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Why Bother to Vote? Why Elections Are Losing Their Lustre

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A couple of years ago, there was a contentious debate in academic and policy circles about the perceived decline in global democracy. Through all the talk about how to define democracy and measure its growth and reversal, one thing remained certain: the sanctity of elections. Regardless of whether or not democracy is advancing, elections retain their position at the center of any legitimate democratic system. Problematic though they might be, elections represent the height of political progress.

When there is public outcry over an election, is usually revolves around a particular aspect of the electoral process: the merits and/or drawbacks of election technology, controversy around how votes are counted, the source of campaign money; the list goes on. This has especially been the case in the last year, as people reacted in shock to -and looked for flaws in- the electoral process after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump won the American presidential election.

But how do we know that elections themselves are still a broadly accepted and publicly legitimate way to select leaders? And given that even dictatorial leaders are often happy to hold elections, what is their real value in advancing democracy around the world?

The Erosion of Electoral Credibility

It turns out that people around the world are wondering the same thing. In fact, more than ever before, citizens from across the globe report that elections are not necessarily a defining part of a democratic system. In the 2010-2014 wave of the World Values Survey, for instance, less than half of all respondents (41.5 percent) agreed with the view that elections are an essential characteristic of democracy. This represents a significant drop from the previous round of the survey (2005-2009), when more than half of the respondents (52.3 percent) expressed that elections are an essential part of democratic systems. This drop goes hand in hand with a sinking faith in democracy overall. From 2005-2009 to 2010-2014, there was a 7.1 percentage drop in the proportion of people around the world who felt that democracy is “absolutely important.”

It isn’t difficult to see that elections are losing their lustre. But why? In representative democracies, elections empower citizens to stand in judgment of their (prospective) leaders. Even if only for a short while, elections shine a spotlight on ordinary voters, providing a platform for them to debate, reflect and ultimately assess their choices. Voters hold ultimate power in elections…or do they?

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy. As a result, the rules that govern elections often do not uphold the principles of democracy, and ordinary voters do not hold the reigns of power in elections anymore.

Electoral Systems

In some ways, it all starts with the electoral system. Although the design of a country’s electoral system — involving calculations of district sizes and populations, determinations of boundaries and vote to seat ratios — may seem like a purely technical process, the choice has serious political implications. At their core, after all, electoral systems determine how votes get counted and translated into seats; they determine who has a chance of a seat at the table. Electoral systems are thus at the heart of democratic design.

Since the choice of electoral system design impacts many later phases of the electoral cycle – especially party and coalition formation and campaign strategy – it is a stage setter, providing the framework and incentive structure for electoral stakeholders’ behavior. A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory. In so much of the world, these types of winner-take-all electoral systems risk creating a tyranny of the majority. They also often produce governments that are seen to be “unfair” in the sense that the number of seats a party wins can often be highly disproportionate to the number of votes that party garnered. Parties who do not manage to win a majority of votes but who still capture a substantial amount of support are left with absolutely no access to decision-making power. In 2015, the controversy surrounding first past the post was brought to the fore in the United Kingdom. There, the Conservatives won 37 percent of the vote and 51 percent of parliamentary seats. The party therefore received a parliamentary majority with less than half of the electorate’s support.

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy.

Of course, other electoral systems – even ones that seek to produce more “fair,” proportional results – have their problems. Proportional representation may give more parties a seat at the table, but it can also bestow striking amounts of power to the smallest and most ideologically extreme parties, who become “kingmakers” in the kinds of coalition governments that PR systems produce. In Israel, for example, hard-line members of ruling coalitions have routinely blocked potential agreements related to the conflict with Palestinians over “any slight movement perceived as anti-settler.”

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts. In the United States, Donald Trump won the presidential election without winning the majority of Americans’ votes. In fact, Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more popular votes than Trump, which represented the most votes ever won by a losing candidate in American history. Since it is the votes of the American electoral college, made up of elite party insiders, that ultimately decide the victor, the popular vote can end up determining nothing.

It is easy to see why such systems provide real disincentives to popular participation, especially for non-mainstream voters. Indeed, a post-election poll in the United States revealed that a mere 30 percent of surveyed Americans felt the electoral system was functional. 70 percent said that it was broken.

Money in Politics

Of course, electoral system design is just the tip of the iceberg. The electoral playing field is also heavily skewed by the growing role of money – both legal and illicit – in electoral contests. Without regulations that limit donations and expenditures, require regular and full disclosure of funding sources, and that incentivize close interaction with voters, it is all too easy for politicians to fall prey to a small group of wealthy donors who can and do influence policy formulation in the years between elections. In this situation, ordinary voters must fight to be heard, and even when they are they must struggle to compete with affluent elites. This kind of situation is also self-perpetuating. Once elected, leaders will think about how to retain their positions; the quest for campaign contributions and the subsequent quid pro quo may go on for the entirety of elites’ electoral careers.

This type of election is hardly voter-centered. Indeed, the Kofi Annan-led Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security listed uncontrolled, undisclosed and opaque political finance as a “grave threat” to the credibility of elections. “In an era of explosive growth in campaign expenditure across older democracies, citizens lose faith in the electoral process. They suspect that wealthier citizens and corporations have greater influence in public affairs…Poorly regulated campaign finance in turn leads to lower participation in the democratic process, tainted electoral integrity and impaired democracy.”

Examples of these situations abound. In India, where the election commission has set fundraising and expenditure limits, politicians resort to “black money” from the criminal underworld. Politicians have been forthcoming about the reality of the situation. In fact, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is often cited for saying that “every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.” In 2012, parliamentarians discussed spending as much as $3.3 million on campaigns, despite expenditure limits of $26,000. To put this in perspective, the average Indian person earned $1,480 at that time, roughly 6 percent of the official limit and .04 percent of the maximum $3.3 million quoted by politicians. In Kenya, where parliament refused to pass a campaign finance regulatory bill into law, candidates have spent millions even before the official beginning of the campaign period. In the run up to the primary elections in April, for instance, aspirants in the North Rift region of the country spent approximately Sh850 million ($8.2 million) on their campaigns. In the Uasin Gishu region, the leading opposition party’s top two gubernatorial aspirants each spent Sh100 million ($967,000) in the primary contest.

Given the dangers, it is surprising how little regulation there is around these issues. In fact, around the world, only about a quarter of all countries in a global study banned corporate donations to political parties, less than half prohibited donations from corporations with government contracts to political parties, and just 4 in 10 outlawed anonymous donations to candidates. Rules about disclosure aren’t much better. Just 50 percent of countries require political parties to submit financial reports in relation to election campaigns.

