongdoing. One internal survey at UNAIDS found that about 40 women had experienced sexual harassment but only two had reported it.
Thanks to the Oxfam scandal, more mainstream media organisations have started to take aid agencies, including the UN, to task, which was not so before, probably because critics of the aid industry are usually associated with conservative right-wing groups. Even the so-called liberal media have realised that sexual abuse of vulnerable populations by aid workers is an offence that they can no longer ignore, and that this kind of abuse actually undermines the good work that many of these organisations claim to be doing. More exposure in the mainstream media of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN employees and aid workers might just force these agencies to take the issue more seriously.
Many proposals have been made to curb these crimes, including stiffer penalties for the perpetrators and stronger screening systems to prevent paedophiles from getting jobs in the aid sector. But given the stifling bureaucracy at the UN and at most international aid organisations – and their propensity to cover up scandals that make them look bad – perhaps the most effective strategy would be for donors to withdraw funding from any organisation where sexual harassment, exploitation or abuse has been reported and has not been dealt with adequately. There is no bigger incentive in the aid industry to change things than the threat of dwindling resources due to donor disgust.
THE TIES THAT MAY NEVER BIND: Chasing the mirage of SPLM reunification
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), a southern Sudan-based national liberation movement, sprouted in 1983 in the Sudanese and regional political theatre at the height of the Cold War that witnessed ideological and superpower rivalry in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Many South Sudanese and people on the political left received its declared objective of constructing a united socialist “new Sudan” with a pinch of salt. A handful of highly educated individuals formed its officer corps but the bulk of the army, the SPLA, was drawn not from an industrial working class but from sedentary and agro-pastoral communities – unlikely material for building socialism.
However, the united socialist new Sudan disappeared imperceptibly from the SPLM/A written and oral literature with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world socialist system before the turn of the century. This led to an ideological shift in the SPLM/A system. This shift coincided with the demand by the people of South Sudan to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination.
The war of national liberation ended in a political compromise: the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), which the SPLM and National Congress Party (NCP), representing the government of Sudan, spent eleven years negotiating in Nairobi, Machakos and finally Naivasha under the auspices of two successive Kenyan presidents. Dr. John Garang de Mabior and Sudan’s Vice President Ustaz Ali Osman Mohammed Tah signed the peace agreement in Nairobi on 9 January 2005 in a colourful ceremony presided over by President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya and witnessed by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, President Omar al Bashir of Sudan and Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, among other African and world leaders.
In the second edition of “The politics of liberation in South Sudan: An insider’s view”, I posed the question: “What is the SPLM and where is it?” I was trying to provoke a debate in the SPLM/A that had since 1983 evolved like Siamese twins who are conjoined at the head and who cannot be separated surgically because it would lead to their death. There was no clear separation of functions with the SPLA being the military organ of the liberation movement and SPLM its political organ. The two subsumed and eclipsed each other’s respective functions, blurring and indeed distorting internal political and democratic development to prevent the emergence of a genuine and authentic national liberation movement.
The lack of an ideology and the absence of organisation and institutions in a national liberation movement can negatively influence its development and the relationship between its members and the masses of the people, as well as the nature of the resultant state. The state in South Sudan, in its current disposition regardless of the international recognition it obtains, is a façade. The lack of political organisation and the absence of democratic institutions and instruments of public power resulted in the personalisation of the SPLM/A’s power and public authority. These were the principal drivers of the internal contradictions, splits and factionalism within the SPLM/A.
The SPLM/A was such an informality that only Garang could manage it and keep it moving. His sudden demise in 2005 released the negative forces hitherto kept under tight lid by military authoritarianism. The power transfer to Commander Salva Kiir Mayardit went without a glitch. Nevertheless, Kiir’s leadership style, unlike that of Garang, enabled the emergence of “power-centres” around his presidency of the Government of South Sudan. The interim period, before the carrying out of the referendum on self-determination, witnessed internal power struggles among the SPLM’s first and second line leaders characterised by intrigues, short-changing and an upsurge in ethnic nationalism, as well as the emergence of ethnic associations and caucuses in the executive and legislative branches of government, widespread corruption in government and society, insecurity in the form of ubiquitous ethnic conflicts and localised civil wars.
The state in South Sudan, in its current disposition regardless of the international recognition it obtains, is a façade. The lack of political organisation and the absence of democratic institutions and instruments of public power resulted in the personalisation of the SPLM/A’s power and public authority. These were the principal drivers of the internal contradictions, splits and factionalism within the SPLM/A.
The independence of South Sudan found the SPLM (South Sudan’s governing party) in a state of acute dysfunctionality due to internal power wrangles. The leaders miserably failed to separate and transform the SPLM into a mass political party guided by democratic principles, a constitution and a political programme. Its internal situation was toxic and ready to implode. The pressure lid that tightly compressed its internal contradictions had suddenly ruptured with the death of Garang. It was only the general concern about secession from the Sudan among the majority of the Southern Sudanese that sustained the unstable calm, enabling the orderly conduct of the referendum on self-determination.