In such contexts, it comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

Media and Elections

Voters also greatly depend on the media during elections. Indeed, as the conduit of information to the public, the media play a pivotal role in electoral processes. Voters rely on the media to learn about candidates’ and parties’ platforms, to debate with other voters on the current issues, and to find the practical information necessary to cast ballots. Furthermore, the media act as watchdogs, safeguarding the transparency of the process. Without credible information, voters stand little chance of making informed decisions at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, however, media around the world are in crisis. In its most recent report, the Electoral Integrity Project lists media as one of the two (the other was campaign finance) most serious obstacles to a level electoral playing field. There are many challenges to free and independent media today, but some of the most critical election-related problems include:

Freedom of the Media: Media cannot fulfill its duties to society in a politically restricted environment. It is thus worrying that the 2017 edition of the World Press Freedom Index lists only fifteen countries (out of 180) in its most free category (“good situation”). Of these, twelve are located in northern and western Europe. In other countries, media outlets and journalists face high-profile bashing – increasingly from elites, financial restrictions, threats, physical abuse and violence, and an oppressive legal environment. Notably, the Index singles out the African continent for the recent spate of internet shutdowns during elections.

The 2017 Index warns of a “tipping point” in the state of media freedom, especially in democracies. The report states that media freedom “has never been so threatened,” and documents a 14 percent rise in the overall level of media constraints and violations over a five year period as well as how an “obsession” with surveillance and the death of respect for confidential sources have contributed to the decline of many consolidated democracies.

Consolidation: The vast majority of media outlets are owned by an increasingly smaller number of people and firms. In Australia, for instance, the News Corporation and associated Rupert Murdoch companies own 57.5 percent of the country’s newspapers. In Chile, El Mercurio SAP owns 54.9 percent of that country’s newspaper market. The concentration of media ownership means that there is less diversity of opinion in the public domain. Without multiple, diverging viewpoints and feisty public debate, voters are less informed and thus less able to make independent and free choices on election day.

A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory.

Access to Media: Media become especially critical during election campaigns, when candidates and parties rely on television, radio, newspapers and the internet to communicate with the public. Without regulation of some sort, smaller, less affluent contenders will struggle to access the media and therefore to reach voters. In 67.2 percent of cases, countries provide subsidized access to media for political parties, but in many of those cases that subsidy is based on the party’s share of the vote/number of seats in the previous election, or even on the number of candidates running. Newer and smaller parties are thus at an extreme disadvantage. In cases where there is no subsidy for media access, the costs can be prohibitive. In the United States, for instance, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spent approximately $227 million on media. That was 58 percent of her total expenditures for the campaign. Donald Trump spent less in actual dollars, but it still amounted to 59 percent of his campaign’s total expenditures.

Without the freedom to report honestly and in safety and without a balanced playing field, characterized by equal access to media, voters are at a distinct disadvantage, simply because they do not have the opportunity to freely and easily obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about their choices on election day as well as about the legitimacy of their electoral processes. This is even more true as global threats to internet freedom grow.

These problems threaten media’s connection to the public around the world. They also serve to perpetuate elite dominance in the electoral arena, undermining the rights to information and the freedoms of expression and speech that are fundamental to democracy.

Electoral Manipulation

As if the issues outlined above were not enough, old-fashioned rigging continues to be a problem in elections around the world. Despite the advent of electoral technology, which is perceived by some as a way to prevent many polling station-level crimes, in many parts of the world, elections are still susceptible to ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, underage voting, and voter bribery.

These types of incidents are regular occurrences, happening all over the world. Egypt provides an exemplary case in point. In 2010, observers cited the removal of opposition candidates’ names from ballots, blocking opposition agents from entering polling stations, premature closing of polling stations and ballot box stuffing. Evidence in the public record included photos and videos of voter intimidation and election officials filling in blank ballots. In 2014, turnout was so low during the scheduled two days of voting that the election commission took the step of adding a third day. International observers called this a “needless irregularity.” On the night before this additional day, the opposition candidate withdrew his monitors because security forces were abusing them. In 2015, Egyptian elections were marked by widespread vote-buying and violence. In fact, the situation was so extreme that some candidates dropped out of the race.

The same issues can be seen in many other parts of the world. Recent analysis cites allegations of electoral fraud in Russia, election related violence and the theft of vote counting machines in the Philippines, and irregular figures from results sheets in Gabon. In Nigeria, accusations of double voter registration are threatening the legitimacy of a sitting governor and a British MP is on trial for 14 counts of electoral fraud.

Allegations of rigging are also occurring in relation to election technology. The United States 2016 election is perhaps one of the best known recent examples of polls tainted by such accusations, but the vulnerability of election technology is well known in other parts of the world. In 2016, Andrés Sepúlveda revealed how, beginning in 2005, he manipulated elections for a variety of clients across the South American continent, ultimately having a hand in nine different countries. Just before the 2016 election in the Philippines, hackers attacked the country’s election commission website and compromised personal data of approximately 70 million people.

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts

And this isn’t all. The drawing of electoral boundaries, the drafting and amending of laws, access to voter registration, electoral dispute resolution and many other aspects of the electoral process can all be skewed to serve private rather than public interests. In recent years, much of the conversation and rhetoric around elections has focused on trying to determine how many problems, or exactly what problems, constitute a fraudulent election. This is a difficult question – after all, the manipulation of even one part of the electoral process can impact a number of stages later on. If it is clear that private interests have trumped public interests in even one phase of elections, shouldn’t that be enough?

Are polls passé?

For some, issues such as the ones raised above call the very legitimacy of elections into question. For these critics, the solution does not lie in bolstering the electoral process; it rests in upending reliance on elections altogether.

Indeed, one argument is that elections are outdated, relatively undemocratic and far from the best way to channel people’s thoughts and opinions.

Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?… Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

The argument has its merits. Although elections are processes, made up of multiple phases and activities, each of which has its individual purpose and impact on the final result, the majority of attention, money and work is – more often than not — focused on election day and the counting and announcement of votes. Practically, then, an election is about individual decisions at the ballot box. One tick and it’s all over.

There is also the argument that electoral democracy is a particularly western conception, designed for particular social systems that are organized quite differently from social structures and systems in other parts of the world. Thomas Koelble and Edward LiPuma contend, for example, that “the real measure of democracy is the extent to which governance conforms to the visions of democracy worked out by the governed.” Elections, at least the way they are currently practiced, may not factor into all visions of democracy.

In this reality, what are the other options? Should the focus be – as it has been for the last two decades – on improving electoral processes? Or is there another way altogether? Is it time to reconsider elections as the preferred mode of choosing political leaders?

That may already be happening.

In many places around the world, new political movements – many of which have sprung from waves of popular protests against the corruption, greed, and self-serving mindsets of politicians, are working to create innovative structures through which citizens and voters can easily and directly participate in governance. While these movements do not necessarily reject the concept of elections, they place as much – if not more – importance on internal democracy and consensus. As a result, they approach elections from a position that has grown much more directly from constituents’ and members’ input and decisions than those of traditional parties.

It comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

By placing ordinary people at the center, these movements are defining new modes of direct democracy. Indeed, the Podemos party in Spain makes use of digital platforms like Loomio and Reddit, which allow citizens to take part in policy discussions, vote on senior party positions and come to consensus on issues under debate. Similarly new movements in India and Italy make efforts to grow from the local level upwards, prioritizing grassroots issues.

Another possibility is sortition, or drafting by lot. In this system, a random sample of the population comes together to learn about selected topics, hear from experts, debate with each other and make decisions. In this way, everyone does not vote on a range of issues that few understand. Instead, a randomly selected group of people takes the time to comprehensively understand a set of questions and make well-informed decisions. This body could then interact with elected representatives to draft legislation. Proponents argue that sortition reduces corruption and promotes attention to the common good. Sortition is not new. It was used in ancient Athens, and it has been and/or is being used in Bolivia, Australia, Canada, China, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United States.

The new political movements and the concept of sortition demand much more of people than mainstream elections. This makes sense; it takes significant effort and time to weigh the policy choices facing society. Elected representatives, regardless of their experience and expertise, can only do so much on their own; citizens and voters must be active participants, providing their leaders with the information they require to make informed decisions and constantly demanding accountability.

It may be that if elections are to regain and maintain legitimacy, they, too, will have to ask more of voters. And voters should demand more of their elections, if it’s not already too late.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

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Eating Our Own Flesh: Corruption as a Form of Cannibalism

Corruption in Africa is not simply an act of giving or receiving a bribe; it is a form of “primitive accumulation” or “accumulation by dispossession” that hollows out institutions and causes much misery.

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Eating Our Own Flesh: Corruption as a Form of Cannibalism
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Corruption is a political vernacular in Kenya today, as Keguro Macharia once described it. In public discourse, corruption is described as something both pervasive and cunning. You get a sense of this in some of the metaphors that we use to describe it: “cartels fight back” or corruption is a “virus” or a “cancer” that has taken over the country’s body politic. The metaphor of cancer is a particularly intriguing one, as it simultaneously renders corruption as invisible, powerful and biological.

The effect of this metaphorising of corruption is that it makes the phenomenon difficult to conceptualise concretely. It has suffered an unfortunate definitional flattening, a slippage which this article will attempt to address. We need the definition of corruption put back into sharp focus so that its contours, its peaks and troughs, are clearly accentuated. Only then can we begin to figure out a way through this moral morass.

First, the misconceptions. What is corruption? Is it that young girl in Machakos praying that her brother, a police constable, will finally be deployed to a route rich enough in opportunities for extortion so that she can finally finish her course at the University of Nairobi? She has already lost a year. Is this girl, or her brother, corrupt?

Is corruption the kickbacks that a state employee extracts from suppliers to supplement his income, which has been stretched to breaking point by a clan of dependents? What about paying extra to bump your loved one up a surgery waiting list at a public hospital?

Or is corruption something more formally executed, using laws, imprests and tenders? Is it the transfer of taxes to private use to fund a legislator’s trip to get cancer treatment abroad — over and above his taxpayer-funded premium health insurance scheme? Or is it the transfer of strategic national resources, like oil blocks, mining licences and public utilities, into private hands?

What makes one describe a traffic police officer taking a Sh50 bribe from a matatu driver as corruption but the collusion by state officers to incur public debt at the scale of an entire country’s GDP as macro-economic management? And what makes the transfer of government trustee land into foreign private hands “Foreign Direct Investment”, while the same transaction by a native is termed as a “land grab” i.e. corruption?

Is it the scale of the land in question, such that acquiring 100,000 hectares is an “investment” but ten hectares is a “land grab”? Or does it have something to do with power, where the passport of a (former) imperial power paves the way for the individual holding the said passport signalling to local elites that this is the master’s son and we better make room for him or else prepare for violent expropriation and/or occupation?

Where is the line? What are the criteria? Who decides? Better yet, who should decide?

Let us turn to some linguistic definitions.

Corruption is archaically and simply defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a state of decay or putrefaction”. But today’s use of the term has redefined this term and given it a completely different meaning, just like other modern-day terms that are used primarily in their conceptual rather than linguistic meaning, including Terrorism, Extremist, Human Rights, Black, White, etc.

So, what is corruption in its politically loaded sense? Yasmin Dawood, in her classic paper “Classifying Corruption”, captures it as follows:

“Scholars have categorized various kinds of corruption. Thomas Burke has distinguished three kinds of corruption: quid pro quo, monetary influence, and distortion. Zephyr Teachout has identified five categories: criminal bribery, inequality, drowned voices, a dispirited public, and a lack of integrity. Deborah Hellman has described three principal kinds of corruption: corruption as the deformation of judgement, corruption as the distortion of influence, and corruption as the sale of favours.”

Clearly, corruption is a loaded term that can be unpacked extensively. But the single and most broadly used definition of corruption is articulated by Jakob Svensson as follows: “The misuse of public office for private gain.”

Most of the literature available on corruption engages the problem from the level of its outcomes – in other words, on its results, i.e.  “private gain”. But there seems to be little effort at trying to analyse the root causes.

Given the widespread nature of corruption, and given that it has no definitive social differentiators like class, income, education level or geographical region, it follows that the possible causes are either intrinsic (related to the nature of man or woman) or systemic (attributable to the prevailing socio-political and economic environment).

The intrinsic motivation can be explained in a general sense by human beings’ deeply instinctive proclivity to possess. In short: greed. That is simple enough.

But looking at all the scholarly definitions of corruption, what we witness in Africa defies any of those classifications completely.

Nigeria’s Sani Abacha did not benignly “misuse public office for private gain”; he swept the treasury coffers clean. He decimated the public office. Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002, Daniel arap Moi, and his coterie of ministers did not “quid pro quo, influence or distort”; they ingested entire institutions.

The same goes for the successive administrations of Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta. Their voracious troops of army ants have left no tree standing, literally. No tree in the forest was considered too sacred to spare. Their appetite is unlimited.

Nothing was/is too big or too small, not the strategic grain reserve, not the sports kitties (one of the few remaining routes out of poverty), not even programmes like the Youth Fund, the National Youth Service or Kazi kwa Vijana. (As a resident of Eastlands I can attest that these programmes had a direct impact on the ground, with all the associated positive results of wealth redistribution e.g. drastic drops in crime, increase in economic activity, rise in optimism.)

None of this is corruption, not by a mile. It is institutional cannibalism.

Given that it is our own, our best and brightest sons and daughters who are cannibalising our own institutions, I will go further and describe it as a socio-pathological condition that I am calling autosarcophagy – an amalgam in Greek of “eating one’s own flesh.”