The structural drivers of SPLM/A internal splits
The internal and external socio-political conditions under which the SPLM/A formed in July 1983 laid the foundations of its perpetual internal instability. Without going into details, the failure to unify the remnants of the mutinies of elements of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in Bor (16 May) and Ayod (6 June) with the Anya-nya 2, which was formed by former officers and soldiers of Anya-nya, who had been absorbed into the SAF following the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement and who rebelled in Akobo in February 1976, through the agency of the Derg defined the militarist character of the nascent movement. When the Anya-nya 2 flipped back to the liberation movement in 1988, no structural changes had occurred within the SPLM/A, particularly at the leadership level. Like a dinosaur, the SPLM had a tiny head resting on a huge body that it carried with immense difficulty. The suffocating military environment resulted in the 1991 Nasir Declaration that split the movement, leading to internecine fighting along ethnic contours. By the end of 2003, when Dr. Riek Machar and Dr. Lam Akol, who had authored the declaration, returned to the fold, the SPLM/A remained structurally unchanged.
The institutions created by the SPLM First National Convention in 1994, like the National Liberation Council (NLC) that was established to perform legislative functions and the National Executive Committee (NEC) that was to exercise executive functions of the SPLM/A, had disappeared into oblivion. The SPLM/A power and public authority had begun to centralise, concentrate and personify in Garang, its Chairman and Commander-in-Chief. The return to the SPLM/A of Machar and Akol on the eve of the peace agreement with Khartoum, coupled with Machar’s ambition to become Number One in the SPLM/A hierarchy, heightened rumour-mongering in the SPLM/A targeted at ousting of Salva Kiir as the deputy Chairman and SPLA’s Chief of General Staff. Kiir, who had stayed loyal to Garang throughout the turbulent years, would not take the rumours lying down. This triggered what came to be known in the SPLM/A as the Yei Crisis, which in November 2004 pitted Kiir against his boss.
Although the Yei crisis was an internal, structurally-driven SPLM/A matter, its ethnic overtones and provincial contours were prominent, feeding into a general dissatisfaction with Garang in Bahr el Ghazal (where he had in the course of time differed, split with and executed several leaders) spearheaded by prominent individuals linked to the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum. A conference called in Rumbek to resolve this crisis, which addressed only its symptoms but not its structural underpinnings. This conference was typical of the SPLM/A meetings that always ended up fudging the substantive issues under the canopy of “opening a new page”. As a result, the attempts to resolve the crisis were frustrated, creating conditions for the resurgence or eruption of another crisis along the same lines.
Kiir, who had stayed loyal to Garang throughout the turbulent years, would not take the rumours lying down. This triggered what came to be known in the SPLM/A as the Yei Crisis, which in November 2004 pitted Kiir against his boss.
The splits in the SPLM/A have always been more political and personal than ideological, hence they transcended and permeated into the ethnic and provincial domains, acquiring different dimensions and dynamics. The splits in 1983/4 and 1991 quickly acquired ethnic dimensions because of the lack of an ideologically-driven agenda, although the commanders in Nasir had raised the right of the people of southern Sudan to exercise self-determination. However, the question of power and who wielded it was the common denominator in all these splits. It was the perception of power as a personal birthright rather than an institutional assignment that set the patterns for achieving it. In a militarist environment like the SPLM/A, the pattern for capturing and holding onto power was inevitably violent.
The SPLM split and the civil war
In the absence of democratic institutions and instruments of power and public authority, the SPLM/A became a huge informal patrimonial network of political patronage. This system became more pronounced after Garang’s death, the rise of Kiir within the SPLM/A and the independence of South Sudan. The lack of a political programme to manage the social and economic development of the new state of South Sudan rendered the interim period (2005-2011) what the SPLM leaders cynically called “payback time”: they dolled themselves up in self-aggrandisement, thanks to the easy availability of oil revenues. The nexus between personal power and wealth accumulated in a primitive fashion without consideration for law and order resulted in a life and death situation.
The patrimonial political patronage system that the SPLM leaders controlled accentuated and amplified the SPLM’s internal contradictions. The personalised power struggle became a fireball in December 2013, barely three years into the independence and birth of the Republic of South Sudan. The resultant civil war was initially viewed by many people as a war between Kiir and Machar (and by extension a war between the Dinka and the Nuer) but it was in fact a reflection of the SPLM’s failure to address its structurally-driven internal political contradictions.
The SPLM reunification
In all these SPLM/A disruptions, eruptions or implosions, these contradictions have always been buried under the talk about “return to the fold” or “reconciliation and peace”, which have left these contradictions intact and ready to rekindle. In December 2013, the eruption of violence, and its scale and ferocity, caught the IGAD region and the whole world unawares. South Sudan had not completely emerged from the effects of the 21-year war of liberation and from the border war with the Sudan (2012) and so nobody could understand why a people who had endured suffering for that long would go to war again. Thus, the interventions to help resolve the conflict were frenetic but superficial. Nobody cared to solicit a scientific understanding of the conflict’s causes.
The extraordinary summit of IGAD Heads of State and Government, held in Nairobi on 27 December 2013, resolved to bring the warring parties, namely the Government of the Republic of South Sudan and the rebel movement christened the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition [SPLM/A (IO)], to the negotiating table to thrash out their difference and reach a peace agreement. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) became the contact between Machar and the IGAD Special Envoys to South Sudan. The negotiations began in Addis Ababa.
In December 2013, the eruption of violence, and its scale and ferocity, caught the IGAD region and the whole world unawares. South Sudan had not completely emerged from the effects of the 21-year war of liberation and from the border war with the Sudan (2012) and so nobody could understand why a people who had endured suffering for that long would go to war again. Thus, the interventions to help resolve the conflict were frenetic but superficial. Nobody cared to solicit a scientific understanding of the conflict’s causes.
The ruling parties in Ethiopia (EPRDF) and South Africa (ANC) came up with a joint initiative, which aimed at resolving the SPLM’s internal contradictions that triggered and drove the civil war. It is worth mentioning that the ANC and the Norwegian Labour Party had earlier, before the eruption of the violence, tried to help the SPLM leadership to overcome its differences, which had been triggered by rumours that Salva Kiir had decided not to contest for the presidency come 2015. President Kiir reacted to the rumours in a manner similar to somebody who sets his house on fire to treat bug-infested pieces of furniture.
As if not sure that the SPLM’s 3rd National Convention, scheduled for May 2013, would return him as the Party Chairman and hence the SPLM’s flag bearer for the presidential elections in April 2015, Kiir blocked the democratic process of SPLM state congresses and the National Convention, suspended the SPLM Secretary General and paralysed all SPLM political functions. These actions halted the political process towards the presidential and general elections for national, state and county governments. He also brushed away any reconciliatory talks with Machar, Pagan Amun Okiech or Mama Rebecca Nyandeng Garang, who had shown interest in contesting the position of the SPLM Chairman.
The ANC-EPRDF initiative was the right approach. These were the SPLM first row leaders and it was absolutely imperative to reconcile and unify their ranks to alleviate the suffering of the people. Except the eruption of violence and the ethnicisation of conflict had rendered impossible the task of reconciliation. The grassroots opinion solicited in 2012, before the war, indicated widespread disenchantment of the masses with the SPLM as a ruling party. (Later, the people would quip that when the SPLM leaders split they killed the people and when they united they stole the people’s money.)
However, Machar turned down the initiative in favour of a full-blown peace negotiation under IGAD mediation, suggesting that the conflict and war was no longer an affair of the SPLM. In September 2014, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, President Kiir met the Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete, and requested his indulgence and assistance to reunite the feuding SPLM factions, namely, the SPLM in government (SPLM-IG), the SPLM in opposition (SPLM-IO) and the SPLM former political detainees (FPDs). President Kikwete obliged and the process kicked off in November 2014 under the auspices of Chama Cha Mapenduzi (CCM). On 21 January 2015, the three factional heads – Kiir [SPLM (IG)], Machar (SPLM/A (IO)] and Okiech [SPLM (FPDs] – signed the SPLM Reunification Agreement in a ceremony in Arusha witnessed by President Kikwete, President Yoweri Museveni and President Uhuru Kenyatta, as well as then Deputy President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa.
The impact of the SPLM reunification agreement on the IGAD peace process in South Sudan was not immediately obvious given that the civil war not only raged throughout South Sudan, but also considering that the people had become weary of the SPLM as a ruling party. The SPLM reunification agreement was supposed to moderate and ease the tension between the SPLM leaders in order to accelerate and facilitate the sealing of a peace agreement and return the country to normalcy. The motivations of the SPLM leaders crossed rather than aligned with each other. The SPLM/A (IO) fell off the reunification process. The guarantors of the reunification agreement, CCM and ANC, proceeded with the two remaining factions to implement the Arusha agreement on SPLM reunification. They eventually consummated the process with the reinstatement of the comrades to their respective positions: Okiech as the SPLM Secretary General, and Deng Alor, John Luk and Kosti Manibe to the SPLM Political Bureau.
However, once disrupted, relations based on social considerations rather than principles of politics and ideology rarely mend. It did not take long before the four former political detainees stormed out of Juba and did not return till after the signing of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) in August 2015. The SPLM reunification process had flopped.
The Entebbe and Cairo meetings
I headed the SPLM/A-IO delegation to the reunification talks in Arusha. In a report to the SPLM/A (IO) NLC meeting in Pagak, December 2014, I said that the SPLM reunification was like chasing a mirage. I still believe it will never take place, given the political dynamics since the fighting in J1, which rekindled the war in 2016.
The IGAD-sponsored High-level Revitalisation Forum (HLRF) process has outpaced the SPLM reunification in a manner that confirms the statement I made above that the SPLM faction will never unite; the ties will never bind. The former political detainees who were enthusiastic about reunification seem to have had second thoughts when they pursued the project of a UN Trusteeship of South Sudan, which they later changed to exclude Kiir and Machar from participating in a Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) made up of technocrats. The failure of the HLRF to achieve the desired peace agreement prompted the IGAD Council of Ministers to propose a face-to-face meeting between Kiir and his principal nemesis, Machar, under the auspices of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiye Ahmed, This face-to-face meeting was modelled on the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga that had eased the political standoff in Kenya following the disputed 2017 elections.
The Kiir-Machar face-to-face meeting took place on the sidelines of the 32nd Extra-Ordinary Assembly of the IGAD Heads of State and Government. President Kiir categorically rejected the idea of working with Machar, who was flown in from Pretoria in South Africa where he had been kept under house arrest since November 2016. Reflecting the level of distrust between the two leaders, the failure of the meeting prompted IGAD to mandate the Sudanese Head of State, President Omer Hassan Ahmed al Bashir, to facilitate a second round.
The failure of the HLRF to achieve the desired peace agreement prompted the IGAD Council of Ministers to propose a face-to-face meeting between Kiir and his principal nemesis, Machar, under the auspices of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiye Ahmed. This face-to-face meeting was modelled on the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga that had eased the political standoff in Kenya following the disputed 2017 elections.