This makes it a sociological condition. Why have we failed to evolve from a primitive agrarian society? It is obvious from observation that the trappings of civilization were quickly pasted upon us and this is perhaps why irrespective of our level of education, we struggle to perceive institutions. A native administrator perceives the institutional resources through a primitive instinctive lens rather than through an evolved intellectual lens. Given that the focal point is instinctive, the reaction becomes an irresistible urge to consume or possess this honeycomb, as instincts cannot perceive a discarnate boundary such as that of person, institution and/or system.

Therefore, as these officers sit across from the institution’s treasury, in the same way they sit across from the season’s grain harvest in the granary on their farm, they cannot help but raid it. If their signature can transfer funds from the institution’s bank account in the same way their signature facilitates transfer from their personal accounts, then what possibly makes the institution’s bank account different i.e. not a personal bank account?

Granted, there is scholarly consensus that Homo Economicus (the latest and arguably the most wicked of all the evolutionary stages of mankind), is a sociopath, whose folly was preciently captured by Jonathan Swift in his 1729 satirical article suggesting that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.

Still, the existence of this disorder in the West should be no consolation because Homo Economicus in Western society commits his genocide and fetal cannibalism in the villages of the people of the East and Global South. But African Homo Economicus commits filial cannibalism. How else would we term indenturing our own children as chattel by taking out high interest loans and sovereign bonds on their futures and then diverting those funds into private accounts, or accepting payments to dump nuclear and toxic waste in our backyards?

As for the second systemic cause? Capitalism.

The unstoppable march toward absolute implementation of this pernicious socio-political and economic order portends nothing but misery for humanity. The uncritical application of its core doctrinal pillar that calls for individual freedom of ownership ultimately results in what Marx called “primitive accumulation” and more recently translated by Prof. David Harvey as “accumulation by dispossession”.

In our context, this manifests as the transfer of collective (public) wealth into the hands of private, well-connected owners through privatisation of public resources like water, energy, minerals and public infrastructure, including healthcare and utilities, and the transfer of individual citizens’ wealth into the same private hands through usury, taxes and inflation.

Essentially, this creates a society where the only way one can get bread and water to feed one’s child is by taking the bread and water of someone else’s child. This may be the reason why there is little investment in understanding the root cause analysis of the problem of corruption — it would reveal the witch’s cloven hoof. It is the nature of the beast. It is capitalism.

And as the population increases and the walls around the public’s resources continue to be erected and extended, the masses’ incomes and wealth continue to be systematically harvested through quantitative easing (printing fiat), bonds (usury) and taxes, and then consolidated and transferred to the top through the global banking and financial system. It results in a fight at the bottom that grows ever more vicious, manifesting itself in perpetual war, slavery, dehumanising poverty and misery.

The only way to halt this accelerating bottomless spiral downward is to reject Man as Sovereign, end capitalism and establish a system that will nurture the (collective) Man using divine provision (natural resources), and protecting private property and wealth creation from expropriation by taxation, usury and inflation.

Simply, change the system.

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Keep It in the Family: A Case for Homeschooling in Kenya

Many parents who choose homeschooling seek to be directly and consistently involved in moulding their children’s character throughout their formal education on the basis of the conviction that with good moral and mental habits, high academic achievement and success in career are almost guaranteed.

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Keep It in the Family: A Case for Homeschooling in Kenya
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While most Kenyans associate formal education with institutional schooling, a significant number of their compatriots have opted for homeschooling. Homeschooling is not a specific curriculum, but rather the implementation of a curriculum by the parents themselves and/or their own directly chosen delegates. With the dominance of institutional schooling, many now view homeschooling as part of alternative education.

Several Kenyan families have homeschooled their children from the early 1990s using a variety of curricula, including 8-4-4, I.G.C.S.E., and Accelerated Christian Education. A number of Kenyan children have completed their high school education through homeschooling and have been admitted to universities inside and outside Kenya, and several are already employed, while others have ventured into entrepreneurship.

The Constitution of Kenya recognises the right of the child to education. Article 43 (1) (f) lists education as one of the fundamental rights of every person. Furthermore, Article 53 (1) (b) states that every child has the right to free and compulsory basic education. Nevertheless, neither of the articles limits education to the school environment.

However, Homeschooling Kenyan parents have expressed concern over provisions in the Basic Education Act 2013 that presume education can only be attained through institutionalised schools. For example, Article 28 of the Act, titled “Right of Child to Free and Compulsory Education”, states that “The Cabinet Secretary shall implement the right of every child to free and compulsory basic education” (Article 28(1)), but the tenor of the Act is that such education can only happen in the context of an institutional school.

The homeschooling community in Kenya is already feeling the effects of the Basic Education Act 2013 limiting education to the school environment. The Daily Nation carried a story on the 18th February this year, about the arrest of Silas Shikwekwe Were in Malaba, later arraigned in a Butali court in Kakamega County for allegedly abdicating his duty to enroll his children in school. Mr. Were and Mr. Onesmus Mboya Orinda filed Constitutional petition No. 236/19 at the High Court, Milimani Law Courts, asking the court to recognise home schooling as a legal and viable alternative method of according children in Kenya their right to education. They argue in their petition that the provisions of the Basic Education Act 2013 requiring a parent to enroll a child to an institution of learning limits the scope of what education is. They aver that sections of the Basic Education Act 2013 infringe on the rights of parents to determine the forum and manner in which their children will be educated. During the first mention of the Constitutional Petition on 25th June 2019, the courtroom was packed with homeschooling parents.

A number of considerations have led some Kenyan parents to choose homeschooling over institutional schooling.

A short history of schools

Schools have been a part of human societies for thousands of years. Among some of the peoples of Africa, the age groups system used to pass on knowledge, skills and attitudes to the young adults. It entailed a degree of deliberate, formal passing on of knowledge, skills and attitudes in a manner reminiscent of a contemporary school. There were schools in the ancient societies of Egypt, India, China, Greece, and Rome. The Byzantine Empire had an established school system until the fall of the Empire in 1453 C.E. In Muslim societies, mosques combined both religious observances and learning activities, but by the 9th century, the madrassa arose as a separate institution from the mosque. In Western Europe, a number of cathedral schools were founded during the Early Middle Ages in order to teach future clergy and administrators. Mandatory school attendance became common in parts of Europe during the 18th century, with the aim of increasing the literacy of the masses.

Formal schools become widespread only during the past two centuries. With the advent of the Western Scientific Revolution, certain fields of knowledge became highly specialised, making it significantly more difficult for parents to help their children to master them. The rise of factories during the Industrial Revolution led to the need for mass formal schooling to inculcate requisite habits in the workforce – punctuality, adherence to instructions, among others.

Education is the primary responsibility of parents, not schools

The word “education” comes from the Latin word ēducātiō, which literally means “breeding”, “bringing up”, or “rearing”, all of which are primarily associated with parents rather than with schools. Indeed, theorists of education frequently define education as the deliberate, planned equipping of the young with knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable them to participate effectively in the life of society. Again, such equipping is primarily the responsibility of parents, not schools. For most of human history, parents have been in charge of their children’s education. Their homes served as spaces for imparting social values and etiquette and particular trades. Families were known for certain trades. The presence of English surnames such as Tailor, Cook, Baker, and Smith partly explains this naming practice.

Formal schools become widespread only during the past two centuries. With the advent of the Western Scientific Revolution, certain fields of knowledge became highly specialised, making it significantly more difficult for parents to help their children to master them.

Despite the rise of universal compulsory education through schools, the responsibility of providing education primarily rests with parents as part of their wider responsibility to provide for their children. Parents who take their children to school are delegating rather than abdicating this responsibility, and this is evident in the practice of schools regularly meeting parents to brief them on their children’s progress. As such, parents who choose homeschooling are simply choosing to discharge their responsibility directly rather than delegating it to the schools.

Direct and consistent parental involvement in moulding character

In Philosophy and Education in Africa, R.J. Njoroge and G.A. Bennaars point out the four dimensions of education: the cognitive dimension entails the acquisition of knowledge; the normative dimension has to do with the inculcation of values; the procedural/creative dimension involves the approach or methodology through which the knowledge and values are acquired; the social/dialogical dimension entails the fact that education is an interactive process within human groups rather than in solitude.

The rise of factories during the Industrial Revolution led to the need for mass formal schooling to inculcate requisite habits in the workforce – punctuality, adherence to instructions, among others

Regrettably, in our day, many think that education (formal education) is exclusively geared to equipping students with knowledge (the cognitive dimension). It is no wonder we have so many highly skilled people whose ethical orientation is grievously wanting. Many parents who choose homeschooling seek to be directly and consistently involved in moulding their children’s character throughout their formal education on the basis of the conviction that with good moral and mental habits, high academic achievement and success in career are almost guaranteed.

There is consensus among theorists and practitioners of education that the ideal model of education is one in which the child gets maximum personalised attention in order to take care of his or her uniqueness. Harvard’s educational psychology Prof. Howard Gardner pointed out that human beings have multiple intelligences (“learning styles”), and that each of us uses one or two of them to learn most effectively. Following Gardner’s approach, the US-based Institute of Learning Styles Research has identified seven learning styles, highlighting the various ways in which different people learn most effectively using their five senses.

The seven learning styles are print (looking at printed or written text), aural (listening), visual (looking at depictions such as pictures and graphs, haptic (touch or grasp), interactive (verbalisation), kinesthetic (whole-body movement), and olfactory (smell and taste). Schools typically focus on the three competencies referred to in Western tradition as “the 3Rs” – reading, writing and reckoning (calculating), and mainly approach learning from a verbal and logical perspective, thereby largely neglecting people whose learning styles cannot cope with this approach.

By the very nature of the size of a typical family, a home-schooled child gets much better personalised attention than a child in a typical institutional Kenyan public school where one teacher attends to tens of pupils in one lesson. When Kenya’s National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government introduced Free Primary Education in Kenya in early 2003: the number of pupils rose dramatically, but the number of teachers, classrooms and other facilities by and large remained unchanged. The quality of learning was significantly compromised. Some short-staffed schools had to ran shifts to accommodate the pupils. By and large, the school system moves the pupils from class to class regardless of how much they have actually learnt; and the few who are required to repeat a year for extremely poor performance suffer the humiliation of doing so among their peers.

The dire implications of a grossly unhealthy teacher-to-pupil ratio quickly showed. From 2009, Uwezo initiative implemented large-scale household surveys to assess the actual basic literary and numeracy competencies of school-aged children across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, culminating in annual reports. A July 2013 newspaper headline on one of those reports declared: “Over 50 Per Cent of Class 8 Pupils can Barely Read – Report”. The article stated “The report by Uwezo Kenya also reveals that over 50 out of 100 children in Classes Four and Five can’t comprehend stories written for class two pupils.” In its Sixth Annual Report covering the year 2015, Uwezo observed, “Assessments across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have highlighted the learning crisis since 2010. The key observation has been that budgets and other inputs to learning have been increasing steadily, but learning outcomes have remained essentially stagnant.”

Personalised attention is critical for exceptionally gifted children and for children with disabilities. Exceptionally gifted children who master concepts and skills grow bored when subjected to the average pace of learning: they might be able to complete the tasks assigned for one year in three months. Requiring them to sit in school and learn at the pace of the average child is torturous mass production, not education.

Children with disabilities often need special, even specialised attention to learn effectively. The Kenyan public school system is grossly ill-equipped to provide education for children with autism, so parents of autistic children have to equip adequately for the task of schooling. The class size at Thika School for the Blind where I went to school was fifteen rather than the prescribed forty in a typical public school. In certain subjects such as maths, geography and biology where teachers rely heavily on chalkboards and other visual teaching aids, children with visual disabilities would be left behind unless there was a resource teacher to offer extra support. At Thika, the teacher spent considerable time with each student helping them to appreciate maps, diagrams, graphs and maths formula. The parents of children with different disabilities ought to have the liberty to home-school them if they are able and willing to do so. Indeed, such liberty would affirm the right of children with disabilities to high-quality education in line with Articles27 and 54 of the Constitution.

History offers a number of cases of exceptionally gifted children who performed very poorly in school because the school system could not cater for their learning disabilities. People with dyslexia (reading and writing difficulties) or dyscalculia (difficulties with maths) are cases in point. English scientist Michael Faraday was a person with dyslexia, and yet through personal study he made numerous ground-breaking discoveries and inventions, including electromagnetic rotary devices that were fundamental to the development of electric motor technology used to generate electrical power. Albert Einstein had difficulty in school due to dyslexia, and his achievements can be attributed to his ability to teach himself. Some of the other famous Western scientists with dyslexia include Alexander Bell, Galileo Galilei and Thomas Edison.

A friend of mine confessed that he could not read at all by Standard 3; his first attempt at the then Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) exam at a Nairobi Eastlands primary school yielded dismal results. His mother then took him to a high-cost primary school to re-do the CPE and he excelled: today he is a university lecturer in pure Maths – the most abstract branch of mathematics.

I know of several parents with university degrees who have chosen to stay at home to provide their children with quality education. I am acquainted with a parent who holds a Masters degree in educational Psychology who has chosen to provide homeschooling for her children instead of pursuing a career in the schools or colleges. Some parents would give up pursuing their careers to home-school their children to shield them from the associated dangers of institutional day and boarding schools. It is evident that the home-schooled children of such parents enjoy certain advantages over their counterparts in institutional schools.