This mandate was ostensibly in the belief that Bashir might prevail on the two antagonists given their relations in the not too distant past. The aim of this round was to herald a discussion between the South Sudanese leaders to resolve outstanding issues on governance and security arrangements, taking into consideration the measures proposed in the revised IGAD Council of Ministers’ Bridging Proposal on the Revitalisation of ARCISS, and to rehabilitate South Sudan’s economy through bilateral cooperation between the Republic of South Sudan and the Republic of the Sudan. President Museveni was conspicuously absent in the Addis Ababa summit. Many people believed it was a loud register of his disapproval of the Kiir-Machar face-to-face meeting. Museveni has never disguised his contempt for Machar and his support for Kiir. On the eve of Kiir’s travel to Addis Ababa, Museveni sent to Juba his Deputy Prime Minister, Moses Ali with a letter to him; perhaps that was his desperate last attempt to torpedo the talks.
In a surprising twist in this intricate diplomatic and political maze, the transfer of the process to Khartoum triggered regional kinetic energy. Museveni flew to Khartoum on 25 June to witness the Kiir-Machar face-to-face meeting now under the auspices of President Bashir. This unexpected convergence in Khartoum of Museveni and Kiir was not so much about the face-to-face meeting but about the rehabilitation of South Sudan’s oil fields and the Sudanese involvement in their protection as echoed in the Khartoum Declaration of Agreement (KDA) between Kiir, Machar and Gabriel Changson (SSOA), Deng Alor (FPDs) and Peter Manyen (Other Political Parties) signed in Khartoum on 26 June. Only one thing – the prospect for renewed flow of South Sudan’s oil to international markets – motivated both Bashir and Museveni into the scheme to rehabilitate South Sudan’s economy. This reads into the Bashir-Museveni’s rapprochement and the new-found friendship between the two erstwhile hostile leaders.
Thereafter, the South Sudan government and the opposition groups signed in Khartoum on Friday 6 July, 2018, the Agreement on Outstanding Issues of Security Arrangements. The process moved to Kampala on Saturday, 7 July this year, where Salva Kiir, Riek Machar and the other political opposition signed the agreement on governance. On 10 July, the two agreements were presented to President Kenyatta, marking the consummation of the peace agreement and the end of the South Sudan conflict. Indeed the HLRF had outpaced and overtaken the SPLM reunification.
The intervention of President Omer al Bashir, on account of Sudan’s national security and economic interests, rescued from collapse and embarrassment the IGAD peace process. The clever involvement of President Museveni was necessary to allay Kiir’s fears and build confidence in Sudan’s mediation, although he still has an axe to grind with South Sudan over the Abyei border demarcation and many other issues that have not been resolved in the post-referendum process. The success of the IGAD process and the failure of the SPLM reunification is a diplomatic slap in the face of CCM and ANC, the two parties that had laboured to bring together the SPLM factions.
However, the agenda for the people of South Sudan is not SPLM reunification but the political process of socio-economic rehabilitation to translate the signed agreements, which are essentially political compromises, into practical plans and programmes. South Sudan’s leaders have to act strategically looking into the future rather than tactically to win elections at the end of the transitional period.
NAMIBIA’S BIG CAMPAIGN: Why direct cash transfers can still change the world
In 2008, the Namibian government launched a pilot universal basic income project known as the Basic Income Grant (BIG). The results were amazing, with crime rates dropping by more than one-third and the number of malnourished children almost halved. In just 12 months after its launch, the BIG project showed to be more than able to actively contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations (now known as the Sustainable Development Goals). It was a tremendous opportunity to set the foundation for a new age of prosperity for the entire African continent, and it served as a paradigm around which other similarly successful programmes have been modeled.
Sadly, despite its initial success, the BIG campaign was never implemented on a national scale, and the project was eventually discontinued, never to be heard of again. Since then, however, many things have changed, not just in Namibia and in Africa, but in the entire world. The latest advancements in technology (namely, the amazing leaps forward in automation and artificial intelligence) are forcing many governments to face a new issue – that machines are quickly becoming better than humans at performing many jobs. Artificial intelligence (AI) is soon going to substitute many human workers, leading to a widespread fear that massive unemployment rates could bring many highly industrialised countries to their knees.
Universal basic income (UBI) is regarded by many as a potential solution, and the leaders of the most developed nations are looking at past practical examples of such policies. In this regard, the Namibian BIG project might represent an archetype which might spearhead humanity towards the next step of its evolution. Although the chances of seeing it implemented again in Namibia on a larger scale are very slim, it can still be a fundamental lesson for other countries who look at UBI as a fundamental weapon in the war against poverty.
BIG: A brief history
According to the World Bank, in 1991, whites, who comprised about 5% of the total population in Namibia, controlled over 70% of the country’s wealth. Today, more than 25 years after independence, Namibia is still a country plagued with deep social, ethnic and economic inequalities and extreme poverty. Much of the country’s political agenda focused on reducing income inequalities and poverty levels, and, in truth, much has been done in the last two decades. In 2016, Namibia’s GINI coefficient (a globally accepted standard for measuring inequality in wealth distribution) stood at 0.572, a relatively bad figure as a coefficient of 0 is used to represent a perfectly equitable society, while a coefficient of 1 represents a completely unequal one.
According to the World Bank, in 1991, whites, who comprised about 5% of the total population in Namibia, controlled over 70% of the country’s wealth. Today, more than 25 years after independence, Namibia is still a country plagued with deep social, ethnic and economic inequalities and extreme poverty.
However, back in 2002, Namibia’s GINI coefficient was even higher, reaching up to 0.633. The Namibia Tax Consortium (NAMTAX) was appointed by the government to find a sustainable solution to fuel the nation’s economic growth. Too many African countries, in fact, lean far too much on the help of more developed countries or on non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but it is common knowledge that their policies do not always help to achieve development goals in the long term. Even worse, many bona fide offers of aid often contribute to widening the already unbridgeable gap between Western societies and the poorest countries.
Eventually, the Consortium published a report stating that “by far the best method of addressing poverty and inequality would be a universal income grant.” The idea was eventually put into practice by implementing the Basic Income Grant (BIG), the first universal cash-transfer pilot project in the world. In 2005, a coalition of churches, trade unions, and NGOs joined forces to provide each Namibian with a cash grant of N$100 (approx. US$7) to be paid monthly as a right. The fund would cover all Namibians, regardless of their socio-economic status, from their day of birth until they were eligible to the existing universal State Old Age Pension of N$450. According to the Consortium, the new tax system would make the BIG affordable, amounting to just 3% of the country’s GDP. Debating and lobbying kept going on for another two years until a pilot project was finally approved to test the programme in practice. In January 2008, the BIG pilot programme was finally launched in the small village of Otjivero.
The amazing positive effects of the Otjivero experiment
About 1,200 people resided in Otjivero, a small town of retrenched former farm workers who lived in abject poverty conditions. The Namibian government chose this rural settlement to monitor the impact of the BIG project over a two-year period until December 2009, and appointed a team of local and international researchers to document the situation prior to and after the implementation of the programme.
After less than one year, the population of Otjivero reaped the benefits of this project with amazing results. Both children and adults enjoyed a substantial improvement in their quality of life. Child malnutrition levels in the village dropped in just six months from 42% to 17%. Parents finally had enough money to pay school fees as well as the equipment needed by their kids, such as stationery and school uniforms. Schools had more money to purchase teaching material for the students, and dropout rates fell from between 30% and 40% to a mere 5%.
The introduction of the BIG grants helped the community grow and thrive, and allowed people to focus on more productive jobs. Many young women become financially independent without having to engage in transactional sex. A substantial amount of money was spent on starting new small enterprises and engaging in more productive activities that fostered local economic development. As a direct consequence, economic and poverty-related crimes fell by over 60%.
After less than one year, the population of Otjivero reaped the benefits of this project with amazing results. Both children and adults enjoyed a substantial improvement in their quality of life. Child malnutrition levels in the village dropped in just six months from 42% to 17%.
The sanitary conditions of the local population improved significantly, with five times more people being able to afford treatment in the settlement’s health clinic and, even more importantly, to buy food. Before the introduction of the BIG, most HIV-positive residents faced numerous difficulties in accessing antiretroviral (ARV) therapy due to poverty and lack of proper means of transportation. The project helped them to afford better nutrition and more reliable transport to get their medications. Even critics who argued that free money would lead to more alcoholism were proved wrong, even when a committee that was trying to curb alcoholism was established.
Some years later, during the 2012-2013 summer months, Namibia was struck by one of the worst recorded droughts, leaving over 755,000 people (36% of the population) exposed to starvation in the subsequent years. After the President declared a state of emergency, the three Lutheran Churches in Namibia implemented a cash grant programme modeled on the BIG pilot in Otjivero. The grant helped approximately 6,000 people with enough money to buy the food they needed to survive. The Namibians reached by the grant spent about 60% of the money received to ensure food security for their families. However, it is interesting to note that people used the remaining 40% of the money to meet their other fundamental needs, such as to covering health care expenses, paying for their children’s schooling and even investing in their farming equipment. Once again, the basic income project brought direct positive changes to the quality of life of those who received it and to the local economies as well.
The initial findings vastly exceed the expectations of the BIG coalition, and were encouraging enough to suggest that the introduction of the project on a national scale was possible. Some critics tried to depict these results as unscientific and unreliable, casting a shadow of doubt on the whole project. However, the analysis, published by the now defunct Namibia Economic Policy Research Unit, was itself later found to be methodologically flawed. Wrong and grossly inflated figures about the projected costs of the implementation of the programme at the national level started circulating and, even after NEPRU retracted its statements, they still kept circulating in the media. Some local politicians joined this (rather questionable) wave of criticism and argued that the BIG was a less effective strategy than other extremely generic attempts at “creating more jobs”, ignoring the fundamental strength of the project – its ability to emancipate the poor financially.
Eventually, after the Namibian president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, officially took a position against the grant in 2010, the programme was discontinued, if not forgotten. In 2015, the Minister of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare, Zephania Kameeta, stated that the government was once again evaluating the implementation of the BIG as one of the key elements of its strategy in the war against poverty. Sadly, the efforts of the former bishop and relentless advocate of UBI were swept away just one year later when the BIG project was set aside and replaced by a much more traditional, growth-based economy programme known as the “Harambee Prosperity Plan”.
Some local politicians joined this (rather questionable) wave of criticism and argued that the BIG was a less effective strategy than other extremely generic attempts at “creating more jobs”, ignoring the fundamental strength of the project – its ability to emancipate the poor financially.