The commute to school is associated with several challenges. Day schooling children are exposed to undesirable social elements and dangers in their daily commute. Those parents determined to find quality schooling for their children beyond the limits of a neighbourhood, get up as early as 4:30 a.m. to prepare children to board buses at 5:30 a.m. to schools on the other side of town, in a continuous dawn to dusk routine.

Boarding schools come with their own set of social challenges such as unhealthy competition and bullying that have lasting effects on many young lives.

Home-schools as private schools

The culture of private schools is entrenched in Kenya. The children of prominent Public officials attend private schools rather than public ones. Private schools have better educational facilities, better teacher-to-pupil ratios, leading to better performance in public examinations.

Economic realities and high tuition fees prevent many parents from the privilege of private schools but rarely considered is the option of responding with privately tutored high-quality schooling at home. Home-schooled children register as private candidates for public exams, and some of them have done exceptionally well.

There is really no essential difference between private schooling and homeschooling: both models of learning are a move away from public schools. Denying a section of society the right to educate children at home is discriminatory contrary to Article 27 of the Constitution of Kenya.

Parents with highly mobile careers that require them to relocate frequently find changing schools almost always a traumatic experience for children, as they must make new friends, and adapt to the new physical environment and new teachers. This challenge is greater in situations where children are frequently moved from one cultural context with its education system to another with a different education system. If one of the parents in a family going through this kind of experience is available to home-school the children, the homeschooling experience provides a point of stability for the children which significantly mitigates the trauma.

Parents of home-schooled children form networks that facilitate regular joint activities among their children: they visit places such as museums, factories, universities, go boat-rowing, and attend music concerts. They enroll their children in various activities outside their homes such as football, swimming, and music lessons. In addition, there are joint annual events for various homeschooling communities.

Contrary to the belief that the school environment is the best for learning social skills, it often inculcates unhealthy competition rather than co-operation. The idea that all children progress intellectually at roughly the same pace is ingrained in the thinking of the school system, and yet it necessarily works against the need to cater for the children’s individual differences. Pupils are often contented to come out top of their class irrespective of the fact that any class will have a top student however low the quality of learning. An emphasis on coming out top in class easily encourages contentment with mediocrity rather than the pursuit of excellence. Schools function in a specific social context, and is a reflection of that context.

Thus with the increasing erosion of social values, schools are now places where children learn some grossly anti-social habits such as violence and substance abuse.

Homeschooling and social class

Members of the Kenyan middle class are more likely to be inclined to homeschooling: this is mainly due to the fact that they are likely to appreciate educational theory and practice. Middle-class parents are likely to afford the availability of one parent devoted to homeschooling their children. Parents in low-income brackets cannot live off the salary of one spouse. Nevertheless, homeschooling is not the exclusive province of the middle class and the wealthy.

Most homeschooling parents use officially sanctioned curricula. Some of the curricula used in home-schools require that parents get training before embarking on using them. Homeschooling parents also benefit from the resources of homeschooling organisations outside Kenya, including Global Home Education Exchange, Home School Legal Defense Association, and National Home Education Research Institute.

Kenyan universities typically assess students for admission using the results of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results whether a candidate sits for the exam in a public school, private school, or is privately registered as would typically be the case for Home-schooling candidates. For those home-schooled students going through other curricula, the Kenya National Examinations Council has a system of interpreting results to indicate their 8-4-4 equivalents, thereby enabling universities to make informed decisions about admissions.

For overseas education, various clusters of universities use a variety of entry tests to assess students who have gone through different education systems to determine whether or not they have the requisite skills (such as language profficiency, comprehension, reasoning, and basic maths) to handle university work. American universities rely on tests such as the SAT set by The College Board to assess applicants for undergraduate courses, and the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) for applicants to post-graduate courses.

There is no evidence that children who have gone through Home-schooling are disadvantaged in comparison with those who have attended institutional schools. The U.S.-based National Home Education Research Institute, score the home-educated 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests (the public school average is the 50th percentile; scores range from 1 to 99). Home-schooled students typically score above average on the standardised tests such as SAT. The measured conclusion of the Institute is: “It is possible that Home-schooling causes the positive traits reported above. However, the research designs to date do not conclusively ‘prove’ that Home-schooling causes these things. At the same time, there is no empirical evidence that Home-schooling causes negative things compared to institutional schooling.”

I first met a home-schooled child in the mid-1990s. She was the daughter of friends of mine and also neighbours in Nairobi’s Buruburu Estate. At the age of five, she was already confident and articulate. This began to dispel my doubts about Home-schooling. About ten years ago, I was requested to help look at some research papers written by some home-schooled high school finalists using a different curriculum from 8-4-4. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that unlike their counterparts in the 8-4-4 system, they were considerably well acquainted with library research and writing: they intelligently cited various books and articles using footnotes, and meticulously laid out their lists of references in a manner reminiscent of what is expected of first-year university students in Kenya! I have also had an opportunity to facilitate a “Thinking Skills” course for five home-schooled high school students, and was impressed by their confidence, clarity of thought and expression, and keenness to learn.

In view of my reflections, parents who are willing and able to provide personalised education for their children at home, often at great sacrifice to themselves, ought not to be denied the right to do so. The Home-schooling community is not lobbying for the abolition of schools: it appreciates that not everyone can home-school because some are ill-equipped for the task, while others are obligated to work to provide for their families. Nonetheless, society is enriched by diversity, including diversity in approaches to formal education. What we must all ensure is that whether through institutional schooling or Home-schooling, the child gets the knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable him or her to contribute positively to the holistic development of both himself or herself and society.

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The Dark Side of Digitisation and the Dangers of Algorithmic Decision-Making

As we hand over decision-making regarding social issues to automated systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by the profit incentive, but we are also handing over moral and ethical questions to the corporate world, argues ABEBA BIRHANE

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The Dark Side of Digitisation and the Dangers of Algorithmic Decision-Making
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The second annual CyFyAfrica 2019, the Conference on Technology, Innovation, and Society, took place in Tangier, Morocco, 7 – 9 June 2019. It was a vibrant, diverse and dynamic gathering where various policy makers, United Nations delegates, ministers, governments, diplomats, media, tech corporations, and academics from over 65 nations, mostly African and Asian countries, attended.

The conference unapologetically stated that its central aim was to bring forth the continent’s voices to the table in the global discourse. The president’s opening message emphasised that Africa’s youth need to be put at the front and centre of African concerns as the continent increasingly relies on technology for its social, educational, health, economic and financial issues. At the heart of the conference was the need to provide a platform to the voice of young people across the continent. And this was rightly so. It needs no argument that Africans across the continent need to play a central role in determining crucial technological questions and answers not only for their continent but also far beyond.

In the technological race to advance the continent, there are numerous cautionary tales that Africans need to learn from, tales that those involved in the designing, implementing, importing, regulating, and communicating of technology need to be aware of.