Despite some recent talks about the potential positive effects of the BIG, universal income doesn’t seem to be part of Namibia’s foreseeable future. However, it has already been proved to be an unexpectedly efficient tool for bringing prosperity to the Namibian population. Many other countries around the world can still learn from the amazing results it brought about.
Lessons for other countries
The industrialised world is facing its own shares of different problems, and poverty has recently resurfaced even in the richest countries where its existence had been long forgotten. A “fourth world” made up of vast numbers of immigrants, refugee, and homeless people is swelling the ranks of these invisible new poor that are systematically exploited even in the most highly industrialised Western democracies. Today, one-third of American families struggle to buy food, shelter or medical care, and in some European countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece, more than one-third of the population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
And things are about to get even nastier. Automation, robotics and the never-ending technological race are raising serious issues, such as the ethical consequences of substituting some human professions with AI. A recent research study estimated that the upcoming technological advancements are putting a huge proportion of jobs at risk. The numbers are absurdly high – up to 50% in the United States, 69% in India, 77% in China, 80% in Nepal, and 88% in Ethiopia. Installing a robot in place of a human worker is becoming increasingly cheaper, and the current AI revolution is making machines better than humans in almost everything (including thinking). If even the strongest economies are on the verge of social failure already, how can we brace ourselves to face a future where machines are going to strip a huge proportion of the population of their jobs?
A recent research study estimated that the upcoming technological advancements are putting a huge proportion of jobs at risk. The numbers are absurdly high – up to 50% in the United States, 69% in India, 77% in China, 80% in Nepal, and 88% in Ethiopia.
Some, such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson and Bill Gates, have become advocates of the UBI as a solution to guarantee social stability. If fewer humans are needed to do the same jobs, it doesn’t mean that fewer humans have the right to live a quality life they can truly enjoy. The Namibian BIG project eventually failed, but not because of its lack of merit. It was ended by those who were too short-sighted to understand its full potential. It was a great idea, but maybe just ahead of its time. However, this apparently small experiment started ten years ago in this small African village could be the first step towards a better world.
Namibia taught us one simple yet extremely important lesson – that UBI is not just viable and absolutely doable, it is one of the most cost-effective ways to stave off poverty at all levels.
Namibia taught us one simple yet extremely important lesson – that UBI is not just viable and absolutely doable, it is one of the most cost-effective ways to stave off poverty at all levels. It can help people become more productive, more creative, more able to focus on the things that matter, exactly as in the case of Otjivero’s residents. It is an extraordinary force that could drive humanity forward into a new era of equality and social sustainability.
JOBS, SKILLS AND INDUSTRY 4.0: Rethinking the Value Proposition of University Education
In my last feature, I wrote on the six capacity challenges facing African universities: institutional supply, resources, faculty, research, outputs, and leadership. In this essay, I focus on one critical aspect of the outputs of our universities, namely, the employability of our graduates. To be sure, universities do not exist simply for economic reasons, for return on investment, or as vocational enterprises. They also serve as powerful centers for contemplation and the generation of new knowledges, for the cultivation of enlightened citizenship, as crucibles for forging inclusive, integrated, and innovative societies, and as purveyors, at their best, of cultures of civility, ethical values, and shared well-being.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that higher education is prized for its capacity to provide its beneficiaries jobs and professional careers. Thus, employability is at the heart of the value proposition of university education; it is its most compelling promise and unforgiving performance indicator. The evidence across Africa, indeed in many parts of the world, is quite troubling as mismatches persist, and in some cases appear to be growing, between the quality of graduates and the needs of the economy. This often results in graduate underemployment and unemployment.
The Employability Challenge
There are two powerful mega trends that will determine Africa’s development trajectory in the 21st century. The first is the continent’s youth bulge, and the second the changing nature of work. Employability is the nexus between the two, the thread that will weave or unravel the fabric of the continent’s future, enabling it to achieve or abort the enduring historic and humanistic project for development, democracy, and self-determination.
As we all know, Africa’s youth population is exploding. This promises to propel the continent either towards a demographic dividend of hosting the world’s largest and most dynamic labor force or the demographic disaster of rampant insecurity and instability fueled by hordes of ill-educated and unemployable youths. According to United Nations data, in 2017 the continent had 16.64% (1.26 billion) of the world’s population, which is slated to rise, on current trends, to 19.93% (1.70 billion) in 2030, and 25.87% (2.53 billion) in 2050, and 39.95% (4.47 billion) in 2100.
The African Development Bank succinctly captures the challenge and opportunity facing the continent: “Youth are Africa’s greatest asset, but this asset remains untapped due to high unemployment. Africa’s youth population is rapidly growing and expected to double to over 850 million by 2050. The potential benefits of Africa’s youth population are unrealized as two-thirds of non-student youth are unemployed, discouraged, or only vulnerably employed despite gains in education access over the past several decades.”
Thus, the youth bulge will turn out to be a blessing or curse depending on the employability skills imparted to them by our educational institutions including universities. Across Africa in 2017 children under the age of 15 accounted for 41% of the population and those 15 to 24 for another 19%. While African economies have been growing, the rate of growth is not fast enough to absorb the masses of young people seeking gainful employment. Since 2000 the rate of employment has been growing at an average rate of 3%. Africa needs to double this rate or more to significantly reduce poverty and raise general standards of living for its working people.