The continent stands to benefit from various technological and artificial intelligence (AI) developments. Ethiopian farmers, for example, can benefit from crowd sourced data to forecast and yield better crops. The use of data can help improve services within the healthcare and education sectors. Huge gender inequalities that plague every social, political, economic sphere can be brought to the fore through data. Data that exposes gender disparities in these key positions, for example, renders crucial the need to change societal structures in order to allow women to serve in key positions. Such data also brings general awareness of inequalities, which is central for progressive change.

In the technological race to advance the continent, there are numerous cautionary tales that Africans need to learn from, tales that those involved in the designing, implementing, importing, regulating, and communicating of technology need to be aware of.

Having said that, there already exist countless die-hard technology worshippers, some only too happy to blindly adopt anything data-driven and “AI” without a second thought of the possible unintended consequences, both within and outside the continent. Wherever the topic of technological innovation takes place, what we constantly find is advocates of technology and attempts to digitise every aspect of life, often at any cost.

At the CyFyAfrica 2019 conference, there were plenty of such tech evangelists – those blindly accepting ethically suspect and dangerous practices and applications under the banner of “innovative”, “disruptive” and “game changing” with little, if any, criticism and scepticism. Therefore, given that we have enough tech-worshippers holding the technological future of the continent in their hands, it is important to point out the precautions that need to be taken and the lessons that need to be learned from other parts of the world as the continent races forward in the technological race.

Reinforcing biases and stereotypes  

Just like the Silicon Valley enterprise, the African equivalent of tech start-ups and innovations can be found in every corner of the continent, from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and Cape Town. These innovations include in areas such as banking, finance, healthcare, education, and even “AI for good” initiatives, both by companies and individuals within as well as outside the continent. Understandably, companies, individuals and initiatives want to solve society’s problems and data and AI seem to provide quick solutions. As a result, there is a temptation to fix complex social problems with technology. And this is exactly where problems arise.

In the race of which start-up will build the next smart home system or state-of-the-art mobile banking application, we lose sight of the people behind each data point. The emphasis is on “data” as something that is up for grabs, something that uncontestedly belongs to tech-companies, governments, and the industry sector, completely erasing individual people behind each data point. This erasure of the person behind each data point makes it easy to “manipulate behaviour” or “nudge” users, often towards profitable outcomes for the companies. The rights of the individual, the long-term social impacts of AI systems and the unintended consequences on the most vulnerable are pushed aside, if they ever enter the discussion at all. Be it small start-ups or more established companies that design and implement AI tools, at the top of their agenda is the collection of more data and efficient AI systems and not the welfare of individual people or communities.

Rather, whether explicitly laid out or not, the central point is to analyse, infer, and deduce users’ weaknesses and deficiencies for the benefit of commercial firms. Products, ads, and other commodities can then be pushed to individual “users” as if they exist as an object to be manipulated and nudged towards certain behaviours deemed “correct” or “good” by these companies and developers.

The result is AI systems that alter the social fabric, reinforce societal stereotypes and further disadvantage those already at the bottom of the social hierarchy. UN delegates addressing the issue of online terrorism and counterterrorism measured and exclusively discussed Islamic terrorist groups, despite the fact that white supremacist terrorist groups have carried out more attacks than any other group in recent years. This illustrates an example where socially held stereotypes are reinforced and wielded in the AI tools that are being developed.

Although it is hardly ever made explicit, many of the ethical principles underlying AI rest firmly within utilitarian thinking. Even when knowledge of unfairness and discrimination of certain groups and individual as a result of algorithmic decision-making are brought to the fore, solutions that benefit the majority are sought. For instance, women have been systematically excluded from entering the tech industry, minorities are forced into inhumane treatment , and systematic biases have been embedded in predictive policing systems, to mention but a few. However, although society’s most vulnerable are disproportionally impacted by the digitisation of various services, proposed solutions to mitigate unfairness hardly consider such groups as crucial pieces of the solution.

A question of ethics

Machine bias and unfairness is an issue that the rest of the tech world is grappling with. As technological solutions are increasingly devised and applied to social, economic and political issues, the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life also become increasingly evident. The current attempts to develop “ethical AI” and “ethical guidelines”, both within the Western tech industry and the academic sphere, illustrate awareness and attempts to mitigate these problems. The key global players in technology, Microsoft and Google’s DeepMind from the industry sector and Harvard and MIT from the academic sphere are primary examples that illustrate the recognition of the possible catastrophic consequences of AI on society. As a result, ethics boards and curriculums on ethics and AI are being developed.

These approaches to develop, implement and teach responsible and ethical AI take multiple forms, perspectives, and directions and emphasise various aspects. This multiplicity of views and perspectives is not a weakness but rather a desirable strength that is necessary for accommodating a healthy, context-dependent remedy. Insisting on one single framework for various ethical, social and economic issues that arise in various contexts and cultures with the integration of AI is not only unattainable but also advocating a one-size-fits-all style dictatorship.

Machine bias and unfairness is an issue that the rest of the tech world is grappling with. As technological solutions are increasingly devised and applied to social, economic and political issues, the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life also become increasingly evident.

Nonetheless, given the countless technology-related disasters and cautionary tales that the global tech-community is waking up to, there are numerous crucial lessons that African developers, start-ups and policy makers can learn from. The African continent needs not go through its own disastrous cautionary tales to discover the dark side of digitisation and technologisation on every aspect of life.

AI over-hype

AI is not magic; it is a buzz word that gets thrown around so carelessly that it has increasingly become vacuous. What AI refers to is notoriously contested and the term is impossible to define conclusively – and it will remain that way due to the various ways various disciplines define and use it. Artificial intelligence can refer to anything from highly overhyped and deceitful robots to Facebook’s machine learning algorithms that dictate what you see on your News Feed, your “smart” fridge and everything in between. “Smart”, like AI, has increasingly come to mean devices that are connected to other devices and servers with little to no attention being paid to how such hypoconnectivity at the same time creates surveillance systems that deprive individuals of their privacy.

Over-hyped and exaggerated representation of the current state of the field poses a major challenge. Both researchers within the field and the media contribute to this over-hype. The public is often made to believe that we have reached AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) or that we are at risk of killer robots taking over the world, or that Facebook’s algorithms have created their own language forcing Facebook to shut down its project , when none of this is in fact correct.

The robot known as Sophia is another example of AI over-hype and misrepresentation. This robot, which is best described as a machine with some face recognition capabilities and a rudimentary chatbot engine, is falsely described as semi-sentient by its maker. In a nation where women are treated as second class citizens, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has granted this machine citizenship, thereby treating this “female” machine better than its own female citizens. Similarly, neither the Ethiopian government nor the media attempted to pause and reflect on how the robot’s stay in Addis Ababa should be covered. Instead the over-hype and deception were amplified as the robot was treated as some God-like entity.

Leading scholars in the field, such as Mitchell, emphasise that we are far from “superintelligence”. The current state of AI is marked by crucial limitations, such as the lack of understanding of common sense, which is a crucial element of human understanding. Similarly, Bigham emphasises that in most of the discussion regarding “autonomous” systems (be it robots or speech recognition algorithms), a heavy load of the work is done by humans, often cheap labour – a fact that is put aside as it doesn’t bode well with the AI over-hype narrative.

Over-hype is not only a problem that portrays an unrealistic image of the field, but also one that distracts attention away from the real danger of AI, which is much more invisible, nuanced and gradual than “killer robots”. The simplification and extraction of human experience for capitalist ends, which is then presented as behaviour based “personalisation”, is a banal practice on the surface but one that needs more attention and scrutiny. Similarly, algorithmic predictive models of behaviour that infer habits, behaviours and emotions need to be of concern as most of these inferences reflect strongly held biases and unfairness rather than getting at any in-depth causes or explanations.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when presenting, developing and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that portrays AI as having God-like power. And seeing AI as a tool that we create, control and are responsible for, not as something that exists and develops independent of those that create it. And like any other tool, AI is one that embeds and reflects our inconsistencies, limitations, biases, political and emotional desires.

Technology is never either neutral or objective – it is like a mirror that reflects societal bias, unfairness and injustice. AI tools deployed in various spheres are often presented as objective and value-free. In fact, some automated systems that are put forward in domains, such as hiring and policing, are put forward with the explicit claim that these tools eliminate human bias. Automated systems, after all, apply the same rules to everybody. Such a claim is, in fact, one of the single most erroneous and harmful misconceptions as far as automated systems are concerned.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when presenting, developing and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that portrays AI as having God-like power.

As the Harvard mathematician, Cathy O’Neil [19] explains, “Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.” This widespread misconception further prevents individuals from asking questions and demanding explanations. How we see the world and how we choose to represent the world are reflected in the algorithmic models of the world that we build. The tools we build necessarily embed, reflect and perpetuate socially and culturally held stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions. Any classification, clustering or discrimination of human behaviours and characteristics that our AI system produces reflects socially and culturally held stereotypes, not an objective truth.

UN delegates working on online counterterrorism measures but explicitly focusing on Islamic groups despite over 60 percent [20] of mass shootings in 2019 the USA being carried out by white nationalist extremists illustrate a worrying example that stereotypically held views drive what we perceive as a problem and furthermore the type of technology we develop.

Algorithmic decision-making

A robust body of research, as well as countless reports of individual personal experiences, show that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes. These discriminatory outcomes affect individuals and groups that are already on society’s margins, those that are viewed as deviants and outliers – people that refuse to conform to the status quo. Given that the most vulnerable are affected by technology the most, it is important that their voices are central in any design and implementation of any technology that is used on/around them. Their voices need to be prioritised at every step of the way, including in the designing, developing, and implementing of any technology, as well as in policy-making.

As Africa grapples between catching up with the latest technological developments and protecting the consequential harm that technology causes, policy makers, governments and firms that develop and apply various tech to the social sphere need to think long and hard about what kind of society we want and what kind of society technology drives. Protecting and respecting the rights, freedoms and privacy of the very youth that the leaders want to put at the front and centre should be prioritised. This can only happen with guidelines and safeguards for individual rights and freedom in place.

A robust body of research, as well as countless reports of individual personal experiences, show that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes.

Mining people for data

Invasion of privacy is an issue that is increasingly becoming an issue in every sphere of life, including insurance, banking, health and education services. Various start-ups are emerging from all corners of the continent at an exponential rate to develop the next “cutting edge” app, tool or system; to collect as much data as possible and then infer and deduce “users’” various behaviours and habits.

However, there seems to be little, if any, attention paid to the fact that digitisation and automatisation of such spheres necessarily bring their own, often not immediately visible, problems. In the race to come up with the next new “nudge” mechanism that could be used in insurance or banking, the competition for mining the most data seems the central agenda. These firms take it for granted that such data, which is out there for grabs, automatically belongs to them. The discourse around “data mining” and “data rich continent” shows the extent to which the individual behind each data point remains non-existent. This removing of the individual (individual with fears, emotions, dreams and hopes) behind each data set is symptomatic of how little attention is given to privacy concerns. This discourse on “mining” people for data is reminiscent of the coloniser attitude that declares humans as raw material free for the taking.

Data is necessarily always about something and never about an abstract entity. The collection, analysis and manipulation of data possibly entails monitoring, tracking and surveilling people. This necessarily impacts them directly or indirectly, whether it is change in their insurance premiums or refusal of services.

AI technologies that are aiding decision-making in the social sphere are developed and implemented by private companies and various start-ups for the most part, whose primary aim is to maximise profits. Protecting individual privacy rights and cultivating a fair society is, therefore, the least of their priorities, especially if such practice gets in the way of “mining”, freely manipulating behaviour and pushing products onto customers. This means that as we hand over decision-making regarding social issues to automated systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives (profit), but we are also handing over moral and ethical questions to the corporate world.

“Digital nudges” – behaviour modifications developed to suit commercial interests – are a prime example. As “nudging” mechanisms become the norm for “correcting” an individual’s behaviour, eating habits or exercise routine, those corporates, private companies and engineers developing automated systems are bestowed with the power to decide what the “correct” behaviour, eating habit or exercise routine is. Questions, such as who is deciding what the “correct” behaviour is and for what purpose, are often completely ignored. In the process, individuals that do not fit the stereotypical image of what a “fit body”, “good health” and “good eating habit” end up being punished, ostracised and pushed further to the margin.

The use of technology within the social sphere often, intentionally or accidentally, focuses on punitive practices, whether it is to predict who will commit the next crime or who would fail to pay their mortgage. Constructive and rehabilitation questions, such as why people commit crimes in the first place or what can be done to rehabilitate and support those who have come out of prison are almost never asked. Technological developments built and applied with the aim of bringing security and order, necessarily bring cruel, discriminatory and inhumane practices to some. The cruel treatment of the Uighurs in China and the unfair disadvantaging of the poor are examples in this regard.

The question of technologisation and digitalisation of the continent is also a question of what kind of society we want to live in. African youth solving their own problems means deciding what we want to amplify and show the rest of the world. It also means not importing the latest state-of-the-art machine learning systems or any other AI tools without questioning what the underlying purpose is, who benefits, and who might be disadvantaged by the application of such tools.

Moreover, African youth playing in the AI field need to create programmes and databases that serve various local communities and which do not blindly import Western AI systems founded upon individualistic and capitalist drives. In a continent where much of the narrative is hindered by negative images, such as migration, drought, and poverty, using AI to solve our problems ourselves means using AI in a way we want to understand who we are and how we want to be understood and perceived – a continent where community values triumph and nobody is left behind.

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