Not surprisingly, despite some improvements over the past two decades, the employment indicators for Africa continue to be comparatively unsatisfactory. For example, International Labor Organization data shows that in 2017 the unemployment rate in Africa was 7.9% compared to a world average of 5.6%; the vulnerable employment rate was 66.0% to 42.5%; the extreme working poverty rate was 31.9% to 11.2%; and the moderate working poverty rate was 23.6% to 16.0%, respectively.
This data underscores the fact that much of the growth in employment in many African countries is in the informal sector where incomes tend to be low and working conditions poor. In sectoral terms, there appears to be a structural decline in agricultural and manufacturing employment, and rise in service sector jobs. Yet, in many African countries both the declining and rising sectors are characterised by high incidence of vulnerable, informal, and part-time jobs.
The structural shifts in employment dynamics across much of Africa differ considerably from the historical path traversed by the developed countries. But the latter, too, are experiencing challenges of their own as the so-called fourth industrial revolution unleashes its massive and unpredictable transformations. In fact, the issue of graduate employability, as discussed in the next section is not a monopoly of universities in Africa and other parts of the Global South. It is also exercising the minds of educators, governments, and employers in the Global North.
The reason is simple: the world economy is undergoing major structural changes, which are evident everywhere even if their manifestations and intensity vary across regions and countries. As deeply integrated as Africa is in the globalized world economy, it means the continent’s economies are facing double jeopardy. They are simultaneously confronting and navigating both the asymmetrical legacies of the previous revolutions and the unfolding revolution of digital automation, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, and so on in which the old boundaries of work, production, social life, and even the meaning of being human are rapidly eroding.
The analysis above should make it clear that employability cannot be reduced to employment. Employability entails the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attributes, in short, capabilities to pursue a productive and meaningful life. To quote an influential report by the British Council, “Employability requires technical skills, job-specific and generic cognitive attributes, but also a range of other qualities including communication, empathy, intercultural awareness and so forth…. Such a perspective guards against a reductive ‘skills gap’ diagnosis of the problems of graduate unemployment.” The challenge for universities, then, is the extent to which they are providing an education that is holistic, one that provides subject and technical knowledges, experiential learning opportunities, liberal arts competencies, and soft and lifelong learning skills.
As deeply integrated as Africa is in the globalized world economy, it means the continent’s economies are facing double jeopardy. They are simultaneously confronting and navigating both the asymmetrical legacies of the previous revolutions and the unfolding revolution of digital automation, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, and so on in which the old boundaries of work, production, social life, and even the meaning of being human are rapidly eroding.
But in addition to the attributes, values, and social networks acquired and developed by an individual in a university, employability depends on the wider socio-economic and political context. Employability thrives in societies committed to the pursuit of inclusive development. This entails, to quote the report again, “a fair distribution of the benefits of development (economic and otherwise) across the population, and allows equitable access to valued opportunities. Second, while upholding equality of all before the law and in terms of social welfare, it also recognizes and values social diversity. Third, it engages individuals and communities in the task of deciding the shape that society will take, through the democratic participation of all segments of society.”
In short, employability refers to the provision and acquisition, in the words of an employability study undertaken at my university, USIU-Africa in 2017, “of skills necessary to undertake self-employment opportunities, creation of innovative opportunities as well as acquiring and maintaining salaried employment. It is the capacity to function successfully in a role and be able to move between occupations…. employability skills can be gained in and out of the classroom and depend also on the quality of education gained by the individuals before entry into the university. As such the role of the university is to provide a conducive environment and undertake deliberate measures to ensure that students acquire these skills within their period of study.”
Universities and Employability
The African media is full of stories about the skills mismatch between the quality of graduates and the needs of employers and the economy. Many graduates end up “tarmacking” for years unemployed or underemployed. In the meantime, employers complain bitterly, to quote a story in University World News “unprepared graduates are raising our costs.” The story paints a gloomy picture: “The Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) – a lobby group for all major corporate organizations – says in its latest survey that at least 70% of entry-level recruits require a refresher course in order to start to deliver in their new jobs. As a result, they take longer than expected to become productive, nearly doubling staff costs in a majority of organizations.”
[E]mployability cannot be reduced to employment. Employability entails the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attributes, in short, capabilities to pursue a productive and meaningful life
The situation is no better in the rest of the region. The story continues, noting that a study of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63% of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61% of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55% and 52% of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51% of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.” The situation in Kenya and East Africa clearly applies elsewhere across Africa.
But the problem of employability afflicts universities and economies in the developed countries as well. Studies from the USA and UK are quite instructive. One is a 2014 Gallup survey of business leaders in the United States. To the statement “higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competencies that my business needs,” only 11% strongly agreed and another 22% agreed, while 17% strongly disagreed and another 17% disagreed, and the rest were in the middle. In contrast, in another Gallup survey, also conducted in 2014, 96% of the provosts interviewed believed they were preparing their students for success in the workforce. Another survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities highlighted the discrepancy between students’ and employers’ views on graduates preparedness. “For example, while 59 percent of students said they were well prepared to analyze and solve complex problems, just 24 percent of employers said they had found that to be true of recent college graduates.”
In Britain, research commissioned by the Edge Foundation in 2011 underscored the same discrepancies. The project encompassed 26 higher education institutions and 9 employers. The report concluded, “While there are numerous examples of employers and HEIs working to promote graduate employability in the literature and in our research, there are still issues and barriers between employers and many of those responsible for HEI policy, particularly in terms of differences in mindset, expectations and priorities. There are concerns from some academics about employability measures in their universities diminishing the academic integrity of higher education provision. There is also frustration from employers about courses not meeting their needs.”
Specifically, the reported noted, “Employers expect graduates to have the technical and discipline competences from their degrees but require graduates to demonstrate a range of broader skills and attributes that include team-working, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem solving and often managerial abilities or potential.” One could argue, this is indeed a widespread expectation among employers whether in the developed or developing countries.
Predictably, in a world that is increasingly addicted to rankings as a tool of market differentiation and competition, national and international employability rankings have emerged. One of the best known is the one by Times Higher Education, whose 2017 edition lists 150 universities from 33 countries. As with the general global rankings of universities, the rankings are dominated by American institutions, with 7 in the top 10 and 35 overall, followed by British universities with 3 in the top 20 and 9 overall. Africa has only one university in the league, the University of the Witwatersrand listed in last place at 150.
What, then, are some of the most effective interventions to enhance the employability of university graduates? There is no shortage of studies and suggestions. Clearly, it is critical to embed employability across the institution from the strategic plan, to curriculum design, to the provision of support services such as internships and career counseling. The importance of carefully crafted student placements and experiential and work-related learning cannot be overemphasized. We can all borrow from each other’s best practices duly adapted to fit our specific institutional and local contexts.
Cooperative education that combines classroom study and practical work has long been touted for its capacity to impart employability skills and prepare young people transition from higher education to employment. Work-integrated learning and experiential learning encompass various features and practices including internships, placements, and service learning. In the United States and Canada several universities adopted cooperative education and work-integrated learning in the first decades of the 20th century. The movement has since spread to many parts of the world. The World Council of Cooperative Education, which was founded in 1983, currently has 913 institutions in 52 countries.
What, then, are some of the most effective interventions to enhance the employability of university graduates?… Clearly, it is critical to embed employability across the institution from the strategic plan, to curriculum design, to the provision of support services such as internships and career counseling. The importance of carefully crafted student placements and experiential and work-related learning cannot be overemphasized. We can all borrow from each other’s best practices duly adapted to fit our specific institutional and local contexts.
The Developing Employability Initiative (DEI), a collaboration comprising 30 higher education institutions and over 700 scholars internationally, defines employability as “the ability to create and sustain meaningful work across the career lifespan. This is a developmental process which students need to learn before they graduate.” It urges higher education institutions to embed employability thinking in their teaching and learning by incorporating what is termed basic literacy, rhetorical literacy, personal and critical literacy, emotional literacy, occupational literacy, and ethical, social and cultural literacy.
The DEI has developed a suggestive framework of what it calls essential employability qualities (EEQ). These qualities, “are not specific to any discipline, field, or industry, but are applicable to most work-based, professional environments; they represent the knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences that help ensure that graduates are not only ready for their first or next job, but also support learners’ foundation for a lifetime of engaged employment and participation in the rapidly changing workplace of the 21st century.” Graduates with EEQ profile are expected to be communicators, thinkers and problem solvers, inquirers and researchers, collaborators, adaptable, principled and ethical, responsible and professional, and continuous learners.
Equipping students with employability skills and capacities is a continuous process in the context of rapidly changing occupational landscapes. I referred earlier to the disruptions caused by the fourth industrial revolution which will only accelerate as the 21st century unfolds. Automation will lead to the disappearance of many occupations—think of the transport industry with the spread of driverless cars, sales jobs with cashless shops, or medical careers with the spread of machine and digital diagnoses. But new occupations will also emerge, many of which we can’t even predict, a prospect that makes the skills of liberal arts education and lifelong learning even more crucial.
We should not be preparing students for this brave new world in the same manner as many of us were educated for the world of the late 20th century. To quote Robert Aoun, President of Northeastern University in the USA that is renowned for its cooperative education, let us provide robot-proof higher education, one that “is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it calibrates them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or create something valuable to society.” The new literacies of the new education include data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy encompassing the humanities, communication and design.
Achieving the ambitious agenda of equipping university students with employability skills, attributes, experiences, and mindsets for the present and future requires the development of effective and mutually beneficial, multifaceted and sustained engagements and partnerships between universities, employers, governments and civil society. Within the universities themselves there is need for institutional commitment at all levels and a compact of accountability between administrators, faculty, and students.
This entails developing robust systems of learning assessment including verification of employability skills, utilization of external information and reviews, integration of career services, and cultivating strong cultures of student, alumni and employer engagement, representation and partnerships in assuring program relevance and quality. Pursuing these goals is fraught with challenges, in terms of striking a balance between the cherished traditions of institutional autonomy and academy freedom, in engaging employers without importing the insidious cultures of what I call the 5Cs of the neo-liberal academy: corporatization of management, consumerization of students, casualization of faculty, commercialization of learning, and commodification of knowledge.
The challenges of developing and fostering employability skills among students in our universities are real and daunting. But as educators we have no choice but to continue striving, with the full support and engagement of governments, intergovernmental agencies, the private sector, non-governmental organisations, and civil society organisations, to provide the best experiential and work integrated learning we can without compromising the enduring and cherished traditions and values of higher education. The consequences of inaction or complacency, of conducting business as usual are too ghastly to contemplate: it is to condemn the hundreds of millions of contemporary African youth and the youths yet to be born to unemployable and unlivable lives. That would be an economic, ethical, and existential tragedy of monumental proportions for which history would never forgive us.
This is an abridged version of a keynote address delivered at Malawi’s First International Conference on Higher Education, June 27, 2018.
